Monday, March 23, 2015

Razib Khan, race, and "human biodiversity"

I don't use the word "racist" lightly. Having been smeared in my Google results as a racist by a pack of Social Justice Warriors with Tumblr accounts - because I disagreed with one of them in 2011 on whether John Lennon and Yoko Ono were/are racists - I'm sensitive to the term being flagrantly misused.

I'm not racist because I think the concept of race itself is scientifically invalid. And you can tell it is because one of the leading proponents of race as a scientifically valid concept, Razib Khan, can't actually explain "race" in any but the most idiosyncratic and slippery of ways.

Although I am certainly aware of the ways that the variety of certain group differences have been used to justify horrific violence and exploitation and other forms of idiocy. "Race" exists as a social concept and that cannot be denied. What Razib Khan, Charles Murray and other proponents of sociobiology do is try to find scientific justifications for the use of the social, colloquial, non-scientific uses for "race" and the scientific justification of human social hierarchies based on "race."

A hallmark of the online opinings of Razib Khan is lack of clarity. Although I believe that this has worked in his favor, career-wise, at least until the NYTimes got a clue.

There is a web site devoted to human biodiversity and they include several links to Razib Khan's work in their Bibliography, including The race question: are bonobos human? in which Khan writes:
By this, I do not mean to imply that I support racism, or am personally against battling racism. When it comes to racists, broadly defined, I am not personally a great fan (as can be attested by my pattern of bans and rebukes). And when I say racism, I don’t just mean white people behaving badly. I mean people who express racial nationalist sentiments in a crude and crass manner, and are often inappropriately assertive about the righteousness of their views (e.g., a few commenters have complained that I, an Indian [yes, I’m not technically Indian], should not talk so much about Westerners. Of course I view myself a Westerner, but to a racialist this is simply not even wrong. Naturally this is a chasm in world-views which is not reconcilable.
And he even questions the concept of race, for a hot second, before the weasling begins:
So let’s move to the science. Do races exist in human biology? Is it a useful concept? That depends on criteria in both cases. The reality is that I’m not sure I know what a species is in an axiomatic sense, let alone race (many biologists don’t, that’s why there’s a whole area devoted to studying the issue of the definition). Rather, for me species are evaluated instrumentally. Is the classification of a set of individuals as a species useful in illuminating a specific biological question? Species are human constructions, categories which are mapped upon reality. That doesn’t make them without utility. Many of the same “where do you draw the line?” questions asked of race can be asked of species. In a deep ontological sense I don’t believe in species. But in a deep ontological sense I don’t accept the solidity of a brick (most of the volume is space of any object of course!).
He briefly touches on race, then shifts to species, then to philosophy. In one paragraph. And this guy apparently makes his living as a science writer.

He then goes on to discuss whether ethnic diversity is a gradient - he uses the term "clinal" - and seems to be arguing that it is necessary to force ethnically diverse populations into the buckets of "races", just as teachers must divide gradient test scores into distinct scores of A, B, C and F. Then he  demonstrates his fondness for referring to diverse ethnic populations producing children together as "hybridization." 
This is why I told some of Antrosio’s commenters to be careful about hitching their wagon to isolation-by-distance and clinal variation; there is some evidence that many of the world’s populations extant today are the product of relatively recent hybridizations between previous rather distinct groups.
And then he says:
The question ensues: are Sub-Saharan Africans several distinct races? Using evolutionary history as a measure I would say yes! This is definitely one area where social expectations have led us astray. It turns out that it may be that the Bushmen/non-Bushmen separation is only 1/3 as long ago in the past as the Neanderthal/modern human separation. In fact, the Bushmen may predate, and not be part of, the “Out of Africa” event. Along with the Pygmies and Hadza there seems to be a very ancient differentiation between the agriculturalist and hunter-gatherers in the African continent.
What is happening here is that Razib Khan has taken a term which he admits has no clear scientific meaning - race - but which has a very clear colloquial meaning, and decided to apply it to ethnic differences based on some vague "evolutionary history" and claim that as a scientific term.

In the case of people with dark skin who have ancestors most recently based in Africa, it is commonly understood that they are  one "race" and nobody outside of Razib Khan, that I am aware, consider Sub-Saharan Africans to be "several distinct races." 

So Razib Khan uses the term race in his own unique way. And it is such idiosyncratic obfuscation that has allowed him to almost end up a regular contributor of the New York Times - people writing for the Times are impressed by his charts and his use of STEM terms, and they don't actually concern themselves too much with what he is saying, or the miserably incoherent way he is saying it. 

And then he expresses his concern for racism against the Bushmen, as if racial prejudice is unique only to that group:
For me these details of history are fascinating. But going back to normative concerns: is there a worry that Bushmen will be dehumanized if it is understood that they are not part of the modern human expansion event circa ~80,000 years before the present? Unfortunately, I don’t think that science matters much in this case. The Bushmen have been dehumanized for hundreds of years. The Pygmy of Central Africa have also been dehumanized. All without science. An understanding of our evolutionary history is informative, but I doubt it is the prime motor for the great injustices of history. The 19th century race science which modern biologists and anthropologists revile (to a great extent, rightly) did not give rise to the race system of the West. Look at the history, and you see that its genesis predates Darwin by decades. Science may have been a supporting argument, but this was thesis looking for talking points.
So racism pre-dates science. Thanks for that newsflash, Razib. 

But now that Razib Khan has informed us that "race" means anything he says it means, he switches the subject back to species:
The Bushmen are human. The Bonobos are not. Why? I don’t think it has been definitively proven that modern humans and Bonobos are not inter-fertile. Granted, the separation between the Bonobos and humans are about two orders of magnitude greater than Bushmen and other humans, but there is some evidence that Bushmen have admixture from archaic lineages diverged nearly 1 million years into the past, pushing elements below a magnitude! Where do you draw the line? Species are a typological concept, but usually as a pure categorical typology the class is useless. Rather, it’s a tool, a framework. What you do with a tool, well, that’s a different thing altogether…. 

His argument seems to be that it's OK to use the word "race" in inexact ways because, he claims, speciation is also inexact.

In another essay of his Why race as a biological construct matters, in which he fails utterly to prove that race as a biological construct exists, let alone matters, he also mentions a "framework":
There is no Platonic sense where there are perfect categories with ideal uses. Rather, we muddle on, making usage of heuristics and frameworks which are serviceable for the moment. We lose our way when we ignore the multi-textured nature of the issues.
His use of "Platonic" is curious. He uses it again in American Racial Boundaries Are Quite Distinct (For Now):
It is entirely reasonable to argue that racial categories in the United States are blurred if one holds to a Platonic and essentialist view which resembles that which underpinned white racial supremacy and the law of hypdoescent. But as it is these views have no necessary scientific basis, and a percent or two of African ancestry in someone who is ~98 percent of European ancestry does not make them non-white in any rational sense. The 12 year old paper, Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease, has aged well in my opinion. A conclusion that 10 percent of whites in South Carolina are actually black because they have detectable African ancestry strikes me as crazy. But then, hypodescent also strikes me as somewhat crazy, though the rationale which drove it is also eminently understandable (i.e., the exclusion of illegitimate children and maintenance of a racial order). I hold that the racial lines are “blurred” only if you hold to the criteria which arose in the 17th and 18th centuries in the culture of the American South.
Khan seems to be saying (his prose is so lacking in clarity I can't say definitely) is that the NYTimes is the real racist, by saying that racial categories are blurred (in the article that he references earlier  White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still Murkier

Because they hold  to "to a Platonic and essentialist view which resembles that which underpinned white racial supremacy and the law of hypodescent."

In other words, by accepting the usual social understanding of "race" and then pointing out that the social understanding of race is not based on a clear biological distinction, the NYTimes is being "Platonic and essentialist" just like white supremacists!

This is what it says in that Times article:
In the United States, there is a long tradition of trying to draw sharp lines between ethnic groups, but our ancestry is a fluid and complex matter. In recent years geneticists have been uncovering new evidence about our shared heritage, and last week a team of scientists published the biggest genetic profile of the United States to date, based on a study of 160,000 people
But Khan is the king of slippery writing, either due to incompetence or on purpose, so you have to really tease out the meaning - or the lack of meaning - in everything he writes.

So Razib Khan doesn't consider "race" a tidy biological entity, but he considers racial classification a "tool" and a "framework." So how exactly does he propose to use that tool?

I will get to that soon.


  1. "In the case of people with dark skin who have ancestors most recently based in Africa, it is commonly understood that they are one "race" and nobody outside of Razib Khan, that I am aware, consider Sub-Saharan Africans to be "several distinct races." So Razib Khan uses the term race in his own unique way"

    Um, what? I assume this is a joke. No serious person that I know of, and I chat with people a lot about HBD, race, IQ and related issues, thinks 'all dark skinned persons from Africa' are one race. If this is your conception of race, then (to put it charitably) you're fairly ignorant of the modern findings regarding human evolution, and you'd do well to educate yourself.

  2. Thank you for making my point for me, that the sociobiology crowd lead by the likes of Razib Khan and Charles Murray, and of which you are apparently a member, believe so much in the concept of “race” as a scientific term that you deny the colloquial concept of “race” used by people outside of the socio-biology “biodiversity” bubble. No less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. consider all black people, whom he referred to as "Negroes" as a single race.

    And of course this understanding of the term race developed in the United States as part of the system of slavery, where a person's "race" was absolutely critical to a person's status in the social hierarchy.

    You sociobiologist types live in your own little reality, don't you?

    I will have more to say about this in a future blog post.

  3. Also, I frankly suspect that Razib's writing is unclear to you because you may not be able to understand it. It's perfectly clear to me (I'm a biologist, for what it's worth, though I don't study evolution or human biology). Race doesn't have a fixed and objective meaning, but then neither does 'species'. Both of them are tools that we use to divide up the spectrum of genetic and phenotypic variation in ways that we find useful. (There are ways to define a species, or a race, that are definitely *false*, but there are also multiple ways that might be valid). Like Ron Unz likes to say, race is a valid category in the same ways as 'hill' is a valid category, though neither of them have a clear and objective boundary.

  4. LOL - the old "you're too stupid to get sociobiology" bullshit. Spare me right-winger.

  5. "Right winger". LOL. I think that's the first time I've been called one of those. If you look me up (I'm a regular commenter at Dreher's blog) you'll find that I'm fairly close to being a Communist, and an enthusiast of the former Soviet Union. Though conservative on a few issues like abortion, gender roles, etc..

  6. Anonymous2:44 PM

    You are a genius, seriously. For several years, I would try to read Razib's writings because he sounded smart. I always gave him the benefit of the doubt, even though I could never see, exactly, what he was getting at. Thanks to your sharp intellect and extremely clear writing, now I know what he is all about and will no longer squander my time reading him. Many thanks again.

  7. Wow thank you - glad if I could be of assistance. And thanks for taking the time to read all my Razib content, Anonymous, it's very flattering. How did you first hear if Khan?

  8. Anonymous3:44 PM

    I used to regularly read Muslim bloggers. Some intelligent bloggers used to team up and contribute to sites such as Talk Islam and Eteraz. Razib would regularly comment there--that's how I heard of him. Like others, I was impressed with his erudition, but something always did seem a bit "off". I always thought the problem was my comprehension. Now it's clear to me that blogs served him perfectly, where he has the freedom to write imprecisely and play loose with science, history, philosophy, etc. escaping criticism by lay readers or, even, well-read people who second-guess themselves and don't have the patience to pin down exactly what he is saying, much less the skill to pen it all down in plain english as you have done.

  9. Gee, I've read both Khan and Murray and came away with nothing similar to Nancy's response. Of course Khan and Murray are scientists who practice their trade using the tools of science; testable ideas, focus on the natural world, relies on evidence, involves the greater scientific community, ideas lead to on-going research, and the rigorous application of statistical method.

    I would point the reader to the eponymous website for another kindred author-scientist.

    Nancy is . . . I don't know what Nancy is.

    1. Thanks for sharing random anonymous person your opinions mean so much to me.

    2. PS - Murray is a political scientist. And Khan is a political hack. Both are interested in how to use science to justify right wing political goals and biologize inequality in an attempt to make it appear "natural."

  10. Races obviously exist. You only need to travel from Uganda to Japan and you'll notice racial differences in appearance. And they actually need to be controlled for in genetic and medical research. For example, with genome wide association studies you need to control for race/populations because of systematic ancestral differences.

  11. Ethnic differences obviously exist. You need only travel from southern Italy to northern Ireland to notice ethnic differences.

    Yet Italians and Irish are both considered white. Clearly racists decide at random what characteristics represent a single “race.” Which is why Americans who have one white and one black parent are considered black, just like people in eastern Africa who come from families that have never left eastern Africa are considered black.

    “Race” is a non-scientific classification created and maintained by bigots and fools.