Alondra Oubré August 17, 2000

Response to:

When Scott Winokur wrote that I am a "...believer in biological determinism", he may as well have said that the members of the Anti-Defamation League are Holocaust deniers. For years, I have protested biological determinism, particularly in its most insidious form of modern racial science.

For the record, I am a biocultural anthropologist -- a scientist who, though grounded in human biology, ultimately attributes ethnic differences in intelligence and behavior to culture. While I share some of the perspectives of other pro-environmental researchers addressing the race-genes-IQ-and-behavior debate, I depart from many of them in one fundamental way. I think that we have an obligation to evaluate modern racial science on its own turf.

In other words, we have to do more than simply reiterate well-known (and often well-founded) environmental explanations for perceived ethnic differences in intelligence and social behaviors -- including provocative behaviors such as violence, crime, parenting, family structure, academic achievement, and economic success. If we are to deconstruct the increasingly sophisticated arguments of today's racialists, then we must base our deconstructions, partly at least, on hard-core evidence from human genetics, the brain sciences, and Darwinian evolutionary biology.

This is the approach that I have taken in my forthcoming book, RACE, GENES, AND ABILITY: RETHINKING ETHNIC DIFFERENCES (BTI Press, 2001). Now why in the midst of a political climate that fosters the notion of inborn racial equality would I dare to take on such a contentious issue? Because, as I point out, " ignore racial science is only to drive it further underground. It deserves public attention because on first inspection, some individuals think that it makes sense (despite what they may publicly profess to believe). Whether we like it or not, America's national ethos is intimately intertwined with a legacy of racialism -- the notion that human races are so inherently different in their physical, mental, and behavioral capacities that they can be ranked on a hierarchy from inferior to superior.”

Some blacks and some white liberals may be uncomfortable with such pursuit of "scientific truth". They may fear, and understandably so, that it will open a Pandora's Box. And while some progressives may think that bringing this discussion out in the open will unleash new justifications for racism, I do not. As I have said repeatedly, as long as experts conduct their studies with integrity and interpret their research findings with prudence, we will never lose sight of the potent impact of social and cultural forces on human behavior.

Many scientists have shown that developmental biology and not inborn racial genetics best explains perceived ethnic differences in cognition and behavior. This is significant. Developmental biology (for example, the soft wiring of the brain) in turn is influenced by a host of environmental forces, including nutrition, mental stimulation in early childhood, economic well being, and environmental toxins.

Regarding Jon Entine's book, Taboo, as I told Mr. Winokur, there are indeed sufficient research findings to theoretically make a case for inborn population (racial) differences in athletic ability. However, as I also mentioned, at this point in time, these links are still hypothetical and not yet proven.

True, claims about innate race-based differences in sports success potentially could pave the way for the rise of 21st century scientific racialism. And yet, how we as a society handle the question of race-based abilities in athletic skills may set the stage for how we either embrace or eschew myriad new findings about race and genetics from the Human Genome Project. For better or worse, the racial genetics of athletic capacity seems to be nestled between two polarized camps.

On the one hand, there is population biology, an esteemed area of research usually considered "good" race-based science (the kind, for instance, that could yield medical breakthroughs -- cures for diseases such as prostate cancer). And on the other hand, there is racial science -- a fringe field reminiscent of Nazi German efforts intent on proving racial superiority and inferiority.

We cannot wish away "racial" differences in certain physical and disease-related genetic traits. And we will not abolish racism by pretending that there are no genetic differences between those very fuzzy sets we call human races. Whether we like it or not, the controversy over racial science is unlikely to fade in the foreseeable future. By deliberately and, I believe, responsibly opening a Pandora's Box that most liberals typically avoid, Jon Entine's Taboo has forced us to raise the standards of data-driven research that fuels this ongoing controversy.

After years of weighing the evidence, I have concluded that the small number of genes that actually differs among human races does not ultimately affect the ever-important traits that define our common humanity, especially intelligence and social behavior. Race-realists, of course, disagree. How this debate unfolds in the coming years will be determined by the scientific valence of each side's position.

Lay folk may care little about the distinctions between developmental biology and genetics. But all of us (well, most of us) are concerned about the consequences of human genetics research -- whether for improved health care or for a sane society in which diverse ethnic groups can coexist with minimal tension. How we think about the underlying causes of our diversity -- are they learned, cultural differences or are they inborn traits? – will have a lot to do with American society's history-in-the-making over the next several decades.

"If we do not tackle racial science, then we will remain forever accused of never having addressed the empirical evidence that racialists insist supports their claims." Surely, for this reason, invoking the language of biology to argue against racial science does not make one a biological determinist.

Alondra Oubré

Los Angeles County, California