The claim that there is no such thing as race is understandable but wrong. We should recognise both the genetic reality of race and the uniquely human ability to transcend itby Mark Pagel / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate
by Kenan Malik (Oneworld, £18.99)
Trust: Self-interest and the Common Good
by Marek Kohn (OUP, £10.99)
The Great Hall at the University of Reading is a lively piece of Victoriana: a broad neo-Romanesque structure suggestive of a nave, with a concave arched ceiling of gilt-edged rectangular sections painted a pastel green and decorated with rosettes.
The uniformity of its architectural style contrasts with the people I can see under its roof. Perhaps 200 students are at work here, and my guess, from their faces, is that between them they could trace their ancestry to Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the far east and perhaps the Indian subcontinent.
These observations collide with Kenan Malik’s insistence in his new book, Strange Fruit, that there is no such thing as race: that it is nothing more than a social construct, having little to do with biology. It is true that the history of racial thinking is mostly an odious embarrassment. And using the idea of race as an assertion of abrupt or clear genetic boundaries between peoples is wrong. All of humanity shares the same genes, and we can all happily and successfully interbreed. And, contrary to the pronouncements of some well-known public figures, there is no evidence that human groups differ in the genetic factors that cause intelligence or even cognitive abilities in general. But we mustn’t take this to mean that there are no differences among us. Variants of our shared genes do differ among human groups. If my ancestors were from the far east, I would have the epicanthal fold of skin above my eyes so distinctive of peoples from that region. Were I able to trace my ancestry to the Ethiopian highlands, it is likely that I would have a wiry frame and sinewy muscles. And were my ancestors from the Tibetan plateau, it is likely that my body shape would be good at conserving heat. I could go on; and the list could contain far more than morphological characters—just think, for example, of who carries genes to protect against malaria or to digest milk proteins as adults.