It`s All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective
For the last two summers, University of California`s Ward
Connerly, leader of the successful 1996 Proposition 209
campaign outlawing racial preferences in California and
2004 Racial Privacy
Initiative, has hosted a small but
wide-ranging conference at the Ronald Reagan
Presidential Library. This year, he asked Boston U.
Peter Wood, author
of the upcoming book
Diversity: A Biography of a
Concept, and I to debate the fundamental
question of whether race is a biologically meaningful
concept. This provided me with a wonderful opportunity
to outline my approach at adequate length before a
complimented on being a perceptive observer of the
myriad ramifications of race and asked why I notice more
than most writers on the subject. I reply that it helps
to have a model in your head that corresponds fairly
well with how the world works. When you`ve got the right
theory, it`s easy to observe more – you can hold more
details in your mind because they fit together. With
that in mind, I`ve included links within this essay,
which serves as a culmination to a decade of writing
about race, to a host of articles I`ve written detailing
various aspects of the subject. If you are interested in
reading more, I`ve included summaries of important
articles at the end.
Does race exist in a
Race is hardly the
most important thing in life, but it`s not so
insignificant that we can blithely ignore it. We need to
understand why, here and all over the world, racial
conflicts keep popping up their ugly heads.
I`m going to outline
a framework for thinking about race that I`ve found
extremely useful. And this novel way of thinking about
race suggests a few practical things we can do about it
to keep conflicts under control.
My concept of race
seems to be relatively new—I can`t find anything on
Google in English matching my definition. Yet I
think it will also strike you as immemorially old. I
don`t think I`m going to tell you much that you didn`t
already sense intuitively.
The idea that
Race Does Not Exist has become quite fashionable in
intellectual circles. But its appeal to the public is
limited by its difficulty in passing the Richard Pryor
Test. To many regular people, the No Race theory`s
advocates sound like they are asking, "Who are you going
to believe? Us college professors or your lying eyes?"
Before I explain my
definition of race, though, I`d like everybody to do a
few brain-stretching warm-up exercises.
of these four conflicts are between different races and
which are merely clashes between some other kinds of
4. The Troubles in
Northern Ireland between Catholics (often
red-headed) and Protestants (often red-headed).
And if you think you
know the answer to which of these fights are between
races and which are not, please try to explain to
yourself why you drew the line where you did.
It`s kind of hard,
isn`t it? I`ve noticed that traditional defenders of the
concept of race tend to get twisted up trying to draw
distinctions between what is a race and what is not
quite a race. This allows the
Race Does Not Exist crowd to score some easy points.
I avoid all that by
focusing on the mechanism that creates racial groups –
of whatever size or degree of distinctiveness. One of my
goals has been to create what the computer guys call a
“scaleable solution” – one that will provide insights
about what all four of these unhappy situations have in
sure you are familiar with a lot of plausible-sounding
objections to the very notion that race might be a
For example, Peter
Wood has argued, "If race is obvious, surely it
shouldn`t be too hard to count them." Or, as many have
demanded, "If race exists, how can there be people who
belong to more than one race?"
Many of these
criticisms are powerful. But they would be equally
strong if they were directed toward many other useful
but noncontroversial concepts like, say, "region."
So when I read off a
standard complaint about race, think along with me about
how you can say the same thing about region.
How come you people who think race exists can`t even
agree on how many races there are in the world?
Well, how many regions are there are in the world? Can
we even count all the regions we happen to be in right
here at the Reagan Library? Let`s see, we`re in Ventura
Country and the Pacific Rim and North America and the
West Coast and the Pacific Time Zone and NAFTA and,
well, I could go on for a long time without coming close
to enumerating all the regions we are in.
If races exist, doesn`t that mean one race has to be the
Master Race? And that would be awful!
Indeed it would, but
no race is going to be best at everything – any more
than one region could be the supreme master region for
all human purposes. For example, this mountaintop is a
stirring place to put a Presidential Library. But if
you want to break the land speed record in your rocket
car, it`s definitely inferior to the
Bonneville Salt Flats.
If race exists, how can people belong to more than one
race? Mustn`t the races be mutually exclusive?
If “region” exists, how can people be in more than one
at a time – just as we are now in the Western Hemisphere
and the Northern Hemisphere?
Of course, some kinds
of regions are mutually exclusive, typically the
ones that are legally defined. Since we are in Ventura
County, we can`t be in Los Angeles County. Laws often
work that way.
But nature, which
often glides gradually from one state to another, seldom
does. So you often get poor fits when you try to force
something natural into sharp-edged artificial
For example, the
various so-called "one
drop rules" for defining blacks made the black and
white races legally mutually exclusive. In contrast,
whites did not always demand mutual exclusivity of
whites and American Indians. Winston Churchill`s
American grandmother Clara claimed she was
1/4th Iroquois, but her dark looks didn`t exclude
her from New York`s high society. Herbert Hoover`s
Charles Curtis was famously proud of being 1/8th
American Indian and having spent several years of his
childhood on a reservation.
After political power
shifted from white supremacists to the minority groups,
black activists still demanded the one drop rule because
they wanted as many voters to benefit from racial
preferences as possible in order to keep their political
support up. This doesn`t cost them anything, because the
size of the
quota pie automatically expands when somebody new
decides to identify himself as black.
tribes generally require
a higher fraction (such as 1/4th) of documented
tribal ancestry before they`ll give you a slice of their
casino pie. After all, their casino privileges are
assigned to the tribe, not the tribe member, and are
finite. Also, because their tribal privileges are
guaranteed by treaty, not by politics, Indians can
afford to be snobbish.
Now, the key point
about debating "Does Race Exist" is that it`s
essentially a semantic dispute. If you can find
the dumbest definition anybody ever came up
with—something like "racial groups are virtually
separate species that almost never interbreed"—then,
under that strawman definition, "race" would definitely
course, if you rigorously define "race" to mean
something that actually does exist on Earth, then, by
definition, race exists.
It`s not hard to find
ridiculous definitions of race to prove wrong, since
lots of dumb stuff has been said about race over the
years, even by scientists. Although in the last few
decades there has been some good thinking about what
race is not, there have been very few attempts to
come up with a new understanding of what race is
… because it has become dangerous to
scientists` and intellectuals` careers.
I got interested in
coming up with a rigorous definition of race a few years
ago when I saw that all we had to choose from were
the obsolete definitions that largely failed to
incorporate sophisticated sociobiological perspectives
- the hip nihilism of the Race Does Not Exist crowd.
Early 19th Century
credulity and late 20th Century postmodernism aren`t
adequate. We need a working definition for the 21st
something that our lying eyes see. But what exactly is
Up until the 1960`s,
physical anthropologists tended to conceive of racial
classifications as fitting neatly into a
taxonomy of the kind invented by the great 18th
Century naturalist Carolus Linnaeaus. The
top-down Linnaean system describes how the God of
Genesis might have gone about efficiently organizing the
Creation. It subdivides living things into genuses and
then into species, subspecies, races, and presumably
into sub-races and so on.
Linnaean taxonomy is
still hugely useful. It even works fairly well for
humans: see the July 30, 2002 New York Times
Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease" for
how Stanford geneticist Neil Risch`s crude model of
dividing the world up into five continental-scale races
medical purposes can help save lives.
But naturalists now
understood, however, that the Linnaean mindset always
imposed a little too much order on the messiness of
evolution. All of these Linnaean terms, like genus and
subspecies, are not absolute but relative designations.
Thus, they tend to be unavoidably arbitrary.
Paleontologists are always bickering over whether some
new hominid skull dug up in Africa is different enough
to deserve its own genus or whether it is just a lousy
Even "species" is
less written-in-stone than it sounds. Witness the
debate over whether dogs, wolves, and coyotes are
three species or one. Enforcement of the Endangered
Species Act is constantly being bogged down in disputes
over whether a particular brand of bug or weed is a
separate species. Billions of dollars of Southern
California property development has been hung up for
years over whether the rare
California gnatcatcher bird is a different species
than the abundant Baja gnatcatcher. The only difference
is that the California gnatcatcher tends to a somewhat
different color than the Baja gnatcatcher.
(This is also true of
humans, of course, but that doesn`t make them different
Race is all
it`s all about who your relatives are.
A modern Darwinian
approach to race would start from the bottom up, with
the father, mother, and baby. All mammals belong to
biological extended families, with a family tree that
features all the same kinds of biological relatives as
you or I have—grandfathers, nieces, or third cousins and
so forth. And everybody belongs to multiple extended
families—your mom`s, your dad`s, etc.
Which leads to my
modern definition of race:
A racial group is an
extended family that is inbred to some degree.
That`s it—just an
"extended family that is somewhat inbred." There`s no
need to say how big the extended family has to be, or
We know that humans
have not been mating completely randomly with
other humans from all over the globe. Most people, over
the last few tens of thousands of years, just couldn`t
afford the airfare.
If you go back to
1000 AD, you would theoretically have a trillion
ancestors alive at that time—that`s how many slots you
have in your family tree 40 generations ago. Obviously,
your family tree has to be a little bit inbred. That far
back, you`d probably find an individual or two from most
parts of the world among your ancestors.
But, in anybody`s
family tree, certain statistical patterns will stand
out. Just ask somebody, "What are you?" and they`ll tell
you about some of the larger clusters in their family
tree, such as, "Oh, I`m Irish, Italian, and Cherokee."
So, my definition is
close to a tautology. But then so is "survival of the
fittest." And that proved to have a bit of predictive
This is a scaleable
solution. Do you want to know a lot about a few people?
Then, the more inbred, the more distinct the racial
group. Or, do you want to know a little about a lot of
people? The less inbred, the larger the group.
Icelanders are a lot more inbred and thus a lot more
distinct than, say, Europeans, who are, though, much
more numerous. Which one is the "true race?"
It`s a useless
question. They are both racial groups. For some
is the more useful group to focus upon. For others
"European" is the more effective.
Of course, the bottom-up model accounts for
everything seen in top-down approaches. Average
hereditary differences are—as one might
expect—inherited. The bottom-up approach simply
eliminates any compulsion to draw arbitrary lines
regarding whether a difference is big enough to be
racial. With enough inbreeding, hereditary differences
will emerge that will first be recognizable to the
geneticist, then to the physical anthropologist, and
finally to the average person.
Similarly, two separate racial groups can slowly
merge into one if barriers to intermarriage come down.
I`m more interested
in the reality that there are partly inbred extended
families than in what it`s called. Unfortunately, I
haven`t been able to find a better word than "race."
have been tried without much success. For example, the
geneticists, such as the distinguished
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford, who study
what the normal person would call "race," don`t call
themselves "racial geneticists." Instead, they blandly
label themselves "population geneticists."
That allows them at
least sometimes to sneak their research projects by
under the radar of the politically correct. But it`s
important to realize that they are not using
"population" in the non-racial sense of phrases like
"California`s population" or "UCLA`s student
population," but in the specific sense of "hereditary
populations" such as the Japanese or the Icelanders or
Among all the
different kinds of "populations," the only ones
population geneticists study are the ones whose members
tend to share genes because they tend to share
That`s what I`d call
a "racial group." But, if you don`t like the word
"race," well, maybe we should just hire one of those
firms that invent snazzy new names like "Exxon" for
unfashionable old corporations like Standard Oil, and
then hire an ad agency to publicize this new name for
Unfortunately, I`m a
little tapped out until the end of the month. But if you
have a spare fifty million dollars, that might cover it.
sense in which Race is all relative: it`s pointless to
make absolute statements about the significance or
insignificance of race. You always have to ask,
"Compared to what?"
For instance, I am
constantly informed that genetic differences between
racial groups are absolutely insignificant because 99.9%
of human genes are shared among all people. Yet we share
over 98% of our genes with
chimpanzees (and, supposedly, 70% with yeast). Does
that mean genetic differences between humans and chimps
(or yeast) are insignificant?
You have to look at
it relatively. If you were planning to climb Mt. Everest
and somebody were to say, "The difference between
Mt. Everest and sea level is insignificant, it`s
just a 0.15% difference in the distance from the center
of the Earth," you`d roll your eyes. But, when somebody
says the same thing about genetics, it`s treated as a
Similarly, we are
constantly told, "there are more genetic differences
within races than between races." This is, in general,
true. But it hardly means that the differences between
races therefore don`t exist.
For example, a
team of geneticists led by Rick Kittles of Howard U.
documented that race accounts for 20% of the
variations seen in the gene that controls the strength
of the body`s androgen receptors. Men with stronger
androgen receptors tend to behave as if they have higher
levels of testosterone and other male hormones. For
example, those with the versions of the genes that
heighten androgen reception are more susceptible on
average to prostate cancer. Men of West African ancestry
tend to have more of the gene variants conducive to high
androgen receptivity than men of European descent (which
is one reason they suffer more from prostate cancer).
Whites, in turn, tend to have more testosterone
receptivity than men of Northeast Asian descent.
Keep in mind that 80%
of the variation observed was within racial
groups. Which is about what you`d expect from observing
the world around you. In every racial group, there
exists a wide variety of physical and personality types
among men, from the most hyper-masculine to the most
Still, few who
watch sports on television, follow
Olympic running results, or examine
interracial marriage patterns, will be surprised
that blacks on the whole score highest on those androgen
receptor gene alleles associated with
We`ve seen what`s
wrong with the old-fashioned Linnaean taxonomists`
approach to race and the fecklessness of the
postmodernists` denial of race. But what are the
strengths and weaknesses of the typical American`s
concept of race?
The way most
Americans currently think about race tends to fall in
between rigor and absurdity. The consensus American view
is full of contradictions, obsolete ideas, and
fantasies. But in a rough way, it does approximate the
Yet because the
American geographic and historical situation is so
unusual, we lack a model that would apply well to rest
of the world, which is one reason we are finding it
difficult to grasp the politics of
Afghanistan`s division into warring extended families
is tragic-comically extreme, probably due to the
severity of its terrain. But Afghans are like most
people in history who have instinctively viewed the
world as consisting of concentric circles of blood
relations. Race to them is just family writ large. "My
brother and I against my cousin. My cousin and us
against the world."
America, however, was
populated from across the seas. The striking contrasts
between blacks, whites, and American Indians—peoples
from different continents—overshadowed the normal
pattern of extended family blending almost imperceptibly
into racial group as it spread geographically.
We Americans tended
to forget that race is relative. We became obsessed with
big, continental scale racial differences. Thus in
recent decades we have decided that smaller racial
differences—whether Norwegians vs. Armenians or Pygmies
Dinkas—weren`t really there. They were just
"ethnic," not racial. We may well be better off not
noticing, but one problem is that standard American
thinking about race doesn`t scale up and down well.
Americans have a hard time understanding the rest of the
world. Let`s come back to those four civil
conflicts. Which ones are racial?
- Northern Ireland
American response is: "just Zimbabwe." After all, that`s
the only dispute between
whites and blacks, as we think of them.
In reality, all these
disputes are fights between relatively distinct extended
families. Take Northern Ireland (please). Americans
always call it a "religious war." But the hard men on
both sides don`t care much about theology. No, even
though outsiders can`t generally tell the two sides
apart by looking at them, this is, in essence, a
struggle between two large families. One family
used to own Northern Ireland until the other family
took it away from them. Some members of the first family
want it back.
perspective, we can see the commonality in all four
conflicts—they are all property disputes between
extended families that may not share enough recent
common ancestry to make compromise possible because
no-one has anybody they can trust on the other side.
And once you
understand this, it becomes simpler to think of ways to
ameliorate these kinds of conflicts.
My definition of race
offers that kind of conceptual power for a host of other
What practical steps
are implied by this family-based definition of race?
First, if race is a
natural, omnipresent potential fault line in human
affairs, that suggests to me that we Americans should be
extremely wary of using the vast power of the government
to exacerbate the natural divisiveness of race by
officially classifying people by race.
Second, in the long
intermarriage is the most fundamental solution for
extended families at odds with each other.
The effects of
interracial marriage are more complex than
Tamar Jacoby or
Gregory Rodriguez assume—that`s why 500 years of
intermarriage haven`t made
Mexico or Brazil a racial utopia. Indeed, Brazil has
just begun to introduce
is what turned the Angles and the Saxons into the
Anglo-Saxons. And one way to raise
the intermarriage rate is to cut back on
immigration. Here in California, native-born Americans
are something like three times more likely to intermarry
Third, humans just
like to belong to a group. Because race is not, at root,
a social construct, we need to promote a positive social
construct as an alternative for people to organize
Perhaps the most
beneficial alternative to race is citizenship. But we
need to do more than just
promote national solidarity as the alternative to
racial solidarity. We need to
actually do things for our less fortunate fellow
citizens – like reducing immigration so that supply
and demand will
raise their wages.
In summary: I believe
that knowing the truth is a lot more beneficial to
humanity than ignorance, lies, or wishful thinking.
[Click here for a reading list of Steve
Sailer`s writings on race.]
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and
August 02, 2002