Last Day of Summer I

Yesterday was the last day of the first summer session. I taught a section of LBST 2213 (anthropology of science) and I had students reflect of the semester and write things on their boards that they found interesting or important. I wanted to share their boards with you (with a little exposition).

When the students write populations=race, they are referring to a statement made by John Terrell in his Scientific American article, “Plug and Play” Genetics, Racial Migrations and Human History

Once upon a time, these supposed collectives would have been called “races,” at least in some contexts. Most of us know nowadays, of course, that we need to avoid using this word for politically correct reasons, if for none other. Hence almost nobody nowadays, for example, would write about Polynesian speakers in the central and eastern Pacific as a race. Instead, they are usually referred to as a population.

This may sound better, but let’s be honest. Distinguishing between races and populations is effectively making a distinction without a difference. If this comes across as sounding crazy to you, then tell me this. What is a population? How can you tell whether you are “inside” a population or “outside” it? How many of them are there “out there” in the real world? How many did there used to be? More than today, or fewer? (Now substitute in these simple questions the word “race.” Doesn’t make much difference, right?)

They read this as one of three critiques of David Reich’s How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’. We discussed how the scientific definition of ‘race’ and ‘population’ are distinct, but as Terrell explains, when looking at humans, you can’t really operationalize the word since it collapses into the Sorites Paradox. By the way, if you haven’t read Terrell’s piece, do so now! It’s excellent. 

Now here are their boards:

3 Comments Add yours

  1. John Terrell says:

    Thanks, Adam. Terrific to hear my SciAm post was helpful.


    1. The students really enjoyed it. Other than Not in Our Genes, it may have been the most impactful piece they read all semester.


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