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Letters to the Editor

Letter: Race does not cause cultural and social variation

Monday, October 19, 2015

To the Editor:

Your call for responses to M. Dzhali Maier’s ’17 Oct. 5 column “The white privilege of cows,” and your own editorial comment, have — rightly — focused on the issues of racism and free speech. First, I would like to say that Maier’s essay was “clear,” contrary to your opinion, and certainly doesn’t warrant rejection on that basis. Maier basically offers a theory of early development based on the domestication of animals. Examining the conjecture, Maier sees a relationship between the geographical location of domestication and phenotypical characteristics of homo sapiens. Connecting such characteristics to the notion of “race” has been a fruitless endeavor. To be sure, over the centuries attempts have been made to do so, but how these characteristics arose, as Maier points out, depended on the “luck” of adaptation during migration and isolation. We have no evidence that race (however badly defined) is a causal factor in explaining cultural and social variation. To the contrary, comparative data offer examples such as the hypothesis that domestication of animals was independently invented in Africa that void racist interpretations.

Second, I wish to applaud the Oct. 15 op-ed from Professors Ross Cheit, David Josephson, Glenn Loury, Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 and Luther Spoehr. Their comparison of difference between the administrations of Brown and Wesleyan University, however, does not mention the appalling similarity between the administration’s response and that of other universities. To give just one example, at Northwestern University, Professor Alice Dreger resigned her position in protest to the administration’s attempt to censor an essay that was to be published in a scientific journal. If the universities in this country don’t step up to their role as proponents of free speech and critical thought, who will?

Finally, I hope the Faculty Executive Committee, which I once chaired, will voice its condemnation of the way President Christina Paxson P’19 and other administrators responded to this issue.

Philip Leis, professor emeritus of anthropology

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  1. justastudent says:

    Well put. I wish we still had more sound people like you in charge at Brown.

  2. Race may very well not cause cultural and social variation, but sure is an indicator of it.

    And besides, from whence comes “cultural and social variation”? I don’t know, but if I were to hazard a guess, it comes from human desires reflected and manifested through available materials. All humans want the best for their children (for example), but the humans living in an environment that happens to have tamable animals, and happen to be willing and able to tame them, will manifest their desire through feeding their children animal milk, transporting them in animal- drawn wagons, and clothing them in animal hides.

    Likewise, perhaps there is an innate human desire to embellish oneself, or to show off social status. In Polynesia, these embellishments may take the form of carved coconut shells and seashells, while in Siberia, these embellishments may take the form of carved bone, mammoth ivory, or animal teeth. That is cultural and social variation. The desire may be innate, or even genetic (i.e. the base desire to obtain, exhibit, and utilize social rank, a desire seen in apes, wolves, and other animals as well as humans).

  3. Supporting Student says:

    Thank you Professor Leis!

  4. NaturalSelectionisReal says:

    “We have no evidence that race (however badly defined) is a causal factor in explaining cultural and social variation.”

    This is either an exercise in semantic obscurantism for the sake of political correctness, or pure anti-science, and neither speaks well of Leis. We have no evidence for evolution? Where exactly does culture and social variation come from, out of thin air from a hat?

  5. ShadrachSmith says:

    Geography is destiny, anthropologically speaking.

  6. Can the next article be about how genetics don’t affect appearance?

    Or how brains are either cosmic entities un-affected by heritage or that genes affect their development but they have no effect on behaviour?

    Honestly you just need an article denouncing that heredity can have any affect on a person whatsoever, because if it did that would be unfair and anti-egalitarian and thus is a scientific impossibility.

    After all anything that contradicts egalitarian presuppositions must be evil lies of the neonazis.

    • It’s about geography, you racist. People have genetic variation because they were geographically separated, then they developed different culture because they were geographically separated. This culture is completely uninfluenced by existing genetic variation because science science science racism is wrong

  7. northern_confederate says:

    Someone should tell the folks at 23 and me that genetically distinct population groups don’t exist, because they’re conning people out of their hard earned money by claiming that they can analyze your DNA to determine your ancestry.

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