Thursday, August 7, 2008

Race: The Reality of Human Differences (Introduction)

A few months ago, I bought a copy of Race: The Reality of Human Differences by Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele, but hadn't gotten around to reading it. I thought that before medical school gets too busy again, I could try something new for this blog: an in-depth book review. So, over the course of the next few weeks, I am going to read the book, and post a review of each chapter.

I'll set the stage by summarizing the preface. Vincent Sarich is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Frank Miele is a senior editor of Skeptic magazine. Before I bought the book, I thought it was conceived as a response to PBS's much-vaunted documentary called Race: The Power of an Illusion, which unsurprisingly supported the view that race is a mere "social construct." This turned out to be wrong: the authors say that the PBS documentary aired while they were preparing the final draft of the book. Nevertheless, they had sufficient time to note in the Preface that the book provides a neat rebuttal to the documentary.

The authors list the 10 points available on the PBS website which summarize the documentary. They are as follows:

1. Race is a modern idea.
2. Race has no genetic basis.
3. Human subspecies don't exist.
4. Skin color really is only skin deep.
5. Most variation is within, not between, "races."
6. Slavery predates race.
7. Race and freedom evolved together.
8. Race justified social inequalities as natural.
9. Race isn't biological, but racism is still real.
10. Colorblindness will not end racism.

To a race-realist, those ten points--and even more so, that they were presented to the American public as fact, with all the authority of the Public Broadcasting System behind them--are quite infuriating.

The authors then state that they:

disagree with each of these ten points--and that is a remarkable degree of disagreement, given that the first eight points are matters of fact. In Race: The Reality of Human Differences, we present the evidence we believe refutes the first eight points and explain why we reject points nine and ten, not only for economic but ethical reasons as well.

Along with these ten points, the authors include a reference to the chapters which refute each point.

Sarich and Miele have set before them a daunting task: to establish that, against the received wisdom of all the leaders and elites of our society, nearly all those who consider themselves educated people, including the scientific establishment itself, race is a valid biological concept. I would tend to assume that such a valid biological concept, by dint of its momentous import, must necessarily influence social policy. Sarich and Miele don't seem to think so. They say that they are "individualists" on matters of social policy, seemingly setting themselves up as proponents of a strict meritocracy. It remains to be seen how they will derive this principle from, or reconcile it with, their view of race.

Stay tuned for part 2, "Opening Statement: The Case for Race."


stephenhopewell said...

Great - I appreciate the introduction of useful books and will try to get hold of this to follow along.

Vanishing American said...

Hermes, it's interesting that Frank Miele -- who I think used to write for a Montana newspaper -- takes the position you describe.
I remember Miele wrote a number of pieces which I liked very much on subjects like illegal immigration and the 'death of the West' so I am surprised if he takes the 'race is a social construct' position.

Hermes said...

VA, Miele definitely doesn't take that position; the entire purpose of the book is to refute the "race is a social construct" idea. Based on what I can tell so far, though, Miele and Sarich both seem to be hardcore Darwinists, so they are unlikely to be particularly interested in preserving the West. They lay out their recommendations as to what we should do with this knowledge that race is real in the final chapter of the book, so eventually I will be discussing them in greater detail.

I did Google Frank Miele's name and find a Montana journalist, but I couldn't tell if it was the same Frank Miele.

Vanishing American said...

hermes - After I read your part 2, I gathered that I had initially misunderstood! Thanks for clarifying. The book sounds interesting.