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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 166-168 ( 1 May )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/graves.html

Book Review

The Emperorís New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium
by Joseph L. Graves, Jr.
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2001

Reviewed by Scott MacEachern, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME 04011, USA.

Racial identities and the characteristics of different racial groups have been central to many of the public and intellectual debates about human nature that have periodically convulsed the United States and the rest of the Western world. The policy implications of race have been significant in large part because the biological associations of the concept provide a powerful marker for what is alleged to be intrinsic and unchanging in human populations, against those elements of our individual and collective natures that are amenable to modification through upbringing and experience. Western racial typologies can perhaps best be thought of as reified arguments over how groups of people should treat one another, rather than as the analytical expressions of fundamental biological realities. These arguments are most vehement in situations of conflict, whether physical, social or political, and so we can anticipate that examinations of race will be attended by a considerable degree of controversy.

Given its history, it is not surprising that the United States has been well supplied with texts analysing the concept of race and its implications. Over the last two decades, most of these have examined the social and historical roots of racial identifications, using concepts of race that gained currency in the last half of the twentieth century. Joseph Gravesí book The Emperorís New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium falls firmly in that camp, and was written with the goal of showing readers that ďÖthere is no biological basis for separation of human beings into races and that the idea of race is a relatively recent social and political construction.Ē (p. 1). This book thus complements earlier texts, including Ashley Montaguís Manís Most Dangerous Myth, Stephen Jay Gouldís The Mismeasure of Man and Audrey Smedleyís Race in North America, and stands as a counterpoint to books like Michael Levinís Why Race Matters and Philippe Rushtonís Race, Evolution and Behavior. These two goals ― examination of the history of the race concept and demonstration that the concept is biologically invalid for humans ― constitute an ambitious programme for any book, and especially for a slim volume of about 200 pages of text. Graves speaks as an evolutionary biologist and as an African American, two points of view that could stand to be more often represented in these debates.

The basic plan of The Emperorís New Clothes is a chapter-by-chapter examination of the development of the race concept, from its beginnings in the classical world to modern times. As is the case in many such texts, the historical treatment is unilinear, moving from Greeks and Romans to medieval and then post-medieval Europe and so on up to the present. Gravesí object is essentially the examination of race in modern America: concepts of racial difference beyond Europe and North America are not examined, although these can provide a useful comparison for the development of racism in those regions. Coverage before the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is quite schematic, but becomes more detailed through the late 18th and 19th century, as biological race becomes the focus of academic theorizing. Gravesí positive evaluation of Darwinís approach to human variability and concern for data in Chapter Four forms a valuable counterpoint to recent accounts that have perhaps overemphasized Darwinís ethnocentricity and acceptance of racial hierarchy.

Chapters Six to Eight, on the founding and development of the eugenics movement, are similarly useful in their integration of biographical information about racial theorists with critiques of their theories, and in many ways these are the strongest of Gravesí historical chapters. His portrayal of Francis Galton effectively illustrates that a well-educated and observant Victorian could as a practical matter utterly fail to comprehend the extremely complex relationship between biological difference and the effects of social stratification ― whether this latter involved relations between rich and poor Englishmen or colonized Africans and well-off Britons on safari. Galtonís attempts to provide a quantitative ranking of human intelligence based on his own impressions stands as an excellent example of the GIGO Law ― Garbage In, Garbage Out ― which has historically played as important a role in racialist and eugenic theorizing as it has more recently in information technology. Gravesí account of the early 20th-century American eugenicist Charles Davenport is even more devastating, effectively portraying his work with the Eugenics Record Office and the National Pellagra Commission as replete with fraud and responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. His descriptions of links between American and Nazi eugenicists are equally informative; this is an aspect of the theorizing about race, intelligence and eugenics in the first half of the 20th-century that bears regular repetition.

Chapter Nine connects Gravesí historical examination of the development of race ideologies with the examination of claimed links between race, intelligence and disease that makes up the last two chapters of the book. In it, he juxtaposes developments in population genetics with social and political initiatives after the Second World War: the UNESCO statements on race, the rejection of racism as a valid scientific stance and the civil rights movement and reactions against it in the United States. There is something of a gap between this treatment of scientific racism at mid-century and Gravesí commencement of Chapter Ten with the claims of relationships between race and intelligence made by Arthur Jensen from the late 1960s onward. Gravesí examination of these purported relationships sometimes seems scattered, as he critiques Jensenís work, The Bell Curve and Philippe Rushtonís Race, Evolution and Behavior, among other topics, in just 15 pages.

This causes some difficulties. Gravesí coverage of the issues surrounding interpretation of IQ scores is cursory, while reference to a critique of Rushtonís r-/K-selection theory should probably have been expanded to a full explanation or not mentioned. His examination of genetic characteristics and IQ (p. 168-169) is focused on one rather obscure Chilean paper and does not critically examine the wider issue of claimed relationships between ethnicity, genetic variability, behaviour and politics. In a world where researchers search for Ďgenes for intelligenceí among white children and talk about looking for Ďgenes for violenceí among black ones, this seems a significant omission. At the same time, Gravesí discussions of heritability and the importance of control of environmental variables provide a useful introduction to the topic and point to an important set of problems often ignored by commentators on these issues. Chapter Eleven, which examines claims links between race and disease susceptibility, is considerably more focused and provides a survey of a number of issues concerning that important and much-discussed topic. One point that he makes in the context of a discussion of African American exposure to biohazards in the USA is extremely telling, and deserves to be reproduced in full: ďTo be valid, any test of the genetic hypotheses of racial differences in intelligence must at least equalize the physical and educational environment of Euro-Americans and African Americans. The problem is not only that this experiment cannot be performed under the existing political circumstances but also that proponents of the link between race and IQ do not argue that the experiment should be performed to test their hypothesesĒ (p. 172). Graves is putting the case perhaps too kindly: the political programmes recommended by those commentators have virtually always involved making permanent the structural inequalities that would doom such an experiment.

The Emperorís New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium is a worthy survey of the history and state of the art in racial science, one with substantial virtues and some faults. Much of the material in this book is available in more specialized sources, but Graves does a good job of linking the topics under examination to give a concise picture of the historical developments of concepts of biological race, and of their standing in America today. Readers interested in any of these topics can usefully use this book as a point of departure for more detailed research, and it is probably better positioned to serve as an introductory college textbook than is any other recent work on the subject. One strength of the book is Gravesí portrayal of the roles that African Americans have played in the evolving debates about racial difference, not merely as passive objects of prejudice but as active commentators on racial questions. He also emphasizes the continuing interplay between science, culture and politics in developing racial ideologies, a point as relevant at the beginning of this century as it was at the beginning of the last one.

Graves also places our understanding of racial and eugenic ideologies firmly in the context of research in genetics and evolutionary biology. This is both a considerable strength and an occasional weakness of the work. On the one hand, his excursions into the mechanics of heredity and population genetics provide a valuable background for his rejection of racial and eugenic theories. On the other hand, these explanations are often not well-integrated with the text of his historical documentation, and it can be somewhat startling to move abruptly from an examination of Social Darwinism in the United States to a discussion of gene-environment interactions, complete with charts (pp. 75-81). The Emperorís New Clothes attempts simultaneously to be a survey of the history of racial science and a primer on the biological fallacies of racial schema, an extremely ambitious agenda for a short book, and at times it falls between those two stools. This reviewer read this book wishing for rather more material on the biological research that Graves knows best, and rather less on the historical material already covered in other sources.

On the whole, Graves has written a very useful guidebook to the American preoccupation with race and the demarcation of human races. It is accessible, well argued and passionate in the best sense, as Graves writes on a topic that deeply concerns him. The Emperorís New Clothes should be read by anyone interested in the development of racial identities in modern America, and beyond that country as well.

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© Scott MacEachern.


MacEachern, S. (2002). Review of The Emperorís New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium by Joseph L. Graves, Jr. Human Nature Review. 2: 166-168.

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