Monday, September 3, 2018

Race vs. Racism Anthropological Perspective

 Here early in the 21st Century with all of its rapid technological advances and scientific discoveries, we are encountering the primitive responses of  bigotry, racism, miscegenation, nationalism, and ethnocentrism based on scientifically discredited biological assumption and justification. 

When Charles Darwin published his ORIGIN OF SPECIES in 1859, he upset the prevailing Western European world view about the Biblical creation and mankind's role in it. The first three chapters of the Old Testament's Book of Genesis was, and is, for many even today, the complete answer to who we are and how the world works. Central to the Genesis story is the special place Adam and Eve play in the history of humankind. It relates back to the idea that only the descendents of this couple are God's creation of humanity. And this raises the question of who are those other people, or are they people?  

Anthropology, or proto-anthropology, arose and has struggled with this conflict between the Biblical creation and the scientific discoveries and theories that the Darwinian revolution has caused. Today we can point to hard physical evidence of the role chromosomes and gene sequences in DNA play in the phenotypes of individuals -- human and otherwise. Go on TV and you can find ads for having your DNA analyzed and a profile of your ethnic/genetic heritage drawn for you.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, may people feel threatened by the idea that humankind are all related, all part of the same species. From the most sophisticated intellectual to the most primitive of persons in the Amazon forest or New Guinea highlands, we are all part of the same family of God created, or better, emergent creatures. Anthropologist in the 19th Century struggled with the question and split along a number of lines. There were those who favored a more biblical interpretation of human origins, others who accepted a Darwinian explanation for a biological evolution  but restricted in timing and to particular, especially Northern European, "races." Still others sought differences in a different place -- in the evolution of Culture.

Social Darwinism sought to explain the differences between peoples and populations based on the differential evolution of culture by different 'race' groups. For Anthropology, this division was most prominent in the formation of the American Anthropological Association where physical anthropology and cultural anthropology competed intellectually over the basic question of "nature" vs "nurture". 

Based on the statistical studies of Francis Galton in 1883. Galton, ironically was a cousin of Charles Darwin. The gross physical differences (phenotypes) that could be observed in different populations were assumed to represented  different levels of intellectual evolution. Therefore,one could postulate that differences in cultural development as evidence for their evolutionary and biological position in the human species. Some physical anthropology argued that humans, as animals, evolved in a similar way to all species and could be bred in the same way other domesticated animals are bred. Arising out this was a theory of eugenics

On the other hand, cultural anthropologists would argue that cultural differences arose from different historical and environmental challenges that different human populations faced and adapted to overtime. History, expressed as cultural differences, was more important in explaining human variation than the inheritance of biological differences This culturally relative position was argued by Franz Boas and his students.

The eugenics movement led to the formation of the Galton Society. The role of Madison Grant in promoting a racial based philosophy is found in his writings such as The Passing of the Great Race  which Hitler called his Bible.  A number of physical anthropologist joined this group in the early days of the 20th Century. The movement appeared to have died within anthropology in the 1930's and a viable  scientific idea by the end of WWII.  In many respects, it was and has become one of anthropology's great mistakes. 

Today, with modern medicine, genetic engineering, boutique babies, commercial DNA services, the alienation and tribalism in our politics here in the US and around the world, some are suggesting that by seizing political power is the way toward "racial" purity. These groups if they achieve their political goals, can and will use those technologies to achieve their eugenic objectives. Modern science is giving extremists the false hope that by simply seizing political apparatus they may further their eugenic goals  with the new technologies. 

Will anthropologists stand up against such an ideology? Can a strong valid anthropological argument be made that separates the difference between "race" as a  dangerous cultural belief system and "race" as a false biological concept?

Does Robert Lowie's observation hold when the biological constant becomes a cultural variable?
 Since biological change occurs slowly and cultural changes occur in every generation, it is futile to try to explain the fleeting phenomena of culture by a racial constant. We can often explain them—in terms of contact with other peoples, of individual genius, of geography—but not by racial differences.  
           Robert H. Lowie  Austrian-American anthropologist (12 Jun 1883 - 21 Sep 1957)

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