Because skeptics are a homogeneous bunch in terms of beliefs, I set out a few months ago to determine if there were any exceptions to this. I poured over the Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense, the Skeptic’s Dictionary, and similar sources to see if there was any topic where there was disagreement, not with one aspect of a subject, but with the subject in general.
I largely came up empty, but there was one area where I found one skeptic and two others who likely identify as such who disagree with every other skeptic I am familiar with. The topic was whether race is a biologic or social construct, with most skeptics saying the latter. The three outliers were former James Randi Educational Foundation president D.J.Grothe, Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Coyne. I dealt with Grothe’s objections in an earlier post and may look into Dawkins’ views later, but want today to consider Dr. Coyne.
He taught evolutionary science at the University of Chicago, so it would be hard to imagine a more learned source on such matters. But if he has evidence to support his assertion that race is biological, he has thus far been disinclined to air it.
In a column last week, he related how he was filling out a form that instructed him to list whether he was black, Pacific Islander, white, Hispanic, etc., and that the form noted, “These categories are taken to be social constructs only, and are not biological.” Coyne then asserted, “That statement is palpably false. When people say ‘Race is a social construct,’ they’re simply wrong.”
I presumed he was then going to delve into points that supported this position.
Instead, he wrote, “The designation of a finite number of easily-distinguished human groups is a futile exercise, because we have differentiation within differentiation, making the whole exercise purely subjective.”
Saying that he cannot identify the races and describing the undertaking as subjective seems to undercut his assertion that race is a biologically valid distinction. The closest he comes to making his point is when he writes, “The human species isn’t divided into a finite number of well-differentiated genetic groups, but groups can still be distinguished by combining information from different genes, and those groups tend to be those that evolved in geographic isolation.”
This is true with regard to some external features, but not with unseen clines. Normally I would assume Coyne was simply confusing genetics with race. But it seems unlikely that someone with his credentials would be unaware of the difference, so I’m unsure what he’s getting at. I’m left mostly to guess because after Coyne flatly declared twice that race was real, he then somewhat backtracked, and finally meandered into why people might think race was a social construct. His primary supposition was that left-wing ideology was the culprit, that any attempt to assign traits by skin color would be anathema to liberals. Of course, whether liberals feel this way and what their motivation is for doing so is unrelated to the central question as to whether race is biological.
Coyne seems to be tilting at a strawman. There are genetic differences in all of us and there may, in general, be traits that are more frequent in certain ethnic groups or areas. But the social construction of race can be seen in the word’s fluid definition.
Consider the U.S. Census categories, which includes “American Indian or Alaska Native.” There is no logical reason for a person with Inuit ancestry to be in the same category as another of Seminole lineage. But they both reside in this category constructed by a U.S. bureaucrat, and this pigeonholing also includes someone from El Salvador.
No one from Southwest Asia is considered Asian by the Census. I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t be, I’m saying there’s no biological reason for these types of distinctions. Nothing we have learned from the Human Genome Project would justify Cambodians and Japanese being assigned the same category. Ethnic Baluchis are classified as either Asian or Caucasian, depending on which side of the Iranian/Pakistani border they were born on. Jews, Irish, Spaniards, and Italians have all been labeled white or not white depending on who was deciding and when. Hard core racists bicker among themselves as to whether Finns can claim the exalted status reserved for pale faces. Similarly, Antebellum Southerners used the one-drop rule to declare that any person who had even one dark-skinned ancestor, no matter how far back, was potentially subject to the Fugitive Slave Law. These categorizations of peoples into neat tidy groups based on ever changing criteria is the definition of social construct. While populations have allele frequencies and phenotypic traits, it is society that decides which of these are relevant for racial classification.
One group that wholeheartedly believes in the biological reality of race are the aforementioned debaters of the Finnish question. A recent trend among this group is to have themselves genetically tested to show how white they are. They have been mostly using 23andMe. The company is less than thrilled with this association, and it stresses that the Swastika-tatted slackjaws are misreading the data they are sent.
The company’s testing assigns a percentage of regional origin based on the subject’s genome, such as sub-Saharan African, South American or European. But those ancestral roots don’t correspond directly to race. In fact, 23andMe says does not report any race-related information. If a racist gets his report back and he is 99.7 percent European, he assumes this to mean 99.7 percent white.
Meanwhile, those that get, say, only 80 percent white, are handling this in one of two ways. Some explain away their insufficient Caucasian majesty by saying savage dark-skinned beasts had raped their pure white ancestors. Inverting the color of the rapist and victim is never considered, even though a white master raping his black slave is a more likely scenario to explain this unexpectedly diverse lineage.
Meanwhile, other commenters claim 23andMe is falsifying data. They are doing so in an attempt to convince persons of their mixed lineage, hoping to get them to question their racist beliefs. If so, that strategy is failing. None of the racists have responded, “Oh, I guess I was wrong about all this. Let’s celebrate my new enlightenment at the Hispanic Heritage Festival.”