Two pieces this week lead me to reflect on the puzzling staying power of classical biological race theory and its reflection in an emerging current of neo-classical race theory. In The Guardian, Gavin Evans chronicles the “revival of race science”. His account is interesting and very much worth reading, but he overestimates to extent of revival of a race science which never actually died or went away. On NPR, Barbara J King asks, “Why won’t the old caveman stereotypes for Neanderthals die?” She ably describes some of the historical reasons for this. Another reason is the seeming permanence of race science chronicled by Evans.

Classical race theory and the modern Neandertal

Biological race theory holds that there is a very close relationship between biology and culture, that biology is in the driver’s seat, and that it is strongly heritable. Biology determines culture and it imposes quasi-permanent limitations on lineages. In those pre-genetics days, more specifically, morphology was thought to determine behaviour and culture.

Still today in paleoanthropology, particular morphologies are associated with particular stone tool industries, and both are intimately linked with the concept of modernity. The idea that morphology constrained behaviour and that human groups could be ranked on a progressive evolutionary scale was once applied to all humans, living and fossil. As anthropology, social science, and society changed in the years immediately surrounding the second world war, this morpho-behavioural model gradually receded, but morphology remained important in Paleoanthropology.

Assumptions about the morphologically determined technological and social capabilities of our ancestors (or cousins, or both), such as the Neandertal continue to shape models of what Brace surely still laments is not human evolutionary theory.

Neo-classical race theory

Meanwhile, a new genetically driven theory of the permanence of human types is emerging in other fields such as evolutionary psychology. Another, based on the primacy and inflexibility of cultural inheritance, is taking over the public mind.

The core concepts of classical biological race theory were the dominance of morphology and the permanence of human types. People were prisoners of their inherited morphology and of its social and behavioural potential. They could achieve, but not exceed that potential, and the best they could do for their children was to pass it on. These two concepts were successfully attacked and scientifically laid to rest by anthropologists and others in the mid-20th century.

For a worrisomely growing sector of academia, people are now prisoners of their inherited genetics and their potential, but in a way that strangely recalls the ‘one gene, one trait’ model that sometimes sought to explain the classical morphological race model. According to this view, differences between groups are difficult to overcome. Intelligence, the main indicator of quality (of the stock, one might infer), is measurable according to a simple linear scale which completely ignores any notion of differential and local adaptation and fitness.

This model has been helpful to some who still believe groups can be ranked by this measure of average intelligence on a scale that uncomfortably recalls the worst of the Kiplingesque unilinear classical evolutionary fantasies. Not surprisingly, the poor, the marginalized, the racialized, the structurally disadvantaged, consistently find themselves at the bottom of all rankings.

An equally worrisome development is that in public discourse, in politics, in the news, there is a growing sense that people are prisoners of their inherited culture, which is just as inflexible, permanent, unforgiving, and limiting as the morphology of the 19th century or the genetics of the neo-classical race model.

It seems that the public has internalized the idea that morphological traits (such as skin colour) don’t determine behaviour, culture, or social potential. So far so good. However, they have seized on an alternative akin to the old Culture of Poverty, and have simply plugged it into their world-view to replace the morphological determinism they had to wrench out of it in the post-war years. People are now prisoners of their culture, and so are their children, and their children, and so on. It isn’t unusual to hear on cable news panels, lamentations about inner-city culture, for example.

The depressing conclusion of all this is that the second world war was not, in fact, followed by a selection episode in which classical race theory became extinct, or even fundamentally modified. Neo-classical race theory, in both its genetically driven academic incarnation and its culturally bound public form, is merely phenotypically different from classical race theory. It is the expression of the same underlying code in a different environment. Classical race theory is, it would seem, more phenotypically plastic than many thought, and hence, more permanent.

Version 1 (March 7th 2018)

Paleoanthropology is the last refuge of classical 19th century biological race theory

Two pieces this week lead me to reflect on the puzzling staying power of classical biological race theory and its reflection in an emerging current of neo-classical race theory. In The Guardian, Gavin Evans chronicles the “revival of race science”. His account is interesting and very much worth reading, but he overestimates to extent of revival of a race science which never actually died or went away. On NPR, Barbara J King asks, “Why won’t the old caveman stereotypes for Neanderthals die?” She ably describes some of the historical reasons for this. Another reason is the seeming permanence of race science chronicled by Evans.

Classical race theory and the modern Neandertal

There is no gentle way to put this. Paleoanthropology and the study of human evolution are the last refuge of classical 19th century biological race theory. Biological race theory holds that there is a very close relationship between biology and culture, that biology is in the driver’s seat, and that it is strongly heritable. Biology determines culture and it imposes quasi-permanent limitations on lineages. In those pre-genetics days, more specifically, morphology was thought to determine behaviour and culture.

Still today in paleoanthropology, cranial morphology is powerfully associated with stone tool industry, and both are intimately linked with the concept of modernity. That is largely unchanged from classical 19th century biological race theory.

The idea that morphology constrained behaviour and that human groups could be ranked on a progressive evolutionary scale was once applied to all humans, living and fossil. As anthropology, social science, and society changed in the years immediately surrounding the second world war, this morpho-behavioural model gradually receded until it was restricted to a mere paleoanthropological refugium. It has been tolerated there ever since, probably because it deals with others and not with us. It accepts all modern humans as part of one and the same group. It applies classical race theory to modern humans, of course, but only ranks extinct forms, and it ranks them safely below all of us.

Since then, a thin genetic patina has gently grown over the paleoanthropological theoretic body, but it is too early to say the extent to which it will infuse and transform it. ‘Squiggles on teeth’, as Brace would have it, still drive the classification of hominin fossils. Assumptions about the morphologically determined technological and social capabilities of our ancestors (or cousins, or both), such as the Neandertal continue to shape models of what Brace surely still laments is not human evolutionary theory.

Neo-classical race theory

Meanwhile, a new genetically driven theory of the permanence of human types is emerging in other fields such as evolutionary psychology. Another, based on the primacy and inflexibility of cultural inheritance, is taking over the public mind.

The core concepts of classical biological race theory were the dominance of morphology and the permanence of human types. People were prisoners of their inherited morphology and of its social and behavioural potential. They could achieve, but not exceed that potential, and the best they could do for their children was to pass it on. These two concepts were successfully attacked and scientifically laid to rest by anthropologists and others in the mid-20th century.

For a worrisomely growing sector of academia, people are now prisoners of their inherited genetics and their potential, but in a way that strangely recalls the ‘one gene, one trait’ model that sometimes sought to explain the classical morphological race model. According to this view, differences between groups are difficult to overcome. Intelligence, the main indicator of quality (of the stock, one might infer), is measurable according to a simple linear scale which completely ignores any notion of differential and local adaptation and fitness.

Most importantly, groups can be ranked by this measure of average intelligence on a scale that uncomfortably recalls the worst of the Kiplingesque unilinear classical evolutionary fantasies. Not surprisingly, the poor, the marginalized, the racialized, the structurally disadvantaged, consistently find themselves at the bottom of all rankings.

An equally worrisome development is that in public discourse, in politics, in the news, there is a growing sense that people are prisoners of their inherited culture, which is just as inflexible, permanent, unforgiving, and limiting as the morphology of the 19th century or the genetics of the neo-classical race model.

It seems that the public has internalized the idea that morphological traits (such as skin colour) don’t determine behaviour, culture, or social potential. So far so good. However, they have seized on an alternative akin to the old Culture of Poverty, and have simply plugged it into their world-view to replace the morphological determinism they had to wrench out of it in the post-war years. People are now prisoners of their culture, and so are their children, and their children, and so on. It isn’t unusual to hear on cable news panels, lamentations about inner-city culture, for example.

The depressing conclusion of all this is that the second world war was not, in fact, followed by a selection episode in which classical race theory became extinct, or even fundamentally modified. Neo-classical race theory, in both its genetically driven academic incarnation and its culturally bound public form, is merely phenotypically different from classical race theory. It is the expression of the same underlying code in a different environment. Classical race theory is, it would seem, more phenotypically plastic than many thought, and hence, more permanent.

 

 

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