Analyzing Race

Book News & Reviews

By: Paul Mitchell

Originally Published in 2012

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raceRace? Debunking a Scientific Myth by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2011). 256 pp., hardback, $35.00, ISBN 978-1-60344-425-5

Reviewed by Paul Mitchell, B.A. and M.A. student in Biological Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, and Assistant to the Associate Curator of the Physical Anthropology Collection, Penn Museum.

From the politics of climate change to the ethics of stem cell research, there are scores of timely social issues for which the science behind the phenomenon in question determines the scope and nature of the debate. Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, a paleoanthropologist and geneticist, respectively, suggest that “the social conversation [concerning race] would be vastly simplified—and improved—by subtracting many if not most aspects of biology from it” (p. 1). They seek to support this normative claim in their book’s two major sections: a survey of the history of race science and a discussion of the contemporary science of human variation and evolution. The first section broadly outlines major conceptions of race and the thinkers who produced them from the Age of Discovery to the aftermath of World War II. The second section is an overview of some current thinking in evolutionary biology, paleontology, and genetics as it relates to the variation seen in modern humans. The book finishes with some considerations of the use of race in the investigation of ancestry, forensics, and disease.

The book’s major argument, that race should be analyzed socially, not scientifically, is underscored by the authors’ expository run-through of all the notions that offend a liberal conscience: the “noble savage,” the scala naturae crowned with Caucasian man (produced, in part, courtesy of Philadelphia’s own Dr. S. G. Morton), and the horrors of eugenics. The desired upshot of this unnerving study is to support the authors’ assertion that “extreme caution is in order” (p. 2) when applying inherently provisional scientific knowledge to social issues.

As biologists, the authors state that race, if it can be understood biologically, must be defined taxonomically. In pursuit of this definition, they review the nitty-gritty of molecular and morphological systematics and investigate the patterns of diversification and reintegration that have characterized human populations for millennia. Their analysis presents the reader with a multifaceted look at human evolution, ranging from the first hominins and the initial expansion beyond Africa to the archaeology of the Upper Paleolithic and the comparative genetics of modern populations. Although their interpretations of some of the fossil and genetic data concerning the “Out of Africa” hypothesis and the Neanderthal admixture in some modern populations are not beyond contention in paleoanthropology, the authors are rightfully sensitive to the limitations of each scientific methodology in revealing the biological basis and history of human diversity. Nonetheless, they do not hesitate to conclude that the extensive admixture and migration among all human populations strongly indicates that we are a “very closely knit species” (p. 143); race is deemed to be a poor descriptor of human variation.

In their final chapter, Tattersall and DeSalle note that even if race does not do much work as a concept in explaining diversity, it is still commonly used in medical, forensic, and genealogical applications. Here the authors present a thorough critique of race in these endeavors, using the advent of personalized genomics to argue that race is at best a crude proxy for the soon-to-be-realized real desideratum: individualized forensics, medicine, and ancestry. In their conclusion, Tattersall and DeSalle speculate that race will become increasingly irrelevant as globalization results in unprecedented admixture among human populations. The use of race as a biological category today is “hopeless and counterproductive” and “militates against the natural biological trend within our densely packed and increasingly mobile species” (p. 199). Whatever race is and was, the authors view the biology of race as socially meaningless now and incoherent in the future.

While this book hits many of the right notes in its quick glance at the history of the concept of race, readers looking for a comprehensive study would be better served elsewhere. With regard to questions of evolutionary history and to achieve a more well-rounded view, one should read this book in conjunction with Race and Human Evolution: A Fatal Attraction (1997) by Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari. Race? is an accessible primer on much of the biological theory relevant to the question of race, although it is best in its consideration of the arbitrariness of the concept itself in social discourse rather than the process, historical and biological, whereby that concept emerged. As such, this book appeals to both general readers and students of biology, anthropology, and the history and philosophy of science as a valuable, if incomplete, overview of the topic’s major themes.

Cite This Article

Mitchell, Paul. "Analyzing Race." Expedition Magazine 54, no. 2 (July, 2012): -. Accessed April 20, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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