Different race and different land...

| 8 Comments | No TrackBacks
...land ok, but race? Most likely not.

cover_2003-12.jpgMany years ago, I stumbled over an issue of the Scientific American with the cover you can see to the right. Curiously, I read through the article (fulltext to subscribers only)  that easily convinced me, that the common concept of race is - excuse me - bullshit:

The color of your skin and all other features of you physiognomy are only slightly related to the rest of your genetic pool. In other words: Because your skin is black doesn't mean, you have all the other genes to become a great basketball player. Also, the variety within one "race" is way bigger than between different "races":

Just a few days ago, I found another article covering the same theme in Intelligent Life, from I which I took the following excerpt, that explains the issue further:

Cavalli-Sforza's "The History and Geography of Human Genes", written with Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza (Princeton University Press, 1994), is still considered the best overview of genetic diversity in humans. Cavalli-Sforza demolished the idea of there being different species of human being. No more Homo afer, asiaticus, europaeus, americanus and monstrous. Race, says Cavalli-Sforza, has hardly any useful biological meaning at all. It is about adaptation. Grain-eaters between the Baltic and Black Sea got pale skin, pale eyes and pale hair because they were under selective pressure to process more Vitamin D from limited sunlight. Lewontin, Wells's other mentor, posited that if a nuclear war struck and only the Kenyan Kikuyu survived, they would still have 85% of the genetic variation of mankind; with a similar history and conditions, they too would turn blond and blue-eyed under the northern sun.

Compared to other kinds of animals - that have vast genetic differences within one species - the human species is mostly the same, because our ancestors spread the world just relatively recently ago. What seems as huge differences in skin color, shape of the skull, nose or eyes, are really - evolutionary speaking - recent variations.

Cavalli-Sforza's book is from 1994, and still any time you fill in a form in the USA, they ask you, whether you are "Hispanic", "Asian", "African-American" or "Caucasian"... (Caucasian - what's that supposed to be anyway?) Now, which box would Barack Obama tick, who was born to a Kenyan father and a british-irish-geman-American mother? I was glad I'm not the only one finding these questions ridiculous, when reading Richard Dawkin's fantastic book on evolution called "The Ancestors Tale", who laments about "Caucasianism" in one of the chapters.

But even researchers are still serious about making some use of human races: Just recently I stumbled over a medical trial discovering that black men are more likely to suffer from a heart attack when entering the emergency room with chest pain. Am I going to look at every patient and try to figure out whether his skin colour is "black", "white" or somewhere in between? Life as a doctor would just be too easy if outer appearance could guide my decision making process that easy... It's most probably a mix of slight genetic differences and social background that explains these results. 

When talking about "differences" among people in the same place, I've always preferred the term "ethnicity", which is described by Wikipedia as:

An ethnic group (or ethnicity) is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and a tradition of common ancestry (corresponding to a history of endogamy).

With common ancestry comes a common gene pool, so in a way "ethnicity" includes what people understand as "races", but includes culture as well, which makes just so much more sense.

In CISV, I think we should try and get rid of the term "race" altogether, because - I'll be blunt here - simply accepting the concept of "race" is racism: Thinking that there's something to learn about a person's inside values (intelligence, character, culture) from the way he or she looks is nothing but prejudice. And it's not a question of morale, but real science. This fact is something the participants of our programmes should learn, because it seems like it's not common knowledge yet.

There's just the problem that "ethnicity" doesn't fit the metrics in the CISV song. Otherwise, I'd vote to replace the stupid word "race" once and for all.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://www.absolutpicknick.de/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/147


It's the same debate as "replacing Village in the song".

We all know the song is 60 years old (or so). We at ftb know it, leaders know it, children know it. The sheer silliness of it makes us know it's old.

So instead of willing to replace every old-fashioned word by its modern equivalent, couldn't we just leave it as it is and start an interesting discussion with the kids about this concept ?

They have to know race doesn't exist, but they could also understand it more by being explained where it comes from, why it was used, and why it's no more used now.

Anthems are a trace of a certain moment of history, and that's a big part of their interest. I'm not in favour of changing them.

PS : Captchas are becoming harder to decypher every day!

@Clemzi: I agree; one cannot define away racism.

Replacing one "bad" word with a political correct version just means that you have to do it again 5-10 years later when your new word has taken on a "bad" meaning.

@Nick: People have a need to belong somewhere, be it a social class, a race, an ethnic group, a (sub-)culture - or something else. Now a days few would identifiy themselves with a race; probably the races are "too big" - people are more likely to identify themselves with a class or (sub-)culture of their choice.

The medical study referenced sounds like bad research; I would assume that the cause-effect chain to be: Black men are more likely to have a low income, and low income men are more likely to be overweight, and overweight men are more likely to have a heart disease, leading to the the aforementioned heart attack. Sadly these "shortcuts" in science presentation is all too common.

Over at Facebook, Susan has a great suggestion:

what about "different faces, different lands" - two syllables for "race and"

@Clemzi: I'm always a little bit tounge-in-cheek when talking about the CISV song, it really carries so much ideological and nostalgic weight, that it's just too much fun mocking about it. Maybe you remember the discussion over at CISV Devils...Anyway, the CISV song was just a side-kick in the post that otherwise focused on a "suggested theme".

@Lars: I looked up the medical study once more again today, and in fact the study was corrected for non-compliance and socio-economic factors.(I also rememberd it wrong, it wasn'T about chest pain in the emergency room, but the rate of heart attacks after having received a coronary intervention, which is a treatment for coronary hear disease) Anyway, the authors conclude, that apparently there is a genetic polymorphism that is more likely to exist in African-Americans. My point is: The result is probably valid regarding the specific cohort that was examined, but it is based on the assumption that it is possible to divide people into certain subgroups by skin-colour. I'm sure they would have gotten quite different results, if they had compared black people in South Africa, Kenya and Somalia. And I'm also quite sure, I can't apply the results to my coloured patients here in germany.

Susan makes another interesting point over at FB:

some of my friends whose skin color is different from mine say something along the lines of this: we aren't talking about whether 'race' is a biological co...ncept, but about race as a social concept which has had consequences and has consequences in people's actions ... they say that denying the idea of 'race' which had been a primary way humans have dealt with each other, is just trying to hide and not deal with discrimination... something like that - I'm not stating it as they would, surely. I think they might say the exact opposite of what you've said : That denying the concept of race is racism.

My personal feeling is that a lot of people who belong to minority groups feel a need of positive discimination: "I'm different, because I'm Italian!" Taking away the concept of race denies them the possibility to define themselves. I'm touching shaky grounds here, so I want to make sure that this is just my personal impression at times. Also I should note, that I myself have only very rarely been in the situation, where I was discriminated according to my outer appearance.

To make our lives easier, we always want to sort people around us according to certain criteria. If we apply general rules to certain groups of people, we think we are quicker in making decisions. The physiognomy of a person is most apparent, and thereby an easy way to help us decide. This cognitive process is what I call prejudice.

In the lines of the last comment, "Races" as the term is normally used (without any biological inference) is a way people found to use "Diversity" - putting people in different categories.

The concept is restrictive, in the same way "Culture" is restrictive or even "Nationality". The problem is that CISV, naturally, focuses on these concepts, which are ways to define DIVERSITY.

Aren't we also lacking different ways to approach diversity? Diversity is much more "different faces" than "different race and different land", so why not try to bring these new approaches to CISV?

(This reminds me of previous such as the one on Devils about "Religion camps" or one on FTB about claryfing the new content areas)

@Zé: I agree to your general criticism of putting people into categories, but I think we need to specify:
- nationalities are a political fact - I'd love to live in a world without nations, but there here to stay for another while.
- Cultures are also undeniable, even if it is much harder to create categories here (I guess sociocultural scientists have made a few attempts here). At any rate, differences in cultures exist, and should be respected.
- Races on the other hand seem obvious (pale, blond vs. dark-skinned, tall vs. small, slit-eyed, etc...) but really can't be categorized, and make no sense at all besides describing outer appearance.
I guess, that's in line with what your trying to say with the "different faces"- approach.

Totally agree with you on that!

Just wanted to point out how imperfect all different dimensions of diversity are and how we must be careful when using these.

I guess "race" in its typical form could make sense many years ago, but definitely not in our 21st century society.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Nick published on September 26, 2010 1:39 PM.

Royalty Free Music? was the previous entry in this blog.

AIM minutes available. is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.