Folk taxonomy is not totally useless

raceQ8One of the issues that comes up over and over again is the assertion that folk racial categories are totally useless in terms of taxonomic utility. This is just plain false. Obviously “folk” anything is usually inferior to a scientific form of analysis, but often they are better than nothing. And so it is with folk racial categories. The dichotomy between white European and non-European in a racial sense is a rather new feature of Western history due to the peak of white supremacy ~1900 A.D. The division has persisted as paradigmatic in a particular type of Left-wing post-colonial type common on college campuses. But a rough & ready understanding of human populations as divided on a continental and ecological basis is as old as the ancient Egyptians, who perceived differences in populations in a color coded sense (e.g., they were red, West Asians were yellow, Nubians were black, etc.). The ancient Greeks were even sophisticated enough to distinguish the phenotypes of North and South Indians (the former rather like Egyptians, the latter more similar to Ethiopians except in the texture of their hair).

But I need not appeal to ancient history. In 2002 a group out of Stanford published Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. They plainly asserted:

A major discussion has arisen recently regarding optimal strategies for categorizing humans, especially in the United States, for the purpose of biomedical research, both etiologic and pharmaceutical. Clearly it is important to know whether particular individuals within the population are more susceptible to particular diseases or most likely to benefit from certain therapeutic interventions. The focus of the dialogue has been the relative merit of the concept of ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’, especially from the genetic perspective. For example, a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine [1] claimed that “race is biologically meaningless” and warned that “instruction in medical genetics should emphasize the fallacy of race as a scientific concept and the dangers inherent in practicing race-based medicine.” In support of this perspective, a recent article in Nature Genetics [2] purported to find that “commonly used ethnic labels are both insufficient and inaccurate representations of inferred genetic clusters.” Furthermore, a supporting editorial in the same issue [3] concluded that “population clusters identified by genotype analysis seem to be more informative than those identified by skin color or self-declaration of ‘race’.” These conclusions seem consistent with the claim that “there is no biological basis for ‘race'” [3] and that “the myth of major genetic differences across ‘races’ is nonetheless worth dismissing with genetic evidence” [4]. Of course, the use of the term “major” leaves the door open for possible differences but a priori limits any potential significance of such differences.

In our view, much of this discussion does not derive from an objective scientific perspective. This is understandable, given both historic and current inequities based on perceived racial or ethnic identities, both in the US and around the world, and the resulting sensitivities in such debates. Nonetheless, we demonstrate here that from both an objective and scientific (genetic and epidemiologic) perspective there is great validity in racial/ethnic self-categorizations, both from the research and public policy points of view.

The first author of the above paper was interviewed by Ta-Nehisi Coates last year.

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