lecnotes_02_12 - 21A.240 Race and Science Spring 2004 MIT...

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21A.240 Race and Science Spring 2004 MIT INTRODUCTION Lecture 2. February 12 Plan: develop a vocabulary for talking about biology, society, classification. Crash Course in Category of Race as Biological Phantom and Social Reality Gould, Stephen Jay. 1977. Why We Should Not Name Human Races — A Biological View. In Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. New York: Norton, (pp. 231-236). Race has long been considered a biological category of human difference. People thought that humanity was divided into major lineages that had radically different evolutionary histories and that “race” described these divisions. Most biologists at least since the 1950s, however, do not view race as a biological category. It tells us nothing about the evolutionary history of the species. Gould’s articles summarize why. Gould writes: “I contend that the continued racial classification of Homo sapiens represents an outmoded approach to the general problem of differentiation within a species” (p. 231). Why? Well, what is a species? The most common definition of a species is a group of organisms that is reproductively isolated from other species; that is, can’t breed with other species (e.g. dogs and cats). What this means, according to Gould, is that dividing species into subgroups, into subspecies, into races (all these things are equivalent) requires that the person doing this division must make a decision about what sorts of characters will be of interest. The person who is classifying these characters needs to choose what they will be. So, naming subspecies is a largely subjective affair . As Gould puts it, “There is no requirement that a species be divided into subspecies. The subspecies is a category of convenience” (p. 233). But of course, one might argue that there is obvious geographical variation among populations of humans. But the question then becomes — do racial categories help or confuse our understanding of this variation ? Take one example of a character that is often used to classify race: skin color. Can skin color serve as a useful index of subspecific differentiation? Maybe, but the problem is that this is only one character among many that could be used to group human populations. When one begins to add other
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characteristics — blood types, eye color, for example, the categories get fuzzier, not neater. Gould puts it this way: “variation in single traits is a pale shadow of patterns in variation that affect so many features simultaneously. Moreover, the classical problem of ‘incongruity’ arises. Maps constructed for other single traits almost invariably present different distributions” (p. 234). Further, is a difference in skin color really a difference? Differences in skin color simply result from the productive activity of melanocytes in the skin — not from their presence or absence, nor from differences in their number, for example. The fact that humans have skin color is a similarity rather than a difference. (albinism, is the result of melanocytes not producing melanin, not
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lecnotes_02_12 - 21A.240 Race and Science Spring 2004 MIT...

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