NYTimes.com Article: A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race
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A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race
October 8, 2002
By NICHOLAS WADE
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
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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