diamond,_jared._race_without_color._discover._pp._123-129._(7)

Diamond,_jared._race_without_color._discover._pp._123-129._(7)

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Unformatted text preview: Basing race on body chemistry makes no more sense than basing race on appearance—but at least you get to move the membership around. Science often violates simple common sense. Our eyes tell us that the Earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the Earth, and that we humans are not ani- mals. But we now ignore that evidence of our senses. We have learned that our planet is in fact round and revolves around the sun, and that humans are slightly modified chimpanzees. The reality of human races is another commonsense “truth” destined to follow the flat Earth into oblivion. The commonsense view of races goes somewhat as follows. All native Swedes differ from all native Nigerians in appearance: there is no Swede whom you would mistake for a Nige- rian, and vice versa. Swedes have lighter skin than Nigerians do. They also generally have blond or light brown hair, while Nigerians have very dark hair. Ni- gerians usually have more tightly coiled hair than Swedes do, dark eyes as opposed to eyes that are blue or gray, and fuller lips and broader noses. In addition, other Europeans look much more like Swedes than like Nigerians, while other peoples of sub—Saharan Africa—except perhaps the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa—look much more like Nigerians than like Swedes. Yes, skin color does get darker in Europe toward the Mediterranean, but it is still lighter than the skin of sub-Saharan Africans. In Europe, very dark or curly hair becomes more common outside Scandinavia, but European hair is still not as tightly coiled as in Africa. Since it’s easy then to distinguish almost any native European from any native sub-Saharan African, we recognize Euro— peans and sub-Saharan Africans as distinct races, which we name for their skin colors: whites and blacks, respectively. What could be more objective? 0 RACE WITHOUT COLOR Jared Diamond As it turns out, this seemingly unassailable reasoning is not objective. There are many different, equally valid procedures for defining races, and those different procedures yield very different classifica- tions. One such procedure would group Italians and Greeks with most African blacks. It would classify Xhosas—the South African “black” group to which President Nelson Mandela belongs—with Swedes rather than Nigerians. Another equally valid proce- dure would place Swedes with Fulani (a Nigerian “black” group) and not with Italians who would again be grouped with most other African blacks. Still an- other procedure would keep Swedes and Italians sepa- rate from all African blacks but would throw the Swedes and Italians into the same race as New Guineans and American Indians. Faced with such dif- fering classifications, many anthropologists today conclude that one cannot recognize any human races at all. If we were just arguing about races of nonhuman animals, essentially the same uncertainties of classi- fication would arise. But the debates would remain polite and would never attract attention outside the halls of academia. Classification of humans is differ— ent “only” in that it shapes our views of other peoples, fosters our subconscious differentiation between “us” and “them,” and is invoked to justify political and socioeconomic discrimination. On this basis, many anthropologists therefore argue that even if one could classify humans into races, one should not. To understand how such uncertainties in classifi- cation arise let’s steer clear of humans for a moment and instead focus on warblers and lions, about which we can easily remain dispassionate. Biologists begin by classifying living creatures into species. A species is a group of populations whose individual members would, if given the opportunity, interbreed with indi- viduals of other populations of that group. But they From Discover, 1994 by Jared Diamond. Copyright © 1994 by Discover Magazine. Reprinted by permission. 123 124 Anthropology Reader would not interbreed with individuals of other spe- cies that are similarly defined. Thus all human popu- lations, no matter how different they look belong to the same species because they do interbreed and have interbred whenever they have encountered each other. Gorillas and humans, however, belong to two differ- ent species because—to the best of our knowledge— they have never interbred despite their coexisting in close proximity for millions of years. We know that different populations classified to- gether in the human species are visibly different. The same proves true for most other animal and plant spe- cies as well, whenever biologists look carefully. For example, consider one of the most familiar species of bird in North America, the yellow-rumped warbler. Breeding males of eastern and western North America can be distinguished at a glance by their throat color: white in the east, yellow in the west. Hence they are classified into two different races, or subspecies (al- ternative words with identical meanings), termed the myrtle and Audubon races, respectively. The white- throated eastern birds differ from the yellow-throated western birds in other characteristics as well, such as in voice and habitat preference. But where the two races meet, in western Canada, white-throated birds do indeed interbreed with yellow-throated birds. That’s why we consider myrtle warblers and Audubon warblers as races of the same species rather than dif— ferent species. Racial classification of these birds is easy. Throat color, voice and habitat preference all vary geographi- cally in yellow—rumped warblers, but the variation of those three traits is “concordant”——that is, voice dif- ferences or habitat differences lead to the same racial classification as differences in throat color because the same populations that differ in throat color also differ in voice and habitat. Racial classification of many other species, though, presents problems of concordance. For in- stance, a Pacific island bird species called the golden whistler varies from one island to the next. Some popu- lations consist of big birds, some of small birds; some have black-winged males, others green—winged males; some have yellow-breasted females, others gray-breasted females; many other characteristics vary as well. But, unfortunately for humans like me who study these birds, those characteristics don’t vary con- cordantly. Islands with green-winged males can have either yellow-breasted or gray-breasted females, and green-winged males are big on some islands but small on other islands. As a result if you classified golden whistlers into races based on single traits, you would set entirely different classifications depending on which trait you chose. Classification of these birds also presents prob- lems of “hierarchy.” Some of the golden whistler races recognized by omithologists are wildly different from all the other races, but some are very similar to one another. They can therefore be grouped into a hierar- chy of distinctness. You start by establishing the most distinct population as a race separate from all other populations. You then separate the most distinct of the remaining populations. You continue by grouping similar populations, and separating distinct popula- tions or groups of populations as races or groups of races. The problem is that the extent to which you continue the racial classification is arbitrary, and it’s a decision about which taxonomists disagree passion- ately. Some taxonomists, the “splitters,” like to rec- ognize many different races, partly for the egotistical motive of getting credit for having named a race. Other taxonomists, the “lumpers,” prefer to recognize few races. Which type of taxonomist you are is a matter of personal preference. How does that variability of traits by which we classify races come about in the first place? Some traits vary because of natural selection: that is, one form of the trait is advantageous for survival in one area, another form in a different area. For example, northern hares and weasels develop white fur in the winter, but southern ones retain brown fur year-round. The white winter fur is selected in the north for cam— ouflage against the snow, while any animal unfortu- nate enough to turn white in the snowless southern states would stand out from afar against the brown ground and would be picked off by predators. Other traits vary geographically because of sexual selection, meaning that those traits serve as arbitrary signals by which individuals of one sex attract mates of the opposite sex while intimidating rivals. Adult male lions, for instance, have a mane, but lionesses and young males don’t. The adult male’s mane sig- nals to lionesses that he is sexually mature, and sig- nals to young male rivals that he is a dangerous and experienced adversary. The length and color of a lion’s mane vary among populations, being shorter and blacker in Indian lions than in African lions. Indian lions and lionesses evidently find short black manes sexy or intimidating; African lions don’t. Finally, some geographically variable traits have no known effect on survival and are invisible to rivals and to prospective sex partners. They merely reflect mutations that happened to arise and spread in one area. They could equally well have arisen and spread elsewhere—they just didn’t. RACE BY RESISTANCE Traditionally we divide ourselves into races by the twin criteria of geographic location and visible physical characteristics. But we could make an equally reasonable and arbitrary division by the presence or absence of a gene, such as the sickle-cell gene, that confers resistance to malaria. By this I reckoning, we ’d place Yemenites, Greeks, New . Guineans, Thai. and Dinkas in one “race,” Norwegians and several black African peoples in another. Nothing that I’ve said about geographic variation in animals is likely to get me branded a racist. We don’t attribute higher IQ or social status to black—winged whistlers than to green-winged whis- tlers. But now let’s consider geographic variation in humans. We’ll start with invisible traits, about which it’s easy to remain dispassionate. Many geographically variable human traits evolved by natural selection to adapt humans to partic— ular climates or environments—just as the winter color of a hare or weasel did. Good examples are the muta— tions that people in tropical parts of the Old World evolved to help them survive malaria, the leading in— fectious disease of the old-world tropics. One such mutation is the sickle-cell gene, so-called because the red blood cells of people with that mutation tend to assume a sickle shape. People bearing the gene are more resistant to malaria than people without it. Not surprisingly, the gene is absent from northern Europe, where malaria is nonexistent, but it’s common in trop— ical Africa, where malaria is widespread. Up to 40 percent of Africans in such areas carry the sickle-cell gene. It’s also common in the malaria—ridden Arabian Peninsula and southern India, and rare or absent in the southern most parts of South Africa, among the Xhosas who live mostly beyond the tropical geo- graphic range of malaria. The geographic range of human malaria is much wider than the range of the sickle-cell gene. As it hap- pens, other antimalarial genes take over the protec— tive function of the sickle-cell gene in malarial Southeast Asia and New Guinea and in Italy, Greece, Race Without Color 125 and other warm parts of the Mediterranean basin. Thus human races, if defined by antimalarial genes, would be very different from human races as traditionally defined by traits such as skin color. As classified by antimalarial genes (or their absence), Swedes are grouped with Xhosas but not with Italians or Greeks. Most other peoples usually viewed as African blacks are grouped with Arabia 5 whites” and are kept sepa- rate from the “black” Xhosas. RACE BY DIGESTION We could define a race by any geo- graphically variable trait—for example, the retention in adulthood of the enzyme lactase, which allows us to digest milk. Using this as our divisive criterion, we can place northern and central Europeans with Arabians and such WestAfrican peoples as the Fulani; in a “lactase-negative race,” we can group most other African blacks with east Asians, American Indians, southern Europeans, and Australian aborigines. Antimalarial genes exemplify the many features of our body chemistry that vary geographically under the influence of natural selection. Another such fea~ ture is the enzyme lactase, which enables us to digest the milk sugar lactose. Infant humans, like infants of almost all other mammal species, possess lactase and drink milk. Until about 6,000 years ago most humans, like all other mammal species, lost the lactase enzyme on reaching the age of weaning. The obvious reason is that it was unnecessary—no human or other mam~ mal drank milk as an adult. Beginning around 4000 B.C., however, fresh milk obtained from domestic mammals became a major food for adults of a few human populations. Natural selection caused individu— als in these populations to retain lactase into adult- hood. Among such peoples are northern and central Europeans, Arabians, north Indians, and several milk-drinking black African peoples, such as the Fulani of West Africa. Adult lactase is much less com- mon in southern European populations and in most other African black populations, as well as in all popu~ lations of east Asians, aboriginal Australians, and American Indians. Once again races defined by body chemistry don’t match races defined by skin color. Swedes belong with Fulani in the “lactase-positive race,” while most 126 Anthropology Reader African “blacks,” Japanese, and American Indians be— long in the “lactase—negative race.” Not all the effects of natural selection are as invis— ible as lactase and sickle cells. Environmental pres- sures have also produced more noticeable differences among peoples, particularly in body shapes. Among the tallest and most long-limbed peoples in the world are the Nilotic peoples, such as the Dinkas, who live in the hot, dry areas of East Africa. At the opposite extreme in body shape are the Inuit, or Eskimo, who have compact bodies and relatively short arms and legs. The reasons have to do with heat loss. The greater the surface area of a warm body, the more body heat that’s lost, since heat loss is directly proportional to surface area. For people of a given weight, a long-limbed, tall shape maximizes surface area, while a compact, short-limbed shape minimizes it. Dinkas and Inuit have opposite problems of heat balance: the former usually need desperately to get rid of body heat, while the latter need desperately to conserve it. Thus natural selection molded their body shapes op- positely, based on their contrasting climates. (In modern times, such considerations of body shape have become important to athletic performance as well as to heat loss. Tall basketball players, for ex- ample, have an obvious advantage over short ones, and slender, long-limbed tall players have an advan- tage over stout, short-limbed tall players. In the United States, it’s a familiar observation that African Ameri- cans are disproportionately represented among pro- fessional basketball players. Of course, a contributing reason has to do with their lack of socioeconomic op- portunities. But part of the reason probably has to do with the prevalent body shapes of some black Afri- can groups as well. However, this example also illus- trates the dangers in facile racial stereotyping. One can’t make the sweeping generalization that “whites can’t jump,” or that “blacks’ anatomy makes them better basketball players.” Only certain African peoples are notably tall and long—limbed; even those exceptional peoples are tall and long-limbed only on the average and vary individually.) Other visible traits that vary geographically among humans evolved by means of sexual selection. We all know that we find some individuals of the op— posite sex more attractive than other individuals. We also know that in sizing up sex appeal, we pay more attention to certain parts of a prospective sex partner’s body than to other parts. Men tend to be inordinately interested in women’s breasts and much less con- cerned with women’s toenails. Women, in turn, tend to be turned on by the shape of a man’s buttocks or the details of a man’s beard and body hair, if any, but not by the size of his feet. But all those determinants of sex appeal vary geo- graphically. Khoisan and Andaman Island women tend to have much larger buttocks than most other women. Nipple color and breast shape and size also vary geo- graphically among women. European men are rather hairy by world standards, while Southeast Asian men tend to have very sparse beards and body hair. What’s the function of these traits that differ so markedly between men and women? They certainly don’t aid survival: it’s not the case that orange nipples help Khoisan women escape lions, while darker nip- ples help European women survive cold winters. In- stead, these varying traits play a crucial role in sexual selection. Women with very large buttocks are a tum- on, or at least acceptable, to Khoisan and Andaman men but look freakish to many men from other parts of the world. Bearded and hairy men readily find mates in Europe but fare worse in Southeast Asia. The geo— graphic variation of these traits, however, is as ar— bitrary as the geographic variation in the color of a lion’s mane. RACE BY FINGERPRINTS Probably the most trivial division of humans we could manage would be based on fingerprint patterns. As it turns out, the prevalence of certain basic features varies predictably among peoples: in the “Loops” race we could group together most Europeans, black Africans, and east Asians. Among the “Whorls” we could place Mongolians and Australian aborigines. Finally, in an “Arches” race, we could group Khoisans and some central Europeans. There is a third possible explanation for the func- tion of geographically variable human traits, besides survival or sexual selection—namely, no function at all. A good example is provided by fingerprints, whose complex pattern of arches, loops, and whorls is deter- mined genetically. Fingerprints also vary geographi- cally: for example, Europeans’ fingerprints tend to have many loops, while aboriginal Australians’ finger- prints tend to have many whorls. If we classify human populations by their finger- prints, most Europeans and black Africans would sort Race Without Color 127 Arches out together in one race, Jews and some Indonesians in another, and aboriginal Australians in still another. But those geographic variations in fingerprint patterns possess no known function whatsoever. They play no role in survival: whorls aren’t especially suitable for grabbing kangaroos, nor do loops help bar mitzvah candidates hold on to the pointer for the Torah. They also play no role in sexual selection: while you’ve undoubtedly noticed whether your mate is bearded or has brown nipples, you surely haven’t the faintest idea whether his or her fingerprints have more loops than whorls. Instead it‘s purely a matter of chance that whorls became common in aboriginal Australians, and loops among Jews. Our rhesus factor blood groups and numerous other human traits fall into the same category of genetic characteristics whose geographic variation serves no function. RACE BY GENES One method that seems to offer a way out of arbitrariness is to classify people ’s degree of genetic distinctness. By this standard the Khoisans of southern Africa would be in a race by themselves. African blacks would form several other distinct races. All the rest of the world’s peoples—Norwegians, Navajo, Greeks, Japanese, Australian aborigines, and s0 on—would, despite their greatly difiering external appearance, belong to a single race. You’ve probably been wondering when I was go- ing to get back to skin color, eye color, and hair color and form. After all, those are the traits by which all of us members of the lay public, as well as traditional anthropologists, classify races. Does geographic varia- tion in those traits function in survival, in sexual selec— tion, or in nothing? Loops Whorls The usual view is that skin color varies geographi— cally to enhancesurvival. Supposedly, people in sunny, tropical climates around the world have generally dark skin, which is supposedly analogous to the tempo— rary skin darkening of European whites in the sum- mer. The supposed function of dark skin in sunny climates is for protection against skin cancer. Varia— tions in eye color and hair form and color are also supposed to enhance survival under particular condi- tions, though no one has ever proposed a plausible hypothesis for how those variations might actually enhance survival. Alas, the evidence for natural selection of skin color dissolves under scrutiny. Among tropical peoples, anthropologists love to stress the dark skins of African blacks, people of the southern Indian pen- insula, and New Guineans and love to forget the pale skins of Amazonian Indians and Southeast Asians liv- in g at the same latitudes. To wriggle out of those para— doxes, anthropologists then plead the excuse that Amazonian Indians and Southeast Asians may not have been living in their present locations long enough to evolve dark skins. However, the ancestors of fair— skinned Swedes arrived even more recently in Scandinavia, and aboriginal Tasmanians were black-skinned despite their ancestors’ having lived for at least the last 10,000 years at the latitude of Vladivostok. Besides, when one takes into account cloud cover, peoples of equatorial West Africa and the New Guinea mountains actually receive no more ultraviolet radia- tion or hours of sunshine each year than do the Swiss. Compared with infectious diseases and other selec- tive agents, skin cancer has been utterly trivial as a cause of death in human history, even for modern white settlers in the tropics. This objection is so obvi- ous to believers in natural selection of skin color that they have proposed at least seven other supposed sur- vival functions of skin color, without reaching agree- 128 Anthropology Reader ment. Those other supposed functions include pro- tection against rickets, frostbite, folic acid deficiency, beryillium poisoning, overheating, and overcooling. The diversity of these contradictory theories makes clear how far we are from understanding the survival value (if any) of skin color. It wouldn’t surprise me if dark skins do eventu— ally prove to offer some advantage in tropical climates, but I expect the advantage to turn out to be a slight one that is easily overridden. But there’s an over— whelming importance to skin, eye, and hair color that is obvious to all of us—sexual selection. Before we can reach a condition of intimacy permitting us to assess the beauty of a prospective sex partner‘s hid- den physical attractions, we first have to pass muster for skin, eyes, and hair. We all know how those highly visible “beauty traits” guide our choice of sex partners. Even the briefest personal ad in a newspaper mentions the advertiser’s skin color, and the color of skin that he or she seeks in a partner. Skin color, of course, is also of overwhelming importance in our social prejudices. If you’re a black African American trying to raise your children in white US. society, rickets and overheat— ing are the least of the problems that might be solved by your skin color. Eye color and hair form and color, while not so overwhelmingly important as skin color, also play an obvious role in our sexual and social pref— erences. Just ask yourself why hair dyes, hair curlers, and hair straighteners enjoy such wide sales. You can bet that it’s not to improve our chances of surviving grizzly bear attacks and other risks endemic to the North American continent. Nearly 125 years ago Charles Darwin himself, the discoverer of natural selection, dismissed its role as an explanation of geographic variation in human beauty traits. Everything that we have learned since then only reinforces Darwin’s view. We can now return to our original questions: Are human racial classifications that are based on differ- ent traits concordant with one another? What is the hierarchical relation among recognized races? What is the function of racially variable traits? What, re— ally, are the traditional human races? Regarding concordance, we could have classified races based on any number of geographically vari- able traits. The resulting classifications would not be at all concordant. Depending on whether we classi- fied ourselves by antimalarial genes, lactase, finger- prints, or skin color, we could place Swedes in the same race as either Xhosas, Fulani, the Ainu of Ja— pan, or Italians. Regarding hierarchy, traditional classifications that emphasize skin color face unresolvable ambigu- ities. Anthropology textbooks often recognize five major races: “whites,” “African blacks,” “Mongol— oids,” “aboriginal Australians,” and “Khoisans,” each in turn divided into various numbers of sub-races. But there is no agreement on the number and delineation of the sub-races, or even of the major races. Are all five of the major races equally distinctive? Are Nige— rians really less different from Xhosas than aborigi- nal Australians are from both? Should we recognize 3 or 15 sub-races of Mongoloids? These questions have remained unresolved because skin color and other traditional racial criteria are difficult to formu— late mathematically. A method that could in principle overcome these problems is to base racial classification on a combi- nation of as many geographically variable genes as possible. Within the past decade, some biologists have shown renewed interest in developing a hierarchical classification of human populations—hierarchical not in the sense that it identifies superior and inferior races but in the sense of grouping and separating popula- tions based on mathematical measures of genetic dis- tinctness. While the biologists still haven’t reached agreement, some of their studies suggest that human genetic diversity may be greatest in Africa. If so, the primary races of humanity may consist of several African races, plus one race to encompass all peoples of all other continents. Swedes, New Guineans, J apa- nese, and Navajo would then belong to the same pri- mary race; the Khoisans of southern Africa would constitute another primary race by themselves; and African “blacks” and Pygmies would be divided among several other primary races. As regards the function of all those traits that are useful for classifying human races, some serve to en- hance survival, some to enhance sexual selection, while some serve no function at all. The traits we tra- ditionally use are ones subject to sexual selection, which is not really surprising. These traits are not only visible at a distance but also highly variable; that’s why they became the ones used throughout recorded history to make quick judgments about people. Racial classification didn’t come from science but from the body’s signals for differentiating attractive from unattractive sex partners, and for differentiating friend from foe. Such snap judgments didn’t threaten our exist- ence back when people were armed only with spears and surrounded by others who looked mostly like Race Without Color 129 themselves. In the modern world, though, we are armed with guns and plutonium, and we live our lives surrounded by people who are much more varied in appearance. The last thing we need now is to con- tinue codifying all those different appearances into an arbitrary system of racial classification. ...
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