Yes, Race Really Is Socially Constructed

The scientific concept of race defines “race” as genetic differences among groups that result in different cultural expressions. This is how those who began studying race in the 19th century understood race. Thus, the very concept of race stands or falls on whether or not cultural differences are a consequence of genetic differences.

We now know for a fact that cultural differences have nothing whatsoever to do with genetic differences. Rather, cultural differences are mere variations on a set of universal behaviors shared by all humans everywhere. We have, according to E. O. Wilson (actually, George P. Murdock, whom Wilson is quoting), identified at least sixty-seven cultural universals so far:

age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving. (Wilson, On Human Nature, 160)

Each of these, in various forms, can be found in every culture, throughout history. In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter to the list of sixty-seven. And in The Culture of Hope, and in Beauty, he gives a list of what he calls neurocharms (208–210), many of which could also be considered cultural universals, since they are found in every human culture. Many of these, such as narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and pattern recognition can be found in other animals, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and birds. Others, such as giving meaning to certain color combinations, divination, hypothesis, metaphysical synthesis, collecting, metaphor, syntactical organization, gymnastics, the martial arts, mapping, the capacity for geometry and ideography, poetic meter, cuisine, and massage (which would be a development of mammalian and primate grooming rituals, which humans also engage in, as any couple can tell you), are uniquely human.

The existence of these instincts has some implications for art and literature. When Turner points out that both humans and animals ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (9), it is as though he was equally pointing out all the themes one would expect to find in a great novel, play, or epic poem, and which very well may be a list of the themes of all the great works of literature. Turner himself points out that considering all of the cultural universals make it “tempting to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and thematizes” (26), since “it is the function of [literature] to preserve, integrate and continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon [of cultural universals], while using it to construct coherent world-hypotheses” (26).

In a more directly evolutionary sense we may wonder where these universals came from. How did these specific strange attractors — rules of human actions — arise to generate all of the world’s various cultures? And are they universal? And would these universals not restrict human action, giving us less freedom (do they not argue for our behaviors being determined)? Every culture in the world, throughout all of human history, has had religion. Does this restrict the expression of any culture or individual? Hardly. It has led to a very large number of expressions. The forms of religion have varied: various monotheisms, polytheisms, pantheisms, nature religions, the promises of various utopias, earthly and transcendent, not to mention individual interpretations of each religion, showing how much variety one can get in unity. I will deal with more specific issues of religion in a later chapter, but let me suffice it to say that even atheists have found religions to replace the transcendental ones: Marxism, Freudianism, etc. People like Sartre have given up Christianity only to embrace the secular religion of Marxism. One would be hard pressed to find a single individual who did not have faith in something or someone. And one simply cannot find a single example of a culture without some form of religion.

But where do these instincts, or deep behaviors, come from? The natural place to look should be in the way the mind works, meaning, how the brain is structured. The deep structures of our brains have given us language, culture, and, as I argue, art and literature. But where does the brain get this tendency to create deep structures? The mathematics I have shown are highly suggestive in general terms, but what about the specifics? Why would evolution create instincts? And what is the relation of all of this to culture? Why would I consider something called “cultural universals” to be instincts?

Wilson observes that “For (anthropologists), a culture is the total way of life of a discrete society — its religion, myths, art, technology, sports, and all the other systematic knowledge transmitted across generations” (Wilson, 141–142). If we take away the details, we can see this definition is true not just for humans, but for most social species with long life spans. Bonner uses this definition of culture when he says that “culture involves communication between individuals of the same species, and therefore culture and society go hand in hand” (159). In a sense we observe each other into the same culture. Elephants learn, in part, how to be an elephant by watching other elephants. The same is also true of cetaceans and primates. They gain information through observation, and “tradition means a repetition of following out the instructions of the information” (Bonner, 161–2). Culture is maintained through the teaching of tradition, and includes followers of and innovators within that tradition. In their Scientific American article, “The Culture of Chimpanzees,” primatologists Andrew Whiten and Christophe Boesch show different wild chimpanzee troops act in different ways that can only be explained through cultural transmission. Subsequent generations of chimpanzees learn how to do certain things — hammering nuts, pounding with a pestle, fishing for termites (including variations on how to fish), eating ants, removing bone marrow, sitting on leaves, fanning flies, tickling self, throwing objects, inspecting wounds, clipping leaves, squashing parasites on leaves versus using fingers, inspecting parasites, arm clasping, knocking knuckles, and rain dancing (64–65) — that can only be explained by learning, which is, cultural transmission. Indeed, we see behaviors being taught to the young in many species — so what once made humans special, our being taught different things in different tribes, regions, or countries, is now seen to have a parallel in chimpanzees and bonobos. Culture did not start with humans. It started millions of years before humans evolved, and was crucial to our evolving into humans.

This being the case, we see that genetic differences may have contributed to humans gaining more instincts as a species to gain a larger set of instincts from which our various cultures could emerge, but our variety of cultures actually derives from the fact that we are practically genetically identical in our housing these instincts that in turn gave rise to our varieties of cultures.

There are some who will object that the fact that there are small genetic differences among groups means there are in fact different races. But that is primarily just moving the goal posts — and if you can move the goal posts, you are really doing nothing more than proving that the concept of race is indeed socially constructed. If you can reconstruct a term into something else than what it originally meant, then the term, the concept itself, is socially constructed.

That is what I mean when I say things like there are no such things as different races. There are different ethnicities, which are primarily cultural in nature, and there is indeed group variability among a few minor genes that in most cases affect nothing (like the single genetic marker of Native Americans) or have the most superficial effects (like skin color and hair texture, which are genetically related). But race is almost completely a social construct, constructed by racists. If we are going to tear down statues to people based on the fact that they were constructed by racists for racist reasons, then shouldn’t we also reject racist ideas, like the very concept of race itself?