Race, science and The Bell Curve

Professor James Gouinlock's defense of The Bell Curve raises issues concerning race and racism in science. He argues that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's analysis of the relationship of IQ to differences in race, ethnicity and class is scientifically acceptable. Gouinlock applauds their diligence in compiling "an array of scientific studies that would boggle the mind..." and the care they have taken to "introduce all of the evidence -- both pro and con." He attacks critics of The Bell Curve who assert the author's failure to provide a general theory of why racial differences evolved fatally flaws their study. Gouinlock acknowledges Murray and Herrnstein's inability to explain the cause of racial differences, and in a surprisingly naive response, suggests that "science is not equal to that task." Does Gouinlock believe that there is a possibility of some dramatic scientific breakthrough in the future that will resolve the issue? As an anthropologist, I find his optimism remarkable. After 250 years in which race has been an object of intense study, and even with the advances in molecular biology in the last 40 years, race as a viable biological unit of study still eludes us.

For the last century, anthropologists have grappled with the problem of racial analysis with little success. The emerging view within anthropology is that race is of little value in understanding biological variability. Half of the biological anthropologists and 70 percent of the cultural anthropologists have abandoned the race concept. The Executive Board and the Section Assembly of the American Anthropological Association in 1994 passed a resolution that states in part "...differentiating species into biologically defined `races' has proven meaningless and unscientific as a way of explaining variation (whether in intelligence or other traits)..." As the philosopher N. W. Pirie notes, the answers to questions such as these are indispensable since:

"Some people think that the philosophy a scientist accepts is not of very much importance; his job is to observe the phenomena. This is a gross oversimplification and it involves the subsidiary hypothesis that all scientists are fully equipped with serendipity. A sensible philosophy controlled by a relevant set of concepts saves so much research time that it can nearly act as a substitute for genius... A scientist can have no more valuable skill than the ability to see whether the problem he is investigating exists and whether the concepts he is using are applicable."

The problematic use of race as a biological unit of study is evident from its history and use. The concept grew out of a folk taxonomy that accepted race as a product of special creation with differences divinely ordained. It was in this intellectual climate that the perceived purity and immutability of races originated. Behavioral features and differences in intellect were inextricably linked to race and were essential factors in the ranking of races. Since the time of Aristotle, scala naturae was a generally accepted concept in which all natural objects were arranged in a forward and upward progression. In the 18th century, the scala naturae became temporalized in the concept of "the Great Chain of Being," which perpetuated the same interpretation of race.

In the 1800s, the first "scientific" studies of race attempted to extract the behavioral features from the definition of race. However, racist interpretation remained. For example, the origin of racial variation was interpreted as degeneration of the original Caucasian race. As Caucasians moved into new regions, they were exposed to environmental and cultural elements that caused degeneration, eventually leading to the formation of new and inferior races. Degeneration explained the development of racial differences, and racial differences explained cultural development. Biology and behavior were used to gauge the degree of deterioration from the original race. Measures of intellect were an important part of these studies. The degree of facial prognathism, bumps of the skull as interpreted by phrenology, cranial index and cranial capacity, were used as measures of intelligence. IQ is just the latest in the list of "definitive" features that can be used to rank races.

Even the development of Darwinian evolution and the discovery of genetics failed to affect substantial change in how race was viewed. Race was incorporated into the evolutionary paradigm with little conceptual change and continued to be used to interpret the cause of the cultural and intellectual development of a group. Roger Lewin observes that, "...inequality of races -- with blacks on the bottom and whites on the top -- was explained away as the natural order of things: before 1859 as the product of `God's creation, and after 1859 as the product of natural selection."

There is ample evidence to show that social, political, economic and cultural factors mold racial classifications. In the United States, Marvin Harris describes the social practice of hypodescent by which an individual of "mixed racial heritage" is invariably placed into the race that is considered to belong to the lower socioeconomic group regardless of the extent of racial admixture. In its most base and vulgar form, a "drop of Negro blood" is all that is needed to determine an individual placement in a racial group. Because of hypodescent, the use of "African-Ameri-can" as a biological research category is suspect.

Racial classifications that are biologically meaningful are doomed to failure because of the extensive variation that is not neatly packaged in races. Richard Lewontin studied the distribution of 17 genetic systems in 168 populations dispersed among eight "races." Only 6.3 percent of human variation is accounted for by race. Individuals, not races, are the repository of genetic variability. Racial classifications are more a product of society than they are of biology.

Race has been defined as a breeding population that differs from other breeding populations on the basis of morphological traits and/or gene frequencies. By definition, since all human populations differ, all populations are races and every trait that distinguishes a population is a racial trait. To avoid this predicament, racial classifications merge populations that share traits or genes. Clustering populations with arbitrarily selected traits is the problem. The classifications vary with the classifier and the traits that he or she arbitrarily selects to group races.

I also am puzzled by the "rigor" that is implied in Gouinlock's support of The Bell Curve. Murray and Herrnstein's inappropriate use of race removes the work from a serious scientific study, as does their reliance on the flawed and patently racist studies of Phillipe Rushton and Richard Lynn. The financial support from the notorious Pioneer Fund places their work in the tradition of scientific racism. In the most recent issue of Scientific American, Leon J. Kamin exposes Richard Lynn's flawed analysis of the IQ that is used as support of the immutability of IQ in race and its immunity to environmental influence. He also suggests that Murray and Herrnstein's failure to distinguish the difference between correlation and causation would indicate a lack of scientific sophistication at best. John Boli in the Dec. 26 issue of Emory Report and Stephen J. Gould in the November 28th issue of The New Yorker expose their manipulation and presentation of data. What is disheartening is that many of the 400,000 readers of The Bell Curve will think that it is science rather than advocacy research, whose motto is, "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed."

George J. Armelagos is a professor in the Department of Anthropology.