On Dawkins on Race
The readers of
Prospect magazine, the fine British center-left
journal, recently voted veteran science journalist
Richard Dawkins the U.K.`s number one "public
intellectual." In turn, Prospect runs in its
October edition an excerpt from Dawkins` new book,
The Ancestor`s Tale, called "Race
Dawkins` Prospect essay is not bad. He considers,
but does reject (sort of), the "race does not exist"
dogma that led the incoming president of the American
Anthropological Association, Alan Goodman,
memorably to proclaim:
doesn`t exist biologically, but it does exist socially…
Culturally I`m white-ified. People see me as white.
That has something to do with how I look, but it has
nothing to do with biological variation."
Unfortunately, Dawkins` essay shows that even being
Numero Uno doesn`t make you a clear thinker about a
scientific topic—if you allow your
political prejudices to murk things up. And it`s
easy to get confused about race because of the outright
suppression of active scientific debate.
Dawkins` reputation primarily on one great book, 1976`s
The Selfish Gene, which made comprehensible to
the reading public the revolution in the evolutionary
theory of social behavior innovated principally by the
late British biologist
William D. Hamilton from 1964 onwards.
In explaining the mathematical basis of
nepotism—the tendency of individuals to
favor their kin—Hamilton had discovered a new
gene-centric view of evolution that provided a more
solid footing for all of biology. As Dawkins
rightfully said: "W.D. Hamilton is a good
candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian
Unfortunately, Dawkins still doesn`t want to
understand the human implications of what Hamilton was
driving at with his theory of kin selection: that humans
naturally tend to discriminate in favor of relatives,
and a racial group is simply a
partly inbred extended family. (See my essay "It`s
All Relative" for a full explanation.)
Dawkins gets snagged by making the assumption that race,
while it exists, is all about surface features:
agreement suggests that racial classification is not
totally uninformative, but what does it inform about?
About things like eye shape and hair curliness. For some
reason it seems to be the superficial, external, trivial
characteristics that are correlated with race—perhaps
especially facial characteristics."
But Dawkins doesn`t offer any persuasive evidence for
the cliché that
race is just skin deep.
And the plain fact is that racial heritage affects real
world performance. For example, coming into the Athens
Olympics last month, men of West African descent had
earned all eight of the spots in the finals of the
100-meter dash for five Olympics in a row. I suggested
Olympics preview that this incredible streak might
come to an end. But instead blacks won all 16
positions in the semifinals!
A similar level of
domination is seen at the position of tailback in the
National Football League. Chris Harry and Charles
Robinson of the Orlando Sentinel wrote in a brave
article entitled "Endangered
Craig James ran for 1,227 yards and was voted to the
Pro Bowl in 1985, 95 running backs have combined for 235
1,000-yard rushing performances over those 18 years.
None has been white."
So race isn`t just skin deep. At minimum, it`s muscle
And the same male hormones that build muscles affect
Andrew Sullivan, for instance, has
written at length about how injecting himself with
testosterone has made him more confident and aggressive.
(Just what he needed!)
Overall, the pieces of this race puzzle are all starting
to fit together. Blacks, when in peak shape, tend to
muscle-to-fat ratios, higher levels of
aggressiveness, and higher rates of
prostate cancer—and not coincidentally, higher rates
male hormones and higher-powered
male hormone receptors in their bloodstreams.
Race … it`s not just skin deep.
But what did Dawkins mean by "interobserver
agreement" about racial classifications?
To show that racial categories can be informative at the
cosmetic level, he writes:
"Well, suppose we took
full-face photographs of 20 randomly chosen natives of
each of the following countries:
Iceland, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Egypt. If
we presented 120 people with all 120 photographs, my
guess is that every single one of them would achieve 100
per cent success in sorting them into six different
categories… I haven`t done the experiment, but I am
confident that you will agree with me on what the result
Dawkins` heart is in the right place on this issue—but
he should do the experiment. He would be
surprised. It`s quite likely that outsiders would
confuse some of the Ugandans and the Papuans.
The tribes of New Guinea and the nearby Melanesian
Islands come in many different looks, but some are very
similar in appearance to sub-Saharan Africans. Here, for
two Papuan boys who, to my untrained eye, look like
Africans. And here are some pleasant pictures of nearby
Solomon Islanders who belong to an Anglican religious
order known as the
Melanesian Brotherhood. They look much like these
Ugandans, who live 9,000 miles to the west.
suspect that if you visited the two regions, you would
eventually learn to distinguish the two groups with
fairly high accuracy. But it would take time.
(There are a few other groups whose appearance can fool
observers into misclassifying them. The
Nagas of Burma bear a surprising resemblance to
American Indians. And even the hyper-acute physical
Carleton Coon classified the aboriginal
Ainu of northern Japan as Caucasians, although
subsequent genetic research typically lumps them in with
other East Asians. Of course, less sophisticated viewers
frequently make classification mistakes, such as the
many Iraqis who have tried to speak Arabic to
So, if a Papuan and a Ugandan look similar enough to be
mistaken for each other by outside observers, are they
the same race?
Genealogically, they are radically different. Their
lineages diverged far back in prehistory and they have
had virtually no common ancestors for, perhaps, tens of
thousands of years. According to
L.L. Cavalli-Sforza`s landmark 1994 book The
History and Geography of Human Genes, the two
human groups most genetically dissimilar overall to
"Bantus," such as Central Africans, are "New
Guineans" and "Melanesians."
Instead, African-looking Papuans are actually more
racially similar to other
Papuan tribes that don`t look much like Africans at
Looks are skin deep. Race, in contrast, is
who your ancestors were.
Classifying people by their looks is simply a crude way
to approximate for what human beings are really
interested in: family trees.
Race is who your kin are. For example, when Iraqis
discover that Latino-American soldiers merely look kind
of like them but aren`t related, their feelings of
ethnocentric relationship disappear.
Why do people care so much about who is related to whom?
Hamilton`s logic showed, that`s toward whom they are
more nepotistic (i.e., altruistic).
racism are essentially the inevitable flip side of
nepotism. If people discriminate in favor of their
relatives, they are going to discriminate against their
refusing to think about this because it`s politically
incorrect, Dawkins is betraying the great Hamilton`s
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and