Saturday, June 03, 2006

A few weeks ago I finished reading Race (check out the four-star review from our friend Steve Sailer), a remarkable scholarly work by the distinguished British cytologist John Baker. Despite having been published over thirty years ago and showing its age in many places, I recommend it to all GNXPers. The book is out of print, but some used copies are available. Your local university library may also have it within the stacks. Baker was obviously a lion of learning; within the covers of this volume he covers an enormous swath of material, ranging from the chemical structure of muscone to the bearing of Nietzsche's writings on the "ethnic problem," with convincing depth and authority.

From the blurb by the Nobel-winning immunologist Sir Peter Medawar (who, at other times, criticized hereditarianism):

No book known to me tries to encompass everything relevant to the idea of race with such thoroughness, seriousness, and honesty ... The idea of race or raciality has been systematically depreciated for political or genuinely humanitarian reasons, and it was high time that someone wrote about race as Baker does, i.e., in the spirit of a one-man Royal Commission.

What follows is a selective summary of the book's contents. Those who have already read it (or who have expertise in the areas highlighted below) may chime in with their own assessments or with reports of recent results tending to support or disconfirm the book's arguments or factual basis.

  • Part I is a brief history of scientific and intellectual attitudes toward race, beginning with the origin stories of Genesis and ending with Hitler's views and "subsequent actions" which were to exert "such a profound effect on human thought" (p. 9). One particularly interesting passage concerns the comparisons of European and African skulls to those of several primates by the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper. I say "particularly interesting" because I have on more than one occasion seen Camper's work used to ridicule the alleged racist pseudoscience of past generations. In contrast, Baker's account leaves the impression that Camper followed an objective, transparent, and reproducible procedure.
  • Baker designates 1928 as "the close of the period in which both sides in the ethnic controversy were free to put forward their views, and authors who wished to do so could give objective accounts of the evidence pointing in each direction" (p. 61). From that point on, Baker argues, none within the Academy dared question the Axiom of Equality for fear of appearing to symphathize with the Nazis.
  • Part II provides background on biological material such as species concepts and the like. Dedicated GNXPers will probably skim or skip this material, as its premodern biological framework comes off as quaint and belabored.
  • In a chapter that should prove fascinating to those who share with me what Richard Lewontin has called a "vulgar curiosity," Baker discusses racial differences in body odor. As far as I can tell, his account seems to be in accord with recent literature (see also this Wiki article). At this point I will inject some personal observations. Many East Asians will admit that non-Asians do smell bad. However, desensitization to the stench of non-Asian glands comes readily to most Asian Americans, and only rarely would body odor become an issue in an otherwise intimate relationship between, say, a white and an Asian. But sometimes, somehow, a whiff will catch an East Asian off guard ... and phew ...
  • Part III is taken up by case studies of specific populations, each one selected to illustrate some larger point. For example, he uses Europeans to highlight those traits used by old-school physical anthropology to distinguish among different populations. Incidentally, Race gave me a somewhat bracing look into what appears to be a vanished discipline. I took a class in physical anthropology, and nowhere in the lectures or materials was there a hint of the apparently vast store of esoteric knowledge regarding human facial and skeletal anatomy and population difference thereof. Baker presents this material in such exhaustive detail that I wondered whether he knew that it was going out of style. Is it good or bad that this kind of thing has dropped out of physical anthropology (or at least the kind that gets served as a first helping to undergraduates)? I don't know.
  • Baker argues that aboriginal Australians retain more ancestral features than any other human population. As far as I can tell, his case is a plausible one. He points out that, relative to other populations, Australians exhibit thicker cranial bones, smaller brains, greater prognathism, larger teeth, and extreme forms of many other traits. Recall that aboriginal Australians have the smallest average brain size and next-to-lowest average IQ of the ten populations considered by Lynn in his most recent review.
  • Baker spends four chapters on "Negrids," considering in great depth the question as to whether Sub-Saharan Africans could have developed civilization without substantial external influence. (Baker's view is that such development occurred in Sumeria, Egypt, India, Hellas, and China.) His verdict is negative, although the coverage is so extensive that the dedicated reader can amass some evidence for a contrary view (e.g., a high level of skill in the fashioning of iron weapons). In reaching this conclusion, Baker relies heavily on the European explorers who were the first to give detailed ethnographic accounts of African peoples who had as yet minimal contact with the outside world. He employs a number of reasonable criteria for the selection for authorities, including scientific reputation, accuracy of accounts in non-anthropological aspects (geography, zoology, botany, and so on), and demonstrated absence of prejudice. I found these chapters to be the most interesting and informative.
  • Part IV is entitled "Criteria of superiority and inferiority." It begins with a whirlwind tour of classical psychometrics and the evidence for the heritability of IQ. This is the only topic of Race in which I have anything remotely resembling expertise, and despite some minor quibbles I found Baker's treatment to be outstanding. Baker proceeds to review some of the evidence available in 1974 (already fairly persuasive) that observed populations differences in mental test scores have some genetic basis. He points out that the racial rank order within the United States of East Asian = or > white > Native American > black present difficulties for a purely environmental hypothesis.
  • Baker cites the claims of Norwegian linguist Alf Sommerfelt that the language of aboriginal Australians is not as grammatically complex as those of other peoples. I found this to be somewhat perplexing, as it contradicts what little I have read regarding the ornate tree structures found in the utterances of all languages. Indeed, the late psychometrician John Carroll initially doubted a genetic basis for population differences in mental test scores precisely because of the grammatical complexity of all languages regardless of the measured IQs of their speakers. Informed readers are invited to comment.
  • The book closes with an interesting discussion of racial differences in the achivement of civilization. Twenty-one requirements are set out, most of which must be met by a society in order to qualify as a true civilization in Baker's view. An interesting case are the advanced societies indigenous to the New World. Baker expresses great admiration for Middle American accomplishments in mathematics, architecture, the calendar, and astronomy, but withholds unequivocal status as a civilization from Middle Americans because of their cannibalism, gross superstition, and failures to invent the wheel and full-fledged writing.