Monday, March 14, 2005

Red Meat....all around...

The NY Times published an op-ed today asserting that yes, indubitably, "races are not a social construct."

Really? I've highlighted some of the er, more "interesting" aspects of this artcile...

London — Shortly after last year's tsunami devastated the lands on the Indian Ocean, The Times of India ran an article with this headline: "Tsunami May Have Rendered Threatened Tribes Extinct." The tribes in question were the Onge, Jarawa, Great Andamanese and Sentinelese - all living on the Andaman Islands - and they numbered some 400 people in all. The article, noting that several of the archipelago's islands were low-lying, in the direct path of the wave, and that casualties were expected to be high, said, "Some beads may have just gone missing from the Emerald Necklace of India."

The metaphor is as colorful as it is well intentioned. But what exactly does it mean? After all, in a catastrophe that cost more than 150,000 lives, why should the survival of a few hundred tribal people have any special claim on our attention? There are several possible answers to this question. The people of the Andamans have a unique way of life. True, their material culture does not extend beyond a few simple tools, and their visual art is confined to a few geometrical motifs, but they are hunter-gatherers and so a rarity in the modern world. Linguists, too, find them interesting since they collectively speak three languages seemingly unrelated to any others. But the Times of India took a slightly different tack. These tribes are special, it said, because they are of "Negrito racial stocks" that are "remnants of the oldest human populations of Asia and Australia." [1]

It's an old-fashioned, even Victorian, sentiment. Who speaks of "racial stocks" anymore? After all, to do so would be to speak of something that many scientists and scholars say does not exist. If modern anthropologists mention the concept of race, it is invariably only to warn against and dismiss it. Likewise many geneticists. "Race is social concept, not a scientific one," according to Dr. Craig Venter - and he should know, since he was first to sequence the human genome. The idea that human races are only social constructs has been the consensus for at least 30 years.

But now, perhaps, that is about to change. Last fall, the prestigious journal Nature Genetics devoted a large supplement to the question of whether human races exist and, if so, what they mean. The journal did this in part because various American health agencies are making race an important part of their policies to best protect the public - often over the protests of scientists. In the supplement, some two dozen geneticists offered their views. Beneath the jargon, cautious phrases and academic courtesies, one thing was clear: the consensus about social constructs was unraveling. Some even argued that, looked at the right way, genetic data show that races clearly do exist...[2]

Certain skin colors tend to go with certain kinds of eyes, noses, skulls and bodies. When we glance at a stranger's face we use those associations to infer what continent, or even what country, he or his ancestors came from - and we usually get it right. To put it more abstractly, human physical variation is correlated; and correlations contain information...[3]

Indeed, the recognition that races are real should have several benefits. To begin with, it would remove the disjunction in which the government and public alike defiantly embrace categories that many, perhaps most, scholars and scientists say do not exist.

Second, the recognition of race may improve medical care. Different races are prone to different diseases. The risk that an African-American man will be afflicted with hypertensive heart disease or prostate cancer is nearly three times greater than that for a European-American man.[4] On the other hand, the former's risk of multiple sclerosis is only half as great. Such differences could be due to socioeconomic factors. Even so, geneticists have started searching for racial differences in the frequencies of genetic variants that cause diseases. They seem to be finding them.[5]

Race can also affect treatment. African-Americans respond poorly to some of the main drugs used to treat heart conditions - notably beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. Pharmaceutical corporations are paying attention. Many new drugs now come labeled with warnings that they may not work in some ethnic or racial groups. Here, as so often, the mere prospect of litigation has concentrated minds.

Such differences are, of course, just differences in average. Everyone agrees that race is a crude way of predicting who gets some disease or responds to some treatment. Ideally, we would all have our genomes sequenced before swallowing so much as an aspirin. Yet until that is technically feasible, we can expect racial classifications to play an increasing part in health care....

There is a final reason race matters. It gives us reason - if there were not reason enough already - to value and protect some of the world's most obscure and marginalized people. When the Times of India article referred to the Andaman Islanders as being of ancient Negrito racial stock, the terminology was correct. Negrito is the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia. They are very small, very dark, and have peppercorn hair. They look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo's jungles to take up life on a tropical isle. But they are not....


!. And therefore race must exist, because the Times of India said so.

2. This wording seems suspicously like an ID argument...

3. I can't think of a reason why a reasonable scientist would deny that there is a distribution of variations of DNA that varies according to geography, but this isn't really the point. The point is whether there is a cultural difference therefore, or whether this DNA implies in any way a way of "objectively" "ranking" people. The fact that social and cultural constructs are intertwined with our observations of our fellow humans makes this observation almost useless...

4. Diet is so obviously correlated with an African-American's risk of heart disease that the "seem to be finding them" teaser later seems disingenuous at best.

I can see this as being used by people to encourage discrimination - even the discrimination that says we have to let the natives live in their "habitat." On the other hand DNA distributions do exist, but the minute we try to infer anything about it, we have to verify that there are no cultural encrustations in our inferences, and that's hard.

Because some people don't want to do that at all. They wear sheets.

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