Three Is Not Enough

Three Is Not Enough

The Daily Beast
Newsweek Magazine

Sharon Begley, Senior Health and Science Correspondent

In 1990, Americans claimed membership in nearly 300 races or ethnic groups and 600 American Indian tribes. Hispanics had 70 categories of their own.

To most Americans race is as plain as the color of the nose on your face. Sure, some light-skinned blacks, in some neighborhoods, are taken for Italians, and some Turks are confused with Argentines. But even in the children of biracial couples, racial ancestry is writ large—in the hue of the skin and the shape of the lips, the size of the brow and the bridge of the nose. It is no harder to trace than it is to judge which basic colors in a box of Crayolas were combined to make tangerine or burnt umber. Even with racial mixing, the existence of primary races is as obvious as the existence of primary colors.

Or is it? C. Loring Brace has his own ideas about where race resides, and it isn’t in skin color. If our eyes could perceive more than the superficial, we might find race in chromosome 11: there lies the gene for hemoglobin. If you divide humankind by which of two forms of the gene each person has, then equatorial Africans, Italians and Greeks fall into the “sickle-cell race”; Swedes and South Africa’s Xhosas (Nelson Mandela’s ethnic group) are in the healthy-hemoglobin race. Or do you prefer to group people by whether they have epicanthic eye folds, which produce the “Asian” eye? Then the !Kung San (Bushmen) belong with the Japanese and Chinese. Depending on which trait you choose to demarcate races, “you won’t get anything that remotely tracks conventional [race] categories,” says anthropologist Alan Goodman, dean of natural science at Hampshire College.

The notion of race is under withering attack for political and cultural reasons—not to mention practical ones like what to label the child of a Ghanaian and a Norwegian. But scientists got there first. Their doubts about the conventional racial categories—black, white, Asian—have nothing to do with a sappy “we are all the same” ideology. Just the reverse. “Human variation is very, very real,” says Goodman. “But race, as a way of organizing [what we know about that variation], is incredibly simplified and bastardized.” Worse, it does not come close to explaining the astounding diversity of humankind—not its origins, not its extent, not its meaning. “There is no organizing principle by which you could put 5 billion people into so few categories in a way that would tell you anything important about humankind’s diversity,” says Michigan’s Brace, who will lay out the case against race at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. About 70 percent of cultural anthropologists, and half of physical anthropologists, reject race as a biological category, according to a 1989 survey by Central Michigan University anthropologist Leonard Lieberman and colleagues. The truths of science are not decided by majority vote, of course. Empirical evidence, woven into a theoretical whole, is what matters. The threads of the argument against the standard racial categories:…

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