Race is not about skin colour

A particularly silly article in New Scientist by Prof. Nina Jablonski holds that race is a matter of skin colour.

“By the early 19th century, darkly pigmented skin signified inferiority and the prospect of profit through slavery, and the possession of lightly pigmented or “white” skin became the norm from which others deviated. The domination of white Europeans over the darker races was “justified” because of the unshakeable but incorrect belief that skin colour was inextricably linked to morality, economy, aesthetics and language.”

Collective reinforcement

“The rise of social Darwinism in the late 19th century further reinforced the notion that the superiority of the white race was part of the natural order because certain “stocks” were more highly evolved and culturally superior because of their “fitness” and “adaptations”. The notion of colour had taken on full scientific trappings.”

Not really, and not that way.

Several observations:

  • Race is a fuzzy set. Races blend into one another seamlessly at their edges because we are one species: we interbreed. Yet any competent coroner or physical anthropologist can identify a skeleton as caucasian, negroid or mongoloid
  • Humans races have emerged in the last 30,000 years as we spread across the planet from our origins in Africa. High levels of dispersion and isolation of population sets were ideal for the rapid evolution of genetic differences, which when people do not have the opportunity to interbreed much, turn into what we call races, nations and tribes.
  • Evolution is continuing. The last 10,000 years have seen the development of blue eyes, lactose tolerance three times in three ways (caucasian, african and mongoloid) among cattle-driving peoples, and higher intelligence. There is no reason to suppose that evolution has stopped for any reason. Think for a moment of how disease resistance has to keep up with new variations of viruses and germs.

As to the 19th century and its ideologies, the learned professor has it backward. Notions of racial inferiority sprang up because Africans had no ability to resist slavers, whether Arabic or European. It had nothing to do with skin colour and still does not. Does anyone seriously confuse a black-skinned Tamil with a black-skinned African? If European and African slavers had met helicopter gunships as they approached the coasts of Africa, or even competent naval forces with then contemporary technologies – muzzle-loading cannon and three-decker sailing ships, the story of Africa would have been utterly different.

You can subscribe to any hypothesis you like about why African peoples were so far behind in political and technical organization. You can subscribe to Jared Diamond’s  Guns Germs and Steel viewpoint, that it has nothing to do with race and culture, and everything to do with geography and climate. You can subscribe to the strongly geneticist viewpoint of Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen that it has everything to do with inequalities of intelligence. Read both books.  You will be enriched by each of them.

But one thing you cannot say is that race is about skin colour. It is about observed behaviour.

And a final thought. The Island of Madagascar lies a few hundred miles off the coast of Mozambique. It was colonized by people from Borneo, thousands of miles away from Africa. The languages of Madagascar is non-African, as are the people. A French cynic once said to me, “the people of Africa sat by the sea for ten thousand years and never built a boat to cross it.” The world would have been a lot more equal if they had done so.