Biology, Race, and “Orientalism”

Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978 and is highly influential, both in post-colonial studies and social theory. Said argues that through the construction of the ‘Orient’ (the East) and the other the ‘Occident’ (the West) defines itself. Western representations of the orient are merely a pseudo-intellectual endeavor of justifying and exalt its own existence instead of a sincere inquiry into the orient’s history and diversity. The Orient is conceptually homogenized and positioned as inferior to the culture and accomplishments of the West.

Said’s insights extend much farther than the relationship of the Orient to the Occident. The Orient, being real then, is not only knowable to Europeans but known. As Said summarizes Balfour:

England knows Egypt. Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self-governance; England confirms that by occupying Egypt; for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs… Egypt requires, indeed insists upon, British occupation (p. 34).

This quote stood out to me in my first reading of Orientalism and serves as the form for a contemporary critique of racial constructions within science. This holds true for early racial science, utilizing skull morphology, cranial measurements, and equivocations between “White”, and “civilized” and “superior”. Today, we can see this play out in human genetics and genomics.

The first example that comes to mind is David Reich’s latest book, Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, along with his op-ed in NYT. The reason being, I am teaching Summer courses and, in my Anthropology of Science course, I have the students read the op-ed and critiques of it and Reich’s book.

Science today is still mostly performed by White men and so the narratives produced by science are colored by the contexts of those identities. The reduction of Indigenous American alcoholism to genetics, as seen in National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, obfuscates the social causes for alcoholism. Instead of alcoholism as being the consequence of poverty, subjugation, history, and social integration, it becomes an intrinsic part of who Indigenous Americans are. The history of genocide and dehumanization thrust onto Indigenous American groups–perpetrated by Europeans–is free from blame in this narrative.

Arthur Jensen, Phillipe Rushton, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, Nicholas Wade, and on and on and on… so readily appeal to inferior alleles to explain racial class differences in the West. The argument goes that Black Americans make up a large portion of lower socioeconomic classes due to some failure of heredity instead of a history of subjugation, structural violence, and abject racism.

I’ve discussed blind biological determinism previously and that is not the purview of this piece. Instead, I am interested in this topic from a broader view. The two examples above are modes of a broader issue and this is the construction and conceptual domination of “minority” groups by White-dominated institutions.

I am not saying that all science is in the business of constructing racist narratives and reifying racist notions of non-White people. But there is a reason why Jon Marks wrote Is Science Racist?. Reich is simply another in a long history of constructing non-Whites as ontologically different from “White” (whatever that even means). Despite Reich’s more innocuous version of race-realism, he is still contributing outdated narratives of human diversity.

In fact, all of science uses narratives and narratives of human diversity and evolution can be employed for both conveying our current understanding of the topic and maintaining social power. Either way you split it, no narratives of human diversity are apolitical. By controlling the narratives, those in power can effectively control social beliefs, attitudes, and behavior concerning those the narratives are being constructed about.

Blaming alcoholism and socioeconomic class on genetics deflects responsibility away from those guilty of initiating the historical trajectory that has lead to the social landscape we see today. While I stop short of calling the the goal of the work, it is certainly a consequence of it. The same is true when evaluating how these narratives serve to maintain power relations.

Utilizing the form provided by Said:

Genomics knows Indigenous Americans, Blacks, etc. This is what genomics knows; genomics knows that they cannot have self-governance; genomics confirms that by defining Indigenous Americans, Blacks, etc.; for the these identities, they are what genomics has constructed and now governs… These identities require, indeed insist upon, genomic construction.

The construction of minority identities as being somewhat intrinsically defective through an appeal to their genetics. The construction of those genetics as different and inferior, maintains the status quo and justifies the social domination (or at minimum a paternalistic/patronizing relationship) and localizes the need for this relationship in the being of those groups.



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