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July 15, 2004

The Platonic Ideal and the Empirical Reality

When I was in high school I had a friend named Tom. He had red curly hair and was of average intelligence, I joked that his mom had been exposed to radiation when she was carrying him. We let him tag along on camping trips now and then because he was one of the guys who would let you rag on them and even beat on him just so you would like him. Tom and I weren't close, but I once had an interesting conversation with him.

To Tom, I was "black." This makes sense, my skin is brown, and West Asian Muslims and Europeans who came to Southern Asia often referred to the natives as "black." Nevertheless, one time Tom referred to a Cambodian girl we both knew as "black." She was somewhat lighter in complexion than I was, but her East Asian features seemed to be a sign that she wasn't black. But OK, she was brown, so perhaps that was close enough. Then one day, Tom referred to Patty Chen (last name changed, but close enough) as black. As you can tell, Patty Chen was Chinese. When I pointed this out to Tom, he agreed she was Chinese, "a Chinese-type-black."

What I'm trying to get across is in Tom's world there were two high level racial classifications: black and white. Or more properly, non-white and white. This is a common theme in American culture, shaped as it has been by the tension between the white majority and the black minority. This dichotomy continues to loom large, resulting in the The New York Times series "How Race Is Lived in America" only profiling black and white Americans, ignoring the 15% who don't easily fall into either category, or the ABC special "America in Black and White," as if that is the totality of America (in large parts of American Latinos or Asians are the dominant minority).

This sort of perpetuation of old models beyond the point where they are realistic is common. People reinterpret the world through their own lens, which is shaped by past experience. But specifically, the mode-of-thinking that I elaborate above is what I call the Platonic Ideal of Human Biodiversity (PIHBD) (what Steve Sailer might refer to as the "top-down" methodology). I contrast there is the Empirical Reality of Human Biodiversity (ERHBD). The two obviously merge into one another, but there are sharp differences which I think influence the type of discourse one might have on topics related to ethnicity.

Modern American society tends to accept PIHBD as the norm around which one formulates social policy stances, and the model to be falsified or confirmed. The reason for this is that PIHBD makes the "mental algebra" required of system building far easier than ERHBD, the latter is statistical, fuzzy, and not easy to translate into categorical assertions and definitive rules. Though the race-does-not-exist position tends to dominate the intellectual discouse, the PIHBD still sets the terms of the debate and is held implicitly to be the "alternative model."

PIHBD offers many things to everyone involved. To those who espouse racialized ideologies it gifts fertile possibilities to define the parameters for group cohesion in a clear and concise fashion. For example, scan the following assertions:

1) All Europeans are white, all non-Europeans are non-white.
2) A white individual has only white ancestors.
3) All people with a black ancestor are black.
4) Spanish surname indicates that you are a "person of color."
5) You are a Jew if your mother is Jewish.
6) You are member of Israel if your ancestor is Jacob.

And so on. PIHBD offers a good fit for legalistic inferences and formulations relating to group identification. But like so many idealized concepts, it does not always fit easily with the reality-out-there, but the will-to-believe of the human mind allows one to suspend disbelief and continue as if PIHBD holds. To exmplify:

One day in Calculus in high school I was shooting the shit with a friend of mine and the guy sitting in front of his. My friend happens to be half-Israeli Arab, though he takes after his Scottish-American mother in looks. The guy sitting in front of us was half Italian-American. The Italian-American fellow was olive skinned, with dark hair and dark eyes. My friend has medium brown hair and hazel eyes and a fair complexion. I am of course brown. The Italian-American noted that there were only two non-whites in the class, my friend and I. What I found ironic about this was that the Italian-American fellow was far darker than my "non-white" friend. But, it all makes sense in light of propositions 1 & 2, my friend has a father who is non-European, so he could not be white!

These sort of ideas also explain why Nelson Mandela accused the Americans of being negative toward Butros-Butros Ghali, a fair skinned Egyptian, because he was black. The ANC held that all non-whites were black, whether they be Coloured (mixed-race), Asian Indian or "Bantu"/African, in the battle against white supremacy. This was an typology that was very useful in the establishment of group cohesion of non-whites against whites. He extrapolated this typology world-wide, and so the invasion against Iraq was an invasion into a "black country" (accepting the contention that non-European must mean non-white).

I believe these sorts of typologies, outgrowths of PIHBD, are a manifestation of the modern world living in the shadow of European scientific racism. Though the values of scientific racism and European racial superiority are generally in disrepute, some of the typological methodologies continue to be held very strongly by many in the intellectual classes. For example, the hypodescent rule that ascribed black racial identity in the United States to all who had any black ancestry continues to be perpetuated by most blacks, and especially the black leadership, because it bolsters their numbers. The fact that the first Miss America who was black had light skin and green eyes was not of note, she was a credit to her race, while the first black woman to win an Oscar happened to be half-white, but again, was a credit to her race. Similarly, activists who rail against white hegemony continue to assume a manichaean dichotomy between whites and non-whites because it simplifies their inferences about what is "good" and "bad." Of course, in this they share common cause with white racialists and the common European racism of the early modern period.

PIHBD makes the formulation of broad brush paradigms very easy in concurrence. For example, this article that discusses color prejudice among South Asians seems to have as a background assumption the critical importance of racism, in particular, white racism, as an important factor in the formulation of fair skin preference in South Asia. This is common, white racism is a world-spanning influence that has shaped every culture on this planet, that is the reason that the Kama Sutra idealizes fair skinned women, why Inca emperors preferred fair skinned Amazonian princesses or that the Chinese valorized fair skinned women. Racial consciousness, ethnic xenophobia and the like are often attributed to white racism, because only whites seem to have an almost devilish tendency toward racism, as it is one of their fundamental attributes in the PIHBD typology of white vs. non-white. Whites are unlike non-whites because they are a separate "kind." PIHBD has to emphasize high walls between various kinds, explaining the attempts by early modern scientists to prove that mixed-race individuals were less fit, perhaps even infertile, because they were a degeneration of the idealized kinds (mullato ~ mule).

In contrast, the ERHBD isn't so easy to work with, it offers statistical, conditional and contextual models. ERHBD doesn't try to explain away variance in idealized kinds as there really aren't idealized kinds, just clusters of genetic tendencies and a topography that varies by dimension and component. It offers probabilistic answers rather than definitive ones, and so the implementation of group cohesion becomes fuzzier at edges, always undermining the idealized solidity of the whole. ERHBD is hard to articulate verbally because the panoply of continuous human variation is difficult to partion into discrete components that can be given particular names associated only with one particular kind. Without definitive & discrete answers it is far more difficult to impose manichaean moralities and expostulate systemic ideologies. Various traits are imperfectly correlated and the weighting given to each trait in determining a typology may be subjective. Rather than dictating conclusions, ERHBD is a utility, a tool for understand the world and a lens through which problems may be rendered more clear.

Though the clearest way we have for elucidating ERHBD today is genetic science, it is not the only way. I suspect that all humans have mental modules cued to pick up on differences, imprint from our parents and establish coalitional markers. ERHBD might be more difficult to articulate, but we use it everyday [1]! People are naturally group oriented, and so an element of "racism" or ethnocentrism is rather universal. This does not mean that one need a complex and systemic conception of PIHBD. For example, the pre-modern Chinese had strong opinions about barbarian peoples, and the strange physical appearence of Southeast Asians and Westerners seemed to elicit revulsion and bigotry in them. Nonetheless, the Confucian Mandarins of the early 20th century opposed the advance of "racial science" and a scientifically grounded PIHBD. They were not anti-racists, rather, they believed in the importance of cultural cultivation in the concept of human perfectibility. PIHBD was not necessary in their universe. Likewise, one can explain color consciousness and ethnic prejudice among non-whites by appealing to the universal tendency toward ERHBD triggered by the confluence of various mental faculties and environmental inputs. Additionally, the preference for light skin can be explained as a tendency to associate such coloration with youth, fertility and health, within the context of a given population (that is, women who are at the fairer end of a population range in coloration might have less testosterone in their system, are less likely to have given birth, etc.). Note that I qualified within the context of a given population, which means that universal generalizations may be more difficult. ERHBD is just a subset of human nature, rather than an abstraction thrown up in response to a particular intersection of variables in human history like PIHBD.


What one can take away from this is that PIHBD is ephemeral in context and time. As whites become less overwhelmingly dominant throughout the world the white vs. non-white dichotomy will slowly fade. PIHBD is a "social construction," though parts of it are rooted in reality it is a far too rigid edifice to survive the scrutiny of science.

The problem is that some seem to think that PIHBD is the only game in town, and this may be because PIHBD has done such a good job of pushing ERHBD out of the public square. Not only is PIHBD slick and geared toward public consumption, ERHBD can only muddy the waters in the crystal clear world of PIHBD, just like ERHBD interjects impurities into the world of reverse-PIHBD. The tendency to prioritize the abstract PIHBD over the more element ERHBD mimics a general human tendency, we give a lot of airtime to our abstract faculties even though our intuitive/instinctive ones are in the ultimate driver's seat.

The dichotomy between ERHBD and PIHBD explains the reality that individuals who follow universal color-bind religions are still racially conscious and often practice prejudice! Universal religious creeds can refute PIHBD, and certainly Christianity and Islam in the modern age have been aggressively recruited to combat racism and racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, individuals who are Christian and Muslim still retain basic human faculties for assigning group identities and a preference for "their own kind" (however they define it in the context of their environmental upbrining and the weighting they give to particular characters). Since these tendencies are somewhat natural in the typical human, one need not articulate them, and so the "fight against racism" tends to fall flat on this basic level (though a fight against institutional racism is a different creature).

Even God can not banish bigotry, though as individuals we may work to prevent it from becoming a central tent of law or social practice. Additionally, there is a wide variance between individuals on a whole host of traits, so the generalizations one makes from ERHBD must be treated cautiously, verbal injunctions and instructions often can not quantify grades of variance and deviation. Rather, laws and prescriptions often behave in a binary fashion. It is in the end a recapitulation of the is vs. ought conflation, the naturalistic fallacy. The general statistical trends may illuminate more than they instruct.

[1] The ability to conceive of and detect ERHBD was likely shaped in the EEA when groups were small and differences not large because of the narrow geographic scople of clans and bands. PIHBD doesn't have this problem and can be fitted easily to the modern world.

Posted by razib at 03:20 PM