History This Week – No.21/2010
By Dr. Christopher Carrico
We know that Guyana is a land of ‘six races’ – Amerindian, African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, and European. These categories make cultural sense to Guyanese, but the idea that there are six distinct races of human beings in Guyana has no scientific grounding.
What anthropologist Audrey Smedley called the racial worldview is the notion that there are fixed, discrete biological races within the human species that are innately different and unequal in inheritable physical, mental, moral and behavioural terms. Races seem ‘natural’ to those socialised to see them, but race has not been a part of human culture for most of our existence as a species. Modern notions of race only emerged as a folk concept during the seventeenth century, and as a scientific concept during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the late twentieth century, the component parts of the racial worldview had been disproven by science, but the social and cultural reality of race persists long after it has been discredited as a biological concept.
RACE: A BRIEF HISTORY
The notion of the inheritability of unequal social status is an ancient one, but it is the justification of inequality with the idea of biological inheritability which makes the racial worldview unique. Precursors to the racial worldview could be seen in Western Europe before the colonization of the Americas, but it was really the European colonization of the Americas, with its extermination and dispossession of Amerindians, and its enslavement of Africans, that made the ideological work of the racial worldview necessary.
All of the European colonial powers exhibited extreme forms of ethnocentrism during their conquest of the Americas. The Spanish, for instance, spent considerable time debating whether Amerindians were even human. Then, once their humanity was generally agreed upon, the Spanish continued to debate which Amerindians were savages and cannibals, and which were civilized.
It was, however, British colonists in the Americas that first fully developed a folk notion of race, as they sought to solve their labour problems in the Caribbean and in parts of North America, with the use of enslaved African labourers. The British were neither the first to enslave Africans, nor the first to bring them to labour on plantations in the Americas, but they were the first to develop ideas about enslaved Africans that almost completely stripped them of their humanity.
Writing of seventeenth and eighteenth century British North America, historian Gary Nash wrote that there was ‘a psychological compulsion to dehumanize slaves by taking from them the rights that connoted their humanity. It was far easier to rationalize the merciless exploitation of those who had been defined by law as something less than human’. Similar processes were underway in the British Caribbean, and the work of Hilary Beckles and other Caribbean historians indicates that West Indian planters were a few decades ahead of their British North American counterparts in defining their black slaves as ‘less than human.’
Some scholars suggest that the reason the English developed the folk idea of race in its crudest form is that England was the first truly capitalist society. On the one hand, capitalism’s search for ever greater profits demanded an ever greater exploitation of labour and theft of land and resources. On the other hand, English society, at least from the seventeenth century onward, also developed an elaborate rhetoric of equality that contradicted the extremely unequal social conditions that it brought into existence.
Ellen Wood, in Empire of Capital writes: ‘at a time when even ideologues of empire like John Locke were declaring that men were by nature free and equal, slaves had to be placed outside of the normal universe of natural freedom and equality to justify their permanent subordination.’ If a society can declare that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ and at the same time be based on slavery, then slaves, both men and women, had to be categorized as less than human – somehow not quite “Men”.
In another irony, it is during the period that European historians refer to as ‘the Enlightenment’ that the folk concept of race came to be elevated to the status of high culture. European scholars articulated a notion of race that was supposedly supported by the science of biology. The dominant European notion of human descent prior to the Enlightenment came from the book of Genesis, and was based on a single origin of all humans from Adam and Eve. The earliest scientific notions of race still adhered to this single-descent Biblical account, but argued that humans became differentiated due to the effects of different environments. Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus (whose notions of genus and species remain central organizing concepts in biology to this day) classified the human species as having several varieties. Among them were Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus – or Amerindians, East Asians, black Africans and white Europeans. While all of these seem like natural categories to us today, Linnaeus also included ‘wild men’ homo ferus, and ‘monstrous’ races such as troglodytes, dwarves and pygmies – categories that do not seem as ‘scientific’ today as the other categories.
While the Enlightenment gave us the foundations of scientific racism, during the nineteenth century slavery increasingly came under attack by abolitionists, and in the Caribbean especially, was increasingly destabilized by slave resistance, uprisings and rebellions inspired by the successful revolution in Haiti. In response to attacks on racial institutions, nineteenth century racists elaborated scientific racism in increasingly grotesque forms, a trend that continued even after the legal abolition of slavery in the U.S. and in European colonies.
Scientific racism reached its zenith in the Nazi German state, with its attempt to purify the ‘Aryan’ race. All of the racist pseudo-science that developed during the prior centuries was applied with cold, technocratic efficiency during the genocide by the Nazi state of perhaps as many as 17 million ‘inferior’ people. These included above all, Ashkenazi Jews, but also Slavs (mainly prisoners of war from Poland and Russia), Communists and their sympathizers, the Romani (Gypsies), and many others who were supposedly inferior in some biologically inheritable way: like homosexuals, drug addicts, the mentally retarded, the insane, and artists that created what the Nazi state considered to be ‘degenerate’ art.
ONE RACE: THE HUMAN RACE
During the last hundred years, a consensus emerged among human biologists that race is not a useful biological concept when applied to the human species. Race in a biological sense refers to a population that is genetically distinct, and genetically isolated enough to remain distinct. Nothing like race in this biological sense can be said to exist among modern humans. Based on anatomy, physiology, and intelligence testing, scientists such as psychologist Alfred Binet and anthropologist Franz Boas began arguing over a hundred years ago that it is impossible to divide the human species into discrete, fixed races with distinct physical and/or mental characteristics.
In 1911, Boas outlined some ideas that later became axiomatic in anthropology. (1) there are no ‘pure’ races, (2) races are not permanent and fixed, but rather always changing as a result of environment, mutation, and natural selection, (3) ‘the average differences in physical traits between races is small in contrast to the great overlapping of range and duplication of types among them’, (4) there is no evidence that any race is ‘incapable of participating in any culture or even of creating it’, (5) race, language and culture do not correspond to one another, (6) the supposed ‘primitiveness’ of some groups is not due to their racial inferiority, but rather is a result of their specific cultural histories.
During the years 1930-1950, population genetics became established as a science. Some people initially believed that ‘races’ could be studied by an analysis of the frequencies of various genes in different populations. The problem with this idea is that gene frequencies do not map very well onto traditionally defined ‘races.’ Furthermore, few genes map in the same way; the distribution of each gene is different.
Particularly since the 1980s, the science of genetics has increasingly validated the anti-racist position taken by pioneers like Boas years ago. Over 99.9% of our genetic material is identical in all human beings. 85% of all genetic variation occurs within populations, not between them. We are all very much the same genetically, and how we differ usually has nothing to do with our ‘race.’ Populations interact with and adapt to their environment by gradual physiological changes.’ Many variations can be explained as a result of adaptation to particular environments. There are no fixed and unchanging races. Furthermore, traits vary gradually across geographic space, which means that there are no distinct and separate races.
As I wrote last week, all of the things that make us human were characteristics first developed during our shared pre-history in Sub-Saharan Africa. These traits are universal in the human species, and are shared by all living humans. Conversely, the characteristics that are used to categorize us by race, like differences in skin colour, hair texture, or shape of a person’s eyes, are superficial physical characteristics that have very little bearing on a person’s overall genetic make-up.
However, while race does not have any biological reality, race does have a very powerful social and cultural reality. As we all continue to be racially categorized in the societies that we live in, race is real because it has real effects on all of our lives.