Phi Beta Cons

The Anthropologists Strike Back

The American Anthropological Association has responded to various media outlets that reported on its decision to take “science” out of its long-range-planning statement. As Razib Khan explains, the statement basically says nothing for a few paragraphs, claims that race is just a social construct, and ends.

As I’ve explained here before, while the way we sort and label races is certainly socially constructed, there is an underlying biological reality there. Some genetic variations are more common in some races than in others. If you doubt this and you’re scientifically inclined, spend an hour or two messing around with the HapMap Project.

Much the same could be said of color. Different cultures come up with different words for different colors and shades, individuals see colors differently, and there’s even a gender gap in the ability to see red — but that doesn’t change the fact that light comes in various wavelengths and intensities. Colors are socially constructed categories, but color itself is real.

As Khan writes, this concept, as applied to race, doesn’t jibe with the various biases of anthropologists:

Just because a construct has a social element does not mean it [is] only a social construct. Because of the Left-liberal anti-racist egalitarian bias of anthropology, the academy in general, and the dominant narrative of Western society as a whole, there is a strong tendency to assert flatly that “race does not exist” as a biological concept. There is no interrogation of the concept of race except to refute its utility. This is not a case of agnostic skepticism washing away illusions, but a case of skepticism applied in a fashion to obtain a clear and distinct objective result which corresponds to reality. When it comes to race many become naive realists who accept that biological concepts can be falsified or verified in a simple and straightforward fashion. There is all of a sudden one Way of Knowing which presents us with indubitable truths.

UPDATE: I just wanted to note another must-read Khan post about how it’s possible to sort out human populations genetically and statistically, rather than socially — and how our socially constructed categories tend to match up with genetic reality.

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