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Debunking Biological Theories of Race

C. Loring Brace

The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. Joseph L. Graves, Jr. xiv + 252 pp. Rutgers University Press, 2001. $28.

A book declaring that biological races do not exist and that the concept of race "was socially constructed, arising from the colonization of the New World and the importation of slaves, mainly from western Africa" merits a salute right off the bat. But anyone can just say such things, and a public bombarded by claims and counterclaims might be tempted to dismiss such statements simply as manifestations of "political correctness." In this instance, however, the author, Joseph L. Graves, Jr., is a laboratory geneticist, and he has made his case based on solid science, not on feel-good social motivations. Of course, social circumstances cannot be ignored, and the author, who identifies himself as "an African-American intellectual," can speak from personal experience.

His goal is "to show the reader that there is no biological basis for separation of human beings into races and that the idea of race is a relatively recent social and political construction." It is race itself that he is comparing to the emperor's new clothes—a highly appropriate metaphor given its grip on the public mind. If races are social constructs and not manifestations of biological reality, how did the universal acceptance of their existence ever come about? The book explores the development and application of race as a construct from the time of the ancient Greeks to the present.

This exploration gets off to a somewhat rocky start. In a discussion of Aristotle's concept that living creatures are hierarchically organized in a scala naturae, or "ladder of nature," Graves fails to acknowledge that hierarchy and continuity of natural forms were only incompletely worked out in Aristotle, whom he mistakenly credits with authorship of a work titled Systema Naturae. In fact that title was used by Linnaeus in the 18th century (for a work that Graves later discusses). It was the Enlightenment application of Aristotelian logic that accomplished the construction of the full "Great Chain of Being," and Linnaeus embodied that approach.

The book improves as it goes on. It really comes into its own with a discussion of the establishment of eugenics in the 19th century. In chapter 6, Graves characterizes the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, as "an intellectual mediocrity, a sham, and a villain," and his demonstration of the truth of this description is worth the price of the book. In chapter 7, Graves makes the case that the leader of the American eugenics movement, Charles B. Davenport, director of the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory on Long Island, had engaged in "one of the largest medical frauds of the twentieth century: the pellagra cover-up." (The ERO claimed that this vitamin deficiency was hereditary and constituted evidence of genetic inferiority.) The next chapter, "Eugenics, Race, and Fascism," is subtitled "The Road to Auschwitz Went Through Cold Spring Harbor."

Enthusiasm for eugenics subsided when people realized how it had been applied in Nazi Germany, but it soon underwent a resurgence, traced by Graves in chapters 9 and 10. In chapter 10, "The Race and IQ Fallacy," he declares that "No one better typifies the return to scientific racist ideology in the period after World War II than eugenicist Arthur Jensen." Jensen, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, takes race to be a self-defined entity and assumes the existence of racial differences in mental ability as his "default hypothesis" (Jensen's phrase). This constitutes his null hypothesis, although there is nothing null about it. It is a racialist assumption by definition. Graves goes on to discuss the misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of heritability by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America (1994).

Graves is a laboratory scientist. His grasp of science and use of up-to-date sources put his presentation on a rock-solid basis. Unfortunately, although in some sections his prose is perfectly fluent, many of his most important points are backed up in the kind of crabbed and minimalist writing that is de rigueur in scientific journals. This may make the book less satisfying for the general public, who could well benefit from the case that is being made. The text is only 200 pages long and could easily have been fleshed out for the general reader. Nonetheless, The Emperor's New Clothes is a fine start for thinking about race at the dawn of the new millennium.—C. Loring Brace, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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