To the Editors:
In his article “Refuting a Myth About Human Origins” (March–April), John Shea repeats the assertion, often made by sociologists, that race is a discredited scientific concept. I recently read a book by Nicholas Wade entitled Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) in which he makes the case that race in indeed a very sound scientific concept and a very important one. He defines race as most of us understand it, that is, as the continent of origin of one’s ancestors. These are: Africa, Australia and New Guinea, the Americas, East Eurasia and West Eurasia, where people were isolated from other humans either by distance or by the Last Glacial Maximum. By scientific, he means something that can be measured and determined with objective accuracy. With modern methods of DNA analysis, not only can we now trace the continent of one’s ancestors but even determine the location within that continent.
Race is an important concept because it has been found that different races respond in different ways to drugs and medical procedures. Drugs that have been found very effective in one race can be completely ineffective in another. This is not something that we can ignore in our efforts to be politically correct.
Dr. Shea responds:
An anthropologist who proposed using race as a serious way of describing human variability would be laughed out of the profession—not for reasons of political correctness, but because the idea displays a manifest ignorance of biology. More than 60 years ago, M. F. Ashley Montagu demolished the concept of “race” in his book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1945). Nevertheless, like many a bad idea, the notion persists that there is some useful purpose in classifying humanity into five, six or a dozen races. But it persists at the margins of anthropology, among popular-science books and in the nonscientific imagination. Living humans share too recent a common ancestor for there to be many deep-seated biological differences among us. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are all Africans.
Race is folk taxonomy, not science. The variables used to organize it, such as skin color and hair texture, are arbitrary choices. A case can be made that the concept of discrete European, African, Asian and American races probably arose from the medieval theory that variation in human behavior reflected imbalances in the four (white, black, yellow and red) “humours.” A belief in discrete races might also have arisen from a shift from overland travel by caravan to the use of ocean-going watercraft in the 15th century A.D. Prior to this period, voyagers traveling overland and sailors making frequent landfalls would have observed gradual changes in the appearance of the people they encountered. With longer oceanic voyages and less frequent landfalls, differences appeared more stark, leading to categorical models of human variation, such as race. Tellingly, most racial classifications of humans postdate this innovation in marine transportation. Whatever their origins, racial classifications are not informed by prior knowledge or compelling evidence that these physical characteristics are biologically significant.
Yes, there are geographic differences in human biology and, perhaps, in vulnerabilities to particular diseases. But seeing these differences as meaningfully organized around race is a distraction from the search for the actual social, economic and physiological causes of these diseases.