In the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling Sapiens, he talks about race twice.
The first time occurs early in the book, when he’s discussing how sapiens came to be the last-surviving members of the Homo genus. The Replacement Theory (otherwise known as the “Out of Africa” Hypothesis) was for a long time dominant. It argued that as groups of Homo sapiens left Africa 70,000 years ago, moving into parts of modern-day Europe and Asia, they simply “replaced” Neanderthals, Denisovans and other early humans through some—as yet not entirely understood—combination of greater adaptability, intelligence and luck.
Then in 2010 came what Harari calls “political dynamite”. The results of a four-year project to map Neanderthal DNA were published and they revealed that the genetic information of a large number of Europeans was 1-4% Neanderthal. Why was this so explosive? It seemed to support another competing (and controversial) thesis as to the rise of sapiens: the Interbreeding Theory.
This contends that we didn’t all troop out of Africa at the same time or in multiple waves, but evolved separately and at different times. Crucially, it also claims that rather than replacing other early humans we mated with them. Further support to the Interbreeding Theory came when the Denisovan DNA preserved in a fossilized finger was mapped and showed that the DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians was 6% Denisovan.
The reason this is all of more than specialist interest—and has become so politically charged—is that it leaves open the possibility of biological differences between us. As Harari puts it, the Replacement Theory suggested that “all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible.” Do these new studies imply that those distinctions aren’t negligible, that race might really exist?
Harari doesn’t go so far as saying this. In fact, after the big Neanderthal reveal he rows back, arguing that sapiens and other early human species would have been so different as to make fertile intercourse “very rare”. And, lest we read to much into a fossilized finger, he adds this caveat: “Biological reality is not black and white. There are important grey areas.” It’s dangerous, in other words, to try and say definitively what biology tells us.
Later in Sapiens, Harari talks about race for the second time.
Now he mocks those white supremacists who give “pseudoscientific lectures concerning the biological differences between the races”. Race, like caste, is a “fiction” whose purpose is control, providing a narrative to prop up a given hierarchy and rendering threats to authority not just unsettling but unnatural.
There’s no biological (or logical) reason why certain groups—and whole populations—of Homo sapiens should feel justified in, and relish, the oppression of others. All we can do, Harari says, is to think less in terms of organic systems than in “events, circumstances, and power relations”. That is to say, get comfortable with the grey areas.
This is Harari talking with his historian’s hat on: the point of delving into the past is to uncover the power relations that influence how we still think today; the reasons that people infer personal characteristics from phenotypic traits (skin tone, hair type, eye colour) have less to do with genetic than social relations.
Not only is this argument noticeably at odds with Harari’s first mention of race, but his tone has shifted as well. In the first discussion, the context was biological; now it’s cultural and historical. Whereas previously he could entertain the possibility of race, he now rejects it out of hand. Why?
Though I’m sure Harari would hate the idea, I think there’s something he can’t resist in the language of 6% Denisovan, 4% Neanderthal. It chimes with that same part of our shared auditory imagination which has spent the past two hundred years alternately defining, reviling and fantasising about race.
In 1895, when the great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass passed away, The New York Times wondered if “it might not be altogether unreasonable to ask whether, with more white blood, he would not have been an even better and greater man than he was.” Douglass, the son of a slave and slave owner, sometimes referred to himself as mulatto (from the Spanish for mule), a term used as far back as the sixteenth century to describe those of mixed heritage—usually with a white and a black parent. For Douglass, this was a source of personal turmoil; for the New York Times it was a missed opportunity. Just imagine what a fully 100% white Douglass could have achieved! In the racial lexicon of the day they might have gone further and wished he had at least been a Hexadecaroon (one sixth black), an Octoroon (one eighth) or even a Quintroon (child of an Octoroon and a European, so one-sixteenth African).
These epithets do more than passively describe: they foster the illusion of pure whiteness set against a gradient of impure black. They also dispel the idea, passed down from the Greeks, that your character determines your fate; instead, it’s race that determines your character.
In the twentieth century, the focus on blood was replaced by a mix of evolutionary biology, physical anthropology and genetics. Despite greater cross-disciplinary research and evidence, the end result was much the same: a renewal of old ideas about the separateness and hierarchy of the races.
In 1962, Carleton Coon’s controversial Origin of the Races put forward the case for polygenism (associated with the Inbreeding Theory) in explicitly racial terms, arguing that Homo sapiens had evolved from Homo erectus “not once but five times”, so giving rise to five different races (or “subspecies”): Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid. He argued that Caucasoid Europeans developed 200,000 years before the Congoid Africans and so, technically speaking, were more evolved. This was well received by segregationists like Carleton Putnam (for some reason racists are often called Carleton), who didn’t need a great deal of convincing as to the superiority of the “white race”.
Despite the criticisms of Franz Boas and other cultural anthropologists—for whom the study of “race” was too vague and politicised to be of any use—people still talk like this. They talk like this not only when they say that white people are “hard-working” and black people “lazy”, but when they argue that “black people are more athletic” or Asians “good at science”. These statements reinforce a belief in the essential character of different races; they raise battlements and efface individuals.
The fact is that human genetic variation—the genetic difference between you and me, a complete stranger—is tiny. As Craig Venter, instrumental in sequencing the human genome in the 2000s, says: “there is no way to tell one ethnicity from another in the five Celera genomes.” This doesn’t mean to say that we’re all alike, but there are unlikely to be “inborn traits” that will tell you what someone is like before you meet them, before you talk to them.
The language of genetics—like the old language of blood—claims neutrality. But to avow race in genetic terms, however harmless it may seem, risks several things: the flattening of the historical experience of race (what it means to be “black” or “yellow” changes—is different now to how it was 50, 100 or 500 years ago); the denial of race as a political force and signifier of status; and, ultimately, the denial of the individual.
Obvious as it should be, you aren’t the expression of racially defined “inborn traits”. You aren’t your genes.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates says unequivocally that “race is the child of racism, not the father.” I think the psychic re-ordering this entails—the challenge—is going to take some time to sink in. Coates wants us to see race not as a static category but an active process arising from the desire for clarity, for order. This desire precedes and determines how we read race, the language we use to talk about it thus being inescapably racist.
Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, one of the first and most prominent population geneticists, has argued that though there are distinct genetic clusters ranging across different geographical regions, which provide a complex window into thousands of years of migration and interbreeding, we shouldn’t confuse these broad, overlapping populations with different races. Race is something separate and greyer and should be kept as part of a whole other more historico-cultural conversation.
But the other week, I got into an argument about Neanderthal genes with a friend. She’d read Harari’s book and its mention of those studies into Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA had convinced her that race might actually exist. Despite my protestations—I mentioned Coates, I mentioned Cavalli-Sforza’s distinction between genetically clustered populations and “race” as a cultural construct—she couldn’t help but see meaningful genetic differences as evidence of race.
It’s perfectly understandable to flinch at the idea of race being constructed. Race might be a “fiction”, but that doesn’t change how it’s experienced, and it won’t stop it from being deployed, in time-honoured fashion, to justify immiseration, incarceration and conquest. If race doesn’t exist, it only seems to make the senseless violence perpetrated in its name a whole lot more senseless.
Marginalised groups cling to the integrity of racial distinctions out of the fear that comes from having been threatened and oppressed, bought and sold. They cling to their identity in the hope of protection and preservation. In Indonesia, where half of my family is from, the Chinese population, since at least 1740, has been at various times vilified, isolated and attacked. Their shops have been seized, homes set alight and children mutilated. Yet they’ve always cleaved against the grain, resisting the pressure to blandly integrate. In the late 1960s, Suharto, having recently come to power in a military coup, forced Chinese Indonesians to adopt Indonesian-sounding names or lose possession of their businesses. Many did change their names but, since his fall, have switched back. The assertion of racial identity can provide a living record of those who died for it.
I think a similar feeling lay behind my friend’s reading of Harari—her wholehearted embrace of his speculations about Neanderthal DNA, the way she discounted his later line about race being a “fiction”. Her racial identity, though she wouldn’t have admitted to it, was something she wanted to believe in. I can sympathise with that. But the fight for your identity doesn’t need the buttress of biology.
In a sense, our argument could be put down to semantics, word-choice. But the words we use shape our attitudes. I don’t think by dropping the word “race” Chinese women in Indonesia or black kids in Baltimore will be any safer, but I can hope that by avoiding race terminology—and the gradient of purity it implies—we might all be a little bit more open and less afraid of each other. Whatever new discoveries are made in population genetics over the coming years it shouldn’t mean a regression to the old language of race.
We should be alive to the “circumstances and power relations” which condition the way we live—just look at the vast over-representation of black men in British prisons. Talk of “genetic characteristics” as a euphemism for race only sidetracks such conversations, leading us back down a blind and bloody alley.
Social groups have their own ways of doing things, are different. But at the same time we shouldn’t lose a sense that, seen from a certain perspective—what Schopenhauer calls “the eye of a being of incomparably longer life”, or maybe just that of the Genome Project—there is a shifting singleness that underwrites all animate life.