Three Is Not Enough

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Media Archive on 2013-02-03 22:43Z by Steven

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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The “ethnology” of Josiah Clark Nott

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2012-03-04 02:23Z by Steven

The “ethnology” of Josiah Clark Nott

Journal of Urban Health
Volume 50, Number 4 (April 1974)
pages 509–528.

C. Loring Brace, Ph.D.
Museum of Anthropology
University of Michigan

It is only rarely that a person so completely transcends the ethos of his age that the recorded results of his scientific endeavors can be read a century or more later with any real profit, and apart from the desire to gain some historical perspective on the time in question. Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein, among others, can still be read with instruction, not so much for their conclusions, but for the methods by which these were reached. This is because the conclusions, while now taken for granted, are no more intuitively obvious today than when they were first advanced.

Except for the rare transcending genius, the best minds of an age tend to typify the thinking of the time rather than to advance it. It is no surprise, then, to discover that the ablest figures in the American South prior to the Civil War, including Josiah Clark Nott, were unanimous in the defense of their “peculiar institution,” slavery. Although educated Southerners were unanimous in their defense of slavery, they diverged widely in their justification for doing so. As the 19th century progressed, two camps emerged which were engaged in vigorous, prolonged, and often acerbic debate at the time the Civil War broke out. Both sides took it as self-evident that Negroes were inferior and slavery justified, but they differed in their attempts to explain how racial differences arose in the first place.

The issue, at bottom, involved the relation between scientific and historical reality, and the written accounts in the Protestant Bible. On the one side it was argued that the words in the Bible were inspired by God and must therefore be literally true-all men, black and white, slave and free, were the descendants of Adam and Eve. On the other, the argument suggested that the inspiration in Holy Writ was largely moral and that the geographic and scientific information reflected the human fallibility and ignorance of the human authors. Neither side questioned the rectitude of a world view dominated by Protestant Christianity; both declared that, by definition, the basic teachings of science and religion must be in agreement. However, since there were apparent discrepancies between the views of the two realms, disputes arose over which should bend to accommodate the other…

…On August 12, 1845, Nott wrote to his friend John Henry Hammond, governor of South Carolina, that “the negro question was the one that I wished to bring out and embalmed it in Egyptian ethnography, etc., to excite a little more interest.”‘ He was referring specifically to his second published foray into the realm of “anthropology,” which had appeared just the year before and which set the tone and the dimensions of everything he was to write in an anthropological vein for the next 20 years. Once started, his involvement snowballed. As he wrote Hammond in a subsequent letter, September 4, 1845, “the nigger business has brought me into a large and heterogeneous correspondence,” and he declared his intention “to follow out the Negro, moral and physical in all his ramifications.”

Nott’s first anthropological contribution, entitled “The Mulatto a Hybrid-Probable Extermination of the Two Races If the Whites and Blacks Are Allowed to Intermarry,” was published in i843 in the highly respectable American Journal of the Medical Sciences.’ In this article, Nott became the first American public figure to declare that whites and blacks belonged to separate species of the genus Homo. As he stated, “this I do believe, that at the present day the Anglo-Saxon and Negro races are, according to common acceptation of the terms, distinct species, and that the offspring of the two is a Hybrid” (italics Nott’s) . To support this conclusion he reprinted figures from a paper that had appeared the year before in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, written by an anonymous author who signed himself Philanthropist.

The figures purported to show that the life spans of mulattoes are the shortest of any kind of human population, indicating that in the long run they were destined for eventual extinction. While it was not so acknowledged, the data on which these conclusions were based originally came from the census of  1840, which was filled with unverifiable claims and gross errors and slanted in a blatantly proslavery manner. Nott could hardly have been ignorant of the problems associated with the data of the census since these had been exposed in the very same Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, but he used them anyway without apology or qualification. In this instance, as in many others in his “anthropological” career, it is clear that the lip-service he gave to science was mainly camouflage to cover the racist advocacy that lay beneath.

Despite the weakness in his case, Nott’s hybridity argument drew favorable notice from Morton and helped enlist the latter in the ensuing debate. The ostensible issue was the criterion for the establishment of valid species. If members of different populations either could not crossbreed or, having done so, could only produce offspring that were sterile or of reduced viability and fertility, then the populations could be considered as different biological species. All agreed that the failure to crossbreed or the production of sterile offspring-the mule, for example-indicated a valid specific difference. The argument concerned the evidence for cases of reduced viability and fertility. In Mobile, Ala., Nott lacked the library resources as well as the time and inclination to pursue the matter beyond its initial stages. Morton, however, had the inclination; he also had the collections of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He had just completed the second of his two principal contributions to anthropological research, his Crania Aegyptiaca, in which he had demonstrated that the physical characteristics of Caucasian and Negro populations were just as distinct in ancient Egypt as they are today. With the dates of Egyptian antiquity established by the follow-up of Champollion’s translation of the Rosetta stone, and with a concept of the antiquity of human existence assumed to be on the order of those appended to the English Bible by Archbishop Ussher, Morton felt that human racial distinctions must have existed “in the beginning. Realizing that such an opinion was likely to stir up controversy, Morton was diffident about advancing it, but he finally did so with qualified caution in his defence and expansion of Nott’s hybridity position…

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