September 17, 2008

Clustering humans: on biological boundaries

From the paper:
Nevertheless beyond such a treacherous ideology, we need boundaries, since we need clusters both to achieve group-oriented diagnostics and therapeutics, and to grasp the evolution of Homo sapiens. Of course these clusters must be named in some way. To be honest nothing prevents us from continuing to use the word ‘race’ for them, especially now that we have understood the real epistemological status of this notion and the methodological path used to determine its content. Unfortunately ‘race’ is a too ideologically and historically committed term, and it would be wise not to use it. The history of human culture has showed us that even if words are not dangerous, the humans who use them can be extremely dangerous.
The problem with this view is that by not using the word "race", the wrong impression is given, namely that "races do not exist", rather than the intended one that "things that we could call races exist, but we prefer not to name them because some bad people do so, and have done so in the past".

A secondary consequence is that by avoiding the use of the word "race" and its terminology, or replacing it with "ethnic group", "continental population", or "cluster", we make communication more difficult, e.g., because "ethnic group" is a social-political-cultural as well as biological concept, races do not map perfectly to geographically circumscribed continents, and "clusters" can be defined in a number of different ways without necessarily the property of "exhibiting genetic similarity reflecting common descent" that is characteristic of biological race.

Thirdly, even if "race" is a dangerous word, does any one believe that people's attitudes towards each other will magically change if they stop using racial terminology? Will a person's prejudices evaporate into thin air if it becomes impolite to speak of human races? On the contrary, existing prejudices will most likely go underground, and all sorts of incorrect notions about it will proliferate as scientists refuse to acknowledge its existence.

If we look back to the age before the emergence of race classification in Homo sapiens in the 18th century, we will see that there was plenty of opportunity for prejudice and conflict. So, rather than thinking that the identification of human races leads to prejudice, we should think that prejudice leads to an abuse of the race concept, just as it leads to an abuse of other religious, linguistic, or social concepts to justify itself. Does the fact that dangerous people use religious differences suggest that we should abandon classification of mankind's religious belief systems?

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2008, Pages 163-170

Clustering humans: on biological boundaries

Ludovica Lorussoa, and Giovanni Boniolo


We inquire into the notions of ‘boundary’ and ‘cluster’ in the fields of medical genetics, pharmacogenetics, and population genetics. First we show that the two notions are not well discussed in literature. Then we propose a promising explication of them, in which we argue that clustering is always ‘property laden’, that is, fundamentally dependent on decisions about the properties to be taken into account. In particular we suggest three different kinds of properties (main properties, investigating properties, and catalyzing properties) that have a role in these decisions. That is, we conclude that boundaries and clusters among humans depend on our way of considering nature. Concepts of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic group’ are discussed too, since they are the most used clusters among humans.



Crimson Guard said...

The scientific community needs to get some backbone and a pair of balls these days. Races are still acknowledged on official US census'.

Anonymous said...

Could the main question of the paper be regarded as scientific or it is reffering to politics?

I am afraid that it is the second.

Since I am participating lately in education science conferences a lot, I can ensure you that the area of humanities across the world, is promoting a pseudoscientific language and practice, based on a political angeda.

AMac said...

Here's a recent example of what's wrong with the stance taken by Lorussoa and Boniolo that you quote. Taking Usian Bolt's sprinting medal in the 2008 Olympics as a starting point, blogger Greg Laden asserts as fact:

--- begin excerpt ---

...everyone knows that the differences between humans that are often categorized as "racial traits" are either overstated or irrelevant. All humans have essentially the same basic potentials, and the genetic differences that do exist between people are not sorted out by the usual racial categories. Not even the differences that are foundational to those racial categories sort out by racial categories particularly well. By and large, racial categories are cultural fictions vaguely supported by quirky historical circumstances. On close examination they are not real.

--- end excerpt ---

These fallacies (Lewontin's and others) are promoted at Scienceblogs by scholar with a Harvard PhD in Archeology and Biological Anthropology.

To Laden's credit, critical comments in the post's thread are unexpunged, so diligent readers can get a sense of the gulf between his p.c. facts and the current state of knowledge in the field.

Kosmo said...

Racist knuckleheads of the past--both in and out of the sciences-- have made it complicated to do meaningful work in population genetics. These p.c. facts, as you call them, simply act as a buffer between the hard data and the possible harmful hijacking of that data for the furtherance of racism.

Are these p.c. facts always 100% accurate? No. Of course not. But I LIKE having those p.c. facts out there floating around; I LIKE having them to point to; I LIKE the fact that people without a true, deep understanding of genetics and population structure--people with only their toe in the water, so to speak-- can't learn a thing about genetics without first being told a thousand times that we're all the same. Even if it's not always completely true.

In the current model that's being taught, you have to dig through several educational layers of we're-all-the-same, before you get to the parts that show we're not.

To me, this is similar to what happens in martial arts. You rarely see a person use their black belts in karate to bully people. That is because getting a black belt is hard, and time consuming, and by the time they earn a black belt, they have learned discipline.

The p.c. model of genetics provides a similar structure.

Maju said...

Crimson Guard wrote: Races are still acknowledged on official US census'.

And that proves nothing but their arbitrariety and social-construct nature. These "races" of US census (USA and a few other countries are the only ones still using such categories) are self-designed by the respondent and, anyhow, they usually go along these cultural and arbitrary lines:
- Black (or African American): has some Sud-Saharan ancestry. How much? Maybe like Obama: 50% only. Why is he not tagged as white? Or as mixed? Culture.
- Hispanic: acknowledged as an ethnic tag, not racial. Could be almost anything, just Spanish-speaking background defines it.
- Asian: not a race either: South and East Asians (different genetics and phenotypes, different clusters) are dumped together for instance.

So what's the real meaning of these "races"? Cultural, at least very largely so.


On the paper and post: clusters exist only because clines do (and vice versa if you wish). Are there clusters? Probably. But not as well defined in most cases as racialists (and racists) would like them. Their boudaries are fluid, clusters are mostly described by slippery percentages not by absolute demarcation lines. For each cluster there may be a best defined core but also a much larger fluid boundary... a cline actually.

Is the term race appropiate? A matter of opinion. Maybe in colloquial slang is ok but in scientific terms there are much better choices. Additionally the standard racial categories are way too Eurocentric; culture matters and biases our perception - and, we like it or not, we live in a culture that has been dominated by Eurocentric bias for many centuries now. Scientific language should know better.

Dienekes said...

The US Census is not an authority on biology. The fact, for example that a 30%-Negroid/70%-Caucasoid man and a 95%-Negroid/5% Caucasoid man may both consider themselves as "black" in the US doesn't invalidate the existence of Caucasoids and Negroids as biological entities.

AMac said...

> In the current model that's being taught, you have to dig through several educational layers of we're-all-the-same, before you get to the parts that show we're not.

Gnosticism. A model that has its advantages, as you note. The intitiates in the elite can share secrets among themselves--knowledge that is dangerous if it becomes known to the proles.

However, I do wonder whether this vision is applicable to the scientific enterprise, as it has been envisioned by Karl Popper and like-minded philosophers.

This also brings to mind a somewhat well-known quote from Theodore Dalrymple on political correctness. "When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity."

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

tHE ARTICLE WAS A LITTLE WORDY,AND THOUGH i'M LITERATE i DIDN'T UNDERSTAND IT.I do believe in race groups that's why I wanted DNA testing in the first place to see which one I have mostly.But with one test saying Alpine Haplogroup,and another test saying Dubai UnitedArabEmirates and African it's hard to know which race I've got!

Kosmo said...

Amac. Your Gnosticism charge took be aback. Mostly because I'm fascinated by the gnostic religion, and I was trying to figure out, for the life of me, how you could have known that from my post. But now I get what you're saying. You were referring to the idea of "secret knowledge" being passed down. Your criticism of my viewpoint is valid. I don't think of anyone as proles, certainly, but I do think certain kinds of knowledge more easily lends itself to abuse.

AMac said...


Thanks for the response, and yes, you correctly parsed why I thought of Gnosticism.

The powerful idea that has driven Science is that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that we ought to describe, conceptualize, and envision it as best we can. Occam and Popper each built on this notion.

Structuring the practice of science and science education to forestall abuse by benighted or evil laypersons strays from this model.

"Abuse" is not an objective consideration. It is in the eye of the beholder.

In the past, there have been diverse candidates for Abusers. Nominees have included Heliocentrists (and Ptolemists), Darwinists (and Creationists), Theists (and Atheists), AGW adherents (and AGW skeptics), and Wreckers. We've added Racists to the list, of course.

Wrecking and the fate of Nikolai Vavilov should provide food for thought to those who would improve society by shielding citizens from inconvenient scientific findings.

Kosmo said...

Amac, I can't disagree with anything you said.

We ought to describe, conceptualize, and envision scientific fact as best we can, and structuring the practice of science to forstall abuse DOES stray from this model.

You're right. It is just frustrating to me that there are so many people who will read an elegant 350page opus on the intricacies and beauty of human variation, and all they'll get out of it is "I'm the best type of person; it says so right here on page 93."

I've also found that those people who usually rail the loudest against all that is P.C. are usually the ones most likely to scan the books for proof of whatever crack-pot, self-agrandizing theory they're hoping to find evidence for. (Oh, and I'm not implying for a second that you're part of that group. You obviously are an intelligent person who knows his/her science, and I appreciate the critical eye you've brought to bear on my comments.)

AMac said...

kosmo, thank you for this exchange of views.

You might find the observations of the editor of the journal Medical Hypotheses of interest, as he touches on some of these points. Bruce Charlton wrote:

-- begin extract --

at the same time as ‘official’ and professional science is increasingly timid careerist and dull; the self-organized, amateur realm of science blogs displays curiosity, scientific motivation, accountability, responsibility – and often considerable flair and skill. Quant bloggers and other internet scientists are, however, usually dependent on professional scientists to generate databases. But professional science has become highly constrained by non-scientific influences: increasingly sluggish, rigid, bureaucratic, managerial, and enmeshed with issues of pseudo-ethics, political correctness, public relations, politics and marketing.

-- end extract --

Anonymous said...

In the current model that's being taught, you have to dig through several educational layers of we're-all-the-same, before you get to the parts that show we're not.

"To me, this is similar to what happens in martial arts. You rarely see a person use their black belts in karate to bully people. That is because getting a black belt is hard, and time consuming, and by the time they earn a black belt, they have learned discipline.

The p.c. model of genetics provides a similar structure." -Kosmo

I don't think it's necessarily that difficult to find out how human groups differ genetically. Many studies are freely accessible on the internet. Anyone can just google the information if they're interested.