Letter to American Scientist Magazine
Science is Finished with the Term "Race"
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Friday, March 2, 2012, 7:03 pm
To the Editors, American Scientist Magazine

An old idea is repeated in "Race Finished", a book review by Jan Sapp, reviewing "Race: Debunking a Scientific Myth" by Ian Talltersall and Rob Desalle, 2011, and "Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science Myth, and Culture" edited by Sheldon, Krimsly, and Kathleen Sloan, 2011, Vol. 100, No. 2, p. 164ff that classification of people according to race has been scientifically discredited as "myth" based on "erroneous biological conceptions" and is just a "sociopolitical, technological and commercial construct". Ignoring for now a common philosophical view that all classifications, even e.g. protons, are in a deep sense "myths" and "sociopolitical constructs", the idea that the idea of race is scientifically preposterous seems to me to be scientifically preposterous.

Sapps's review and the two books reviewed are all dedicated, it seems, to eradicating the idea of race from the human mind. As proof of his claim that race is an invalid concept, Sapp offers the now well-known observation that genetic variation among all humans is greater than variation among humans subgroups. (Note to editor, the quotes at the end of this letter are provided to clearly establish this position of the reviewer, more for your benefit in evaluating this letter, Sapp's position, and perhaps you own position than for possible inclusion in the publication).

This is an interesting proposal. An age-old scientific endeavor is to make distinctions, not bury them. Many classes of things that most would consider legitimate are eked out of fine distinctions of subtle variations among otherwise rather homogenous populations. In my field, geology, for example, igneous rock names are arbitrarily assigned to some rather subtle distinctions in composition and texture, variations which are much greater among all igneous rocks than between types. I guess Sapp would consider the distinction between granite and granodiorite but a "myth" and "sociopolitical construct" because intraclass variability of say feldspar content exceeds interclass variability. It is my understanding that the human genome is more than 99% identical to chimpanzees, and perhaps 50% identical to pond scum, though differences among individuals in such "groupings" (i.e. chimps and humans or algae and humans) is less. The argument Sapp makes applies to all levels of the taxonomic tree of life . So I guess species are not legitimate either, or genera, or phyla. If we follow Sapp's logic much current classification of nature goes away. Scientists do "just make up" class boundaries, thus the "sociocultural construct" of all science. This does not invalidate science, only describes it.

Science, knowing, consciousness, language, attention and so much else rely on distinctions. Science in particular is very prolific in making distinctions. By agreeing somewhat about boundaries between classes (always fuzzy) and their contents (also always fuzzy) we can communicate with some semblance of belief that we are exchanging something external to us, something real about the universe. We communicate with such shared distinctions; we know more when we distinguish more. We use distinctions to think about some particular facet of the universe, to manipulate it, talk about it, change it, improve it, destroy it, love it, hate it. Science has institutionalized procedures that lead to distinctions where none existed before, e.g. protons, neutrons, human haplogroups, granite, income cohorts, endangered species, even numbers. From most perspectives, including those at the very heart of the scientist and I suppose this magazine's editorial policy, distinctions are good. They allow knowledge and attendant potential for focused human action.

Now along come some interlopers who, in the name of science, a most noble maker of distinctions and knowledge, want to eliminate a perfectly legitimate, information-containing distinction, that of race; a distinction nearly all people accurately recognize, a distinction that strongly correlates with observable physical characteristics, a distinction even clearly recognizable in patterns of SNP's (genetic single nucleotide polymorphisms), and many other distinguishing, though always arbitrary, criteria. Renaming races as haplogroups doesn't invalidate race as a distinguishing concept, it only renames it.

In a derived assault on ideas of "classifiability", Sapp proposes a corollary to his classification criteria when he says "The result" - (of human intermixing, i.e. inbreeding of all subgroups) .... "is that no clear boundaries can be drawn around the variety of humans, no 'races' of us." To Sapp then, it appears that lack of a "clear" boundary seems to disqualify a would-be class from having legitimacy. Please, Jan, tell me what class boundary is clear, at all magnifications.

Sapp proposes one rule and a corollary for legitimate scientific classification that are at complete odds with how most of us see classification. The rule, "no class distinction if intraclass exceeds interclass variability"; the corollary, "no classes" unless boundaries are clear.


Scott Sinnock
205 West Todd Avenue, Apt 20
1 Woodstock, Illinois, 60098

The quotes:
In the only support of his claim that race is an invalid scientific concept, Sapp cites the now well established observation that genetic variation among all humans is greater than any such variation among human subgroups, including races. He provides the following data in support of this observation; of total human genetic variation

    1. 14.8% is between local populations and regions, 85.4% is within races (taken from Lewontin, 1772)
    2. 6% is between races classically defined (average of Sapp's range of 5% to 7%), 94% can't be categorized by subgroup
    3. 8% is between races, "typically" defined (average of Sapp's range of 6% to 10%), 92% can't be categorized by subgroup

Qualitative restatements of that one reason include:

    1. "The great majority of human variation was within so-called races, not between them."
    2. "Race is little more than skin deep in biological terms, and individuals are frequently more genetically similar to members of other so-called races than they are to their own said race."
    3. "Genetic divergence between geographical populations in the course of human evolution does not compare to the variation among individuals." (note: this sentence immediately follows the comparison he just made as item 1 above)
    4. "Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance" (reviewer quote of Lewontin, 1972)
    5. "The result" .... (of human intermixing, i.e. inbreeding of all subgroups) .... "is that no clear boundaries can be drawn around the variety of humans, no 'races' of us."
    6. "... race is void of biological foundation", and his parting shot
    7. "Race is not just a sociocultural construct; it is a technological and commercial artifact that persists today."