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NYTimes.com Article: A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race

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  • ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us
    This article from NYTimes.com has been sent to you by ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us. A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race October 8, 2002 By
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 22, 2002
      This article from NYTimes.com
      has been sent to you by ann.popplestone@....

      A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race

      October 8, 2002

      Two physical anthropologists have reanalyzed data gathered
      by Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, and
      report that he erred in saying environment influenced human
      head shape. Boas's data, the two scientists say, show
      almost no such effect.

      The reanalysis bears on whether craniometrics, the
      measurement of skull shape, can validly identify ethnic
      origin. As such, it may prompt a re-evaluation of the
      definition of human races and of ancient skulls like that
      of Kennewick Man.

      "I have used Boas's study to fight what I guess could be
      considered racist approaches to anthropology," said Dr.
      David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American
      Museum of Natural History in New York. "I have to say I am
      shocked at the findings."

      Forensic anthropologists believe that by taking some 90
      measurements of a skull they can correctly assign its
      owner's continent of origin - broadly speaking, its race,
      though many anthropologists prefer not to use that term -
      with 80 percent accuracy.

      Opponents of the technique, who cite Boas's data, say the
      technique is useless, in part because environmental
      influences, like nutrition or the chewiness of food, would
      overwhelm genetic effects.

      Boas measured the heads of 13,000 European-born immigrants
      and their American-born children in 1909 and 1910 and
      reported striking effects on cranial form, depending on the
      length of exposure to the American environment.

      But in re-examining his published data, Dr. Corey S. Sparks
      of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Richard L. Jantz
      of the University of Tennessee find that the effects of the
      new environment were "insignificant" and that the
      differences between parents and children and between
      European- and American-born children were "negligible in
      comparison to the differentiation between ethnic groups,"
      they are reporting today in The Proceedings of the National
      Academy of Sciences.

      The groups that Boas studied were Bohemians, Hungarians,
      central Italians, Jews, Poles, Sicilians and Scots. As to
      why he drew the wrong conclusion, Drs. Sparks and Jantz
      note that he was much involved in disputing contemporary
      belief that many different racial types could be reliably

      Boas's motives, they write, "could have been entwined in
      his view that the racist and typological nature of early
      anthropology should end, and his argument for dramatic
      changes in head form would provide evidence sufficient to
      cull the typological thinking."

      Dr. Jantz said that Boas "was intent on showing that the
      scientific racism of the day had no basis, but he did have
      to shade his data some to make it work that way."

      "Corey and I," Dr. Jantz said, "certainly aren't arguing
      that scientific racism is something you should go back to.
      But that doesn't mean cranial morphology is meaningless,

      The new report raises the issue of whether an earlier
      generation's efforts to play down the role of genetics in
      fields like behavior and racial variation may not have been
      carried to extremes. Dr. Steven Pinker, who assigns a
      larger role to genetics in shaping behavior in his new
      book, "The Blank Slate," said it was not Boas but his
      disciples, including the anthropologists Ruth Benedict,
      Margaret Mead and Ashley Montagu, who "helped establish the
      blank-slate, social-constructionist, antibiology mindset of
      the social sciences."

      Dr. Thomas said that "once we anthropologists said race
      doesn't exist, we have ignored it since then." In that
      context, the reanalysis of Boas's data "really does have
      far-reaching ramifications," he said.

      One is the question whether present day races existed as
      such in the past, an issue brought up by the discovery of
      Kennewick Man. The skeleton, including a Caucasoid-looking
      skull 9,000 years old, was found by a Columbia River bank
      in Washington. Indians and their supporters contend that
      the skull differs from present day Indians because of
      environmental changes. Scientists who want to study the
      skull, instead of handing it over for reburial, said it was
      evidence that other ancestral groups had reached North
      America besides the Central Asians whom Indians most
      closely resemble.

      In "Skull Wars," his recent book on Kennewick Man, Dr.
      Thomas argued that it was bad science to introduce racial
      concepts like "Caucasoid" in the context of people who
      lived 9,000 years ago, because environmental factors would
      have extensively changed body shape since then. Scientists
      on the other side, who included Dr. Jantz, "took a lot of
      heat in saying they could project racial classifications
      back in time," Dr. Thomas said.

      Because no DNA was extracted from the Kennewick bones,
      craniometrics is the only way to learn about his
      population, Dr. Sparks said. By that measure, the skull
      most closely resembles those of the Ainu, the original
      inhabitants of Japan who now live in the country's most
      northern islands. Boas's immigrant data, Dr. Sparks said,
      "has been the burr in our bed for 90 years for people who
      tried to study population history using cranial data."

      "I would love to see this wrong," Dr. Thomas said. "But I
      don't see any holes in the study."

      But Dr. Alan H. Goodman, a biological anthropologist at
      Hampshire College, said that the authors were setting up a
      straw man by "purporting to show that Boas was a rampant
      environmentalist, when in fact he wasn't."


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