July 6, 2017 11:01 AM ET
BARBARA J. KING
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary.
In a new book, University of North Carolina, Charlotte anthropologist Jonathan Marks says that racism in science is alive and well.
By the way, Professor Marks coined the term “human biodiversity” in the mid-1990s, a couple of years before I later came up with it independently. As soon as the term popped into my mind, I plugged it into the pre-Google search engine Alta Vista and discovered his Human Biodiversity book.
This stands in sharp contrast to creationist thinking, Marks says, which is, like racism, decidedly evident in our society but most certainly not welcome in science.
In Is Science Racist? Marks writes:
“If you espouse creationist ideas in science, you are branded as an ideologue, as a close-minded pseudo-scientist who is unable to adopt a modern perspective, and who consequently has no place in the community of scholars. But if you espouse racist ideas in science, that’s not quite so bad. People might look at you a little askance, but as a racist you can coexist in science alongside them, which you couldn’t do if you were a creationist. Science is racist when it permits scientists who advance racist ideas to exist and to thrive institutionally.”
I mean, it’s not just that they are thriving that’s annoying, it’s their whole being permitted to exist part, too.
This is a strong set of claims, and Marks uses numerous examples to support them. For example, a 2014 book by science writer Nicholas Wade used genes and race to explain …
The work of psychologist Philippe Rushton, who died in 2012, has been published and even celebrated in scientific circles, Marks explains. …
“Race,” Marks writes, “is not the discovery of difference; it is the imposition of difference.” Inequality comes about because of unequal conditions imposed upon different groups of people through economic and cultural forces.
With this background, we can now tackle a part of Is Science Racist? that deconstructs an activity that has become more and more popular over the past 10 years: sending away our DNA for some type of ancestry testing.
The problem, Marks writes in the book, is the “fabricated meaning” that corporate science superimposes over the raw numbers that emerge from this process. Last week, Marks elaborated on this point in an email to me:
… “Are they accurate? About as accurate as looking in the mirror.”
… “Sociologists find that customers make sense of the results, and ignore the nonsense. For example, I’ve come out 95 percent Ashkenazi Jewish (not a geographical population, but a gene pool with its own minor genetic idiosyncrasies due to history) and 5 percent Korean. A good scientific question would be: +/- how much? 15 percent? 10 percent? Is my 5 percent Korean ancestry the same as 0 percent Korean ancestry?
“Scientific answer: Yes. Corporate answer: Wouldn’t you like to know?
Apparently, Marks believes, presumably with good reason, whether from family records or looking in the mirror or both, that he is close to 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, while his DNA test said he is only 95% Ashkenazi Jewish.
Is that good or bad? Well, a 95% full glass is bad work if you are a bartender in Ireland pouring a Guinness (the foam should protrude slightly above the brim), but for DNA ancestry tests, a commercial product that didn’t exist 20 years ago, it’s at least better than random luck.
… All this leads to a question Alva Noë asked here last year:
“Can it ever be more than fantasy to try to draw meaningful conclusions about an individual’s origins on the basis of the sort of DNA information that is available to us now?”
Marks’ answer is clearly negative. Again, from his email message:
“The tests often reify as ‘natural’ human populations that are actually natural/cultural, that is to say, human groups that are genetically different to some extent, but are actually bounded by history, language, politics, or religion, and are thus not ‘natural’ categories at all. These include particular African tribes, Ashkenazi Jews, or Vikings. The fact that one can detect ancestry in these identities does not mean that they are products of nature.”
Well, I’m not exactly sure in what sense he is using the word “nature,” but clearly Ashkenazi Jews (in his case, for instance) are products of reality rather than “fantasy.”
My guess is that the NPR writer, anthropologist King, is unintentionally dumbing down anthropologist Marks, who for all his faults is an intelligent man, for the NPR-trusting masses.