It's All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective

Steve Sailer writes: 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 the 2004 Racial Privacy Initiative, has hosted a small but wide-ranging conference at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This year, he asked Boston U. anthropologist 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 distinguished audience.

I'm sometimes 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 biological sense?

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.

First Exercise—Which of these four conflicts are between different races and which are merely clashes between some other kinds of groups?

1. President Mugabe's black supporters vs. white farm-owners in Zimbabwe

2. Sudan's civil war between the brown people in the North and the black people in the South

3. Rwanda's civil war between the tall black Tutsis and the short black Hutus

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 common.

Second exercise—I'm sure you are familiar with a lot of plausible-sounding objections to the very notion that race might be a meaningful concept.

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.

Q. How come you people who think race exists can't even agree on how many races there are in the world?

A. 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.

Q. If races exist, doesn't that mean one race has to be the supreme Master Race? And that would be awful!

A. 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.

Q. If race exists, how can people belong to more than one race? Mustn't the races be mutually exclusive?

A. 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 categories.

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 Vice-President 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.

Meanwhile, Indian 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.

These differing attempts to fit legal definitions to the natural phenomenon of ancestry explain otherwise curious scenes like Halle Berry's blonde mom calling her daughter a credit to the black race.

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 not exist.

Conversely, of 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

  1. the obsolete definitions that largely failed to incorporate sophisticated sociobiological perspectives or

  1. 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 Century.

Obviously, there's something that our lying eyes see. But what exactly is it? 

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 article, "Race 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 for 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 new subspecies.

Even "species" is less written-in-stone than it sounds. Witness the constant 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 species!)

None of this is to say that the concept of species should be discarded; just that, like races, species tend to be fuzzy sets, too.

Race is all relative, in two senses.

First, 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 just how inbred.

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 power.

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.

For example, 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 questions, "Icelander" 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."

Various euphemisms 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 the Navajo.

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 genealogies.

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 "race."

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.

The second 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 profundity.

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. recently 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 gentle.

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 greater masculinity.

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 American reality.

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.

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 vs. 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.

That's why Americans have a hard time understanding the rest of the world. Let's come back to those four civil conflicts. Which ones are racial?

  • Zimbabwe
  • Rwanda
  • Sudan
  • Northern Ireland

The conventional 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.

From this 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 issues.

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 run, 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 racial preferences.

Still, intermarriage 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 than immigrants.

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 around.

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 movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]

August 02, 2002