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Race and Biology: Skeptical Inquirer Surveys a Scientific Minefield

February 10, 2016

The scientific study of biological race is riddled with controversy, both academic and political, such that the topic can seem untouchable. But what scientific truth might there be, if any, to the concept of race, which many experts deem a purely social construct? The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer wades deep into the debate, with the arguments for and against the idea of race, and what might lie in-between.

Skeptical Inquirer columnist Kenneth W. Krause surveys the latest and most fervently debated literature on the subject of biological race, revealing a heated divide between scientists across disciplines. He focuses the arguments in favor of the concept of race as a genetic phenomenon on the arguments of science journalist Nicholas Wade, who posits that modern industrial society is the result of racial differences, as the evolved behaviors of Westerners made possible the discipline and mutual trust required to allow an industrial society to emerge, whereas, Krause explains Wade believes, “sub-Saharan Africans, for example, though well-adapted to their unique environmental circumstances, generally never evolved traits necessary to move beyond tribalism.”

Suffice it to say, this view is not widely accepted and has been pilloried by several scientists. Wade’s critics say he ignores the influence of culture and the impact of immigration, reveals his own bias toward folklore-based conceptions of race, and that, most damningly, the scientific evidence simply doesn’t support his position. As biological anthropologist Greg Laden has written, “There is simply not an accepted list of alleles that account for behavioral variation.”

Krause also shows that a new angle on human variation may be closer to the truth, that of “ecotypes,” as advanced by evolutionary biologists Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan, Krause notes that given this understanding of race, “we might be wise to avoid the term race altogether.”

Also in this issue: Stuart Vyse takes a critical look at gun ownership and the difference between feeling safe and being safe; Daniel Vogel explores how even skeptics’ minds are vulnerable to bias and distorted perceptions; Massimo Polidoro reflects on the modern fascination with Mary Magdalene; and so much more.

The March/April 2016 edition of Skeptical Inquirer is available on newsstands, in the Apple App Store, or on Pocketmags for Android, Amazon, and other platforms. For more information, visit http://www.csicop.org/si.