Dividing the species: Race, Science and Culture

By Marek Kohn and Luciana Parisi, 24 May 2006

For decades the notion that race has any grounds in biology has been taboo. Ethnic and racial characteristics are cultural constructs, and science has tended to confirm this view. However, with the return of scientific racism in the 1990s (notoriously Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve which argued that black people are inherently intellectually inferior to whites), the gap between biology and culture is being put into question again. But does the notion of a continuum between biology and culture have to produce a racist essentialisation of cultural traits? Or can a non-racist evolutionary science help us tackle the return of scientific racism by engaging its claims head on? Or is science itself intrinsically racist? Marek Kohn and Luciana Parisi, two very different proponents of a critical engagement with scientific evolutionary theory, took up Mute’s invitation to discuss these issues

Mute: If scientific appeals to race as the basis for physical or cultural traits have been taboo since the end of World War II, is the multicultural notion of a hard break between biology and culture now itself in crisis and, if so, what does this mean? Are we regressing, returning to Victorian notions of racialised identity - cf The Bell Curve - or is there something progressive about a return to the notion of ongoing intercourse between culture and biology?

Marek Kohn: As time and controversies go by, I become ever more convinced that progress in understanding the human condition depends on the ability to synthesize biological and cultural ways of looking at humankind. We have an intellectual cold war instead of a constructive engagement. Both sides are looking the worse for it.

The contested ground extends far beyond race, but race remains the awful warning against mixing biology and culture. It might not be where you’d want to start on a re-integration of the two perspectives, but it’s the issue that needs to be addressed if the taboo is to be examined.

This entails engaging with hereditarian and racial claims on their own terms as well as in terms of their context. Pointing out that an idea is Victorian in heritage does not falsify it. And a Victorian context is not necessarily a misleading one. Marx recognised that Darwin had discovered a fundamental process of life, while observing ‘how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England.’ Today’s hereditarians – the intellectual descendants not of Darwin but of his cousin Francis Galton – consider their claims to be independent of context. Those claims have to be examined within the framework of science as well as from outside.

Luciana Parisi: Although the crisis of multiculturalism may be thought as the crisis of the cultural relativism in definitions of difference – sexual as well as racial differences – it may be that a more subtle notion of crisis defining a limit point or transformation of such a notion points to the way multiculturalism is in the first place not without racism. As argued by Michel Foucault and recently by Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri (although through very distinct arguments), the biopolitics of control of species and populations necessarily operates by racism – the division and classification now operating less on the integrity of the organism and more on the integrity of genetic units.

In this context, multiculturalism, which has politically fought for the achievement of human rights, has at the same time indirectly acted for a state legalisation of Victorian forms of racism, since it has not questioned the biology of evolutionary science so as to reopen the question of how to account for material differences without predetermination. Through the lens of relativist culturalism it has rather avoided altogether an engagement with what materiality is.

Thus, rather than a hard break between biology and culture, since it has not challenged these givens in their own right, multiculturalism has used biological givens as a source of cultural constructions.

The crisis of multiculturalism therefore also points to a crisis of biopolitics based on racism. This means that rather than progressing or regressing we are facing the complexity of biopolitics, which has always dealt with the transformation of bios – organic life – into politics.

In this sense we cannot account for a linear progression or regression but only for the transformations of power that takes bios as its object of investment. The distinction between nature and culture entails not exclusively epistemological change but also more importantly, the ontological question of what is a human body and what counts as being under certain conditions? This is the question that multiculturalism had to face in an age of advanced bioinformatic capitalism where the distinction not only between populations of the same so-called species – humans – but between species (human, animal and machines) is put in crisis by molecular biology, and indirectly biotechnology, questioning the centrality of hereditary evolution in eukaryotic cells – based on the transmission of chromosomes or nucleic DNA – through an investment in bacterial and viral colonies that transversally connect plants, animals and humans, organic and inorganic matter.

MK: It seems we have to discuss bacteria before we can discuss race! But we seem to see them rather differently. The world of bacteria certainly looks very different to the worlds of other organisms. They don’t have proper species and their sexual arrangements are far less clearly defined. They stretch our ideas about life. But they don’t cast any doubt on the standard account of heredity or natural selection in our own species; nor does molecular biology. I’m not aware of any sense of crisis among biologists. Molecular biology has extended and largely confirmed pre-existing descriptions of the relationships between living organisms, so if anything its effect has been to consolidate rather than to challenge.

For ideological projects based on ideas about cultural diversity and equality, the role of biology is to affirm the invalidity of race as a biological concept, and thereby to discredit claims that innate mental characteristics vary between populations. This seems to be one area where science is invoked as a reliable source of authority, in contrast to the sceptical stance that is adopted in other contexts. Since the 1960s science has provided the required reassurance, and nowadays does so without being prompted when seeking to reassure the public about its activities, such as sequencing the human genome. Recently, however, this position has been challenged by authors arguing that race is biologically real after all, and that studying it may be beneficial in terms of public health as well as scientific understanding. So the basis of the belief that race is biologically meaningless is now being explicitly contested.

Whether this will cause any problems for multiculturalist positions remains to be seen. Their advocates can still pick out the authorities whose views fit their beliefs better. That will have the effect of strengthening the hereditarian camp, by failing to challenge it, and by feeding its self-perception that its adversaries lack intellectual integrity. If that state of affairs carries on, we certainly will end up with a crisis.

LP: The point that bacteria cannot be rigidly classified into species with a corresponding race and sex does not mean that the recent rethinking of the importance of bacteria – for example the theory of endosymbiosis[1] – and of the difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells[2] does not contribute to questioning what biology is and how bacterial genetic variation does indeed affect the eukaryotic realm. If we want to discuss why biology is coming back to define difference it may not be sufficient to say that the old eugenic discourse is revitalised in current debates. It may be important to open biology and the notion of biological heredity to the networks of relation amongst genomes where the distinction between eukaryotic and prokaryotic DNA is in question. Here heredity is not just accounted for by chromosomes but also by mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA lies outside the nucleic DNA and, according to Lynn Margulis among others, splits like bacteria. Indeed research on mitochodrial DNA does sustain the argument that eukaryotic cells are symbiotic assemblages of bacteria.

On the other hand, however, the fact that talking about race is no longer meaningless and that as you suggest there is some fundamental scientific truth about race may need more careful elaboration in the redefinition of biological race if we do not want to just attribute an essence or a trait to the complexity and nonlinearity of biological difference. I agree that it is important to contest the ideological silence about race, but we don’t need a re-essentialisation of biological difference to do it. The point for me is to consider the biopolitical organisation of life and see how such organisation aims to restrict the field of variation of biological difference into individual traits on a predetermined grid. Thus, biopolitics – appealing to science – works both to restrict biological difference to a set of possibilities – genes, traits, characteristics – and to open up the question of what counts as biological difference under certain circumstances.

MK: Sure, everybody has accepted that mitochondria (energy-generating structures within cells) were once free-living bacteria. But I’m not at all clear why this phenomenon, fundamentally important as it was, is significant for questions about variations between human populations. Mitochondria have a dozen genes, presumably devoted to their own replication; the chromosomes in the nucleus contain tens of thousands.

On race, one of the issues we need to address is that people arguing for its biological reality (and I think I should point out that I am not one of them; I am simply calling attention to their claims) might well say that their vision is not essentialist. Contemporary enthusiasts for racial science don’t claim that races are strictly bounded units that can be defined by a set of characters possessed by, and unique to, all their members. They say that races are ‘fuzzy sets’ whose boundaries aren’t clear, and that have plenty of overlap with other sets, but are nonetheless real. This view fits neatly with the claim that their vision has no policy implications: the only requirement is that individuals have the opportunity to fulfill the potential indicated by their IQ scores.

I’d be interested to hear how you would see this individualist position in terms of biopolitics. It’s an ideology which urges the state to get out of racial organisation – affirmative action is utterly anathema to it – and to let what it sees as natural capacities determine individual performance through market processes. It affirms that race is biologically real but socially meaningless.

LP: The point that I wished to highlight is that hereditary variation and the famous germline discussed by Weismann should be enlarged to mitochondrial transmission as well. Although such transmission involves a smaller quantity of genes, it does not mean that such quantity is less qualitatively important than nucleic DNA. Indeed, the understanding of junk DNA as useless has actually been questioned in molecular biology. The transmission capacities of these portions of a chromosome or genome’s DNA sequence for which no function has yet been identified are not at all known yet. The point is that genetic variations between populations do not only obey a tree logic of evolution (variation with descent) since genetic heredity occurs through parallel strings of DNA – nucleic, mitochondrial, but also transversally through the continual effects that bacterial populations and viruses (and retroviruses) have on eukaryotic DNA. Thus, the point is not that these amplified genomes can explain the distinction between populations but that they can question the separation between human and nonhuman populations in the first place. For me the important point is to engage with the materiality of difference without re-appealing to the essentialism of nature. Not the reduction to one code but the opening of the human so called species to populations of microbodies, to entire genomic networks that render the biological distinction between populations problematically ideological.

I see your point: the emphasis on fuzzy sets of genes does not preclude claims about race. This may be because such sets, although more flexibly combined and recombined, are still pre-defined unities. Thus rather than one individual fixed unit you have smaller individual yet mobile units. The point is that such a pluralist argument happens to be a more sophisticated essentialist argument, but is in the end very essentialist indeed. These claims are metaphysically and ontopolitically rooted in a logic of individuality – formed substance – that will always reduce the indeterminate materiality of the body to biological facts.

Biopolitics entails how power is already invested in the organisation of life, the action of forces on forces in nature, which produce certain material effects directly activating the body: the activation of the body in relation to sex – sexual reproduction – and race – skin colour – for example. I am not sure if you think that biopolitics is an ideology but for me it produces certain effects of power rather than representing certain interests or repressing certain ideas. However the operation of biopolitics is definitely twofold: on the one hand, it organises a field of equity – where all humans are equal and have equal rights – on the other, it subjectifies the body, makes the body an individual subject or performer whose actions totally depend on its biological capacities. In such a twofold dynamics, biopolitics operates through racism, continuously sorting out, classifying, ordering biodifferences at the molecular level whilst maintaining equity at the molar level. Yet, as suggested before, the question of what a human body is and what counts as biological difference – encompassing organic and inorganic life from cells to rocks – does not remain the same because these questions are attuned to ontogenetic transformations of life that is less a substance than an immaterial consistency. The biopolitics of governability rivals such transformations by using at once the most despotic and the most liberal modes of power, which, as you say, affirm at once that race is biologically real and socially meaningless. This is a trait of contemporary neo-conservatism.

MK: It seems to me that you are trying to rewrite biology in order to find a moral that is already written in it. The theory of evolution proposed that the barriers between species were not absolute. It implicitly questioned the separation between human and non-human populations. That was what caused, and is still causing, all the trouble. It was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, challenges that essentialist views of life have ever faced.

If you were to ask me for contemporary knowledge that challenges essentialist views of life, I think I would point to the tree structures, showing genetic relationships, which affirm the astonishing extent to which inherited information is shared throughout living forms, rather than the detection of viral DNA in host genomes. And I think it’s important to try not to lose a sense of scale. The great mergers that incorporated free-living bacteria into complex cells took place several billion years ago. Claims about racial differences among human populations concern developments said to have happened within the last few thousand years – or even the last few hundred, as in the case of the hypothesis published last year which proposed that sociopolitical conditions in Europe had a selective effect on the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews. 

Claims such as these rely upon the assumption that natural selection can act upon human mental characteristics rather quickly. In this respect they appear anti-essentialist – especially when contrasted with the programme to which the term evolutionary psychology usually refers, dedicated to describing a universal human nature. Likewise eugenic doctrines are based on concerns about the degeneration or the improvement of populations: what preoccupies them is precisely that populations don’t have an essence that resists change. But of course it is also clear that racial arguments encourage an essentialist view of populations – one group is said to be clever, another good at running, and so on. So, contemporary racial arguments operate by rejecting essentialism formally while promoting it informally. They know how to have their rhetorical cake and eat it. But do you believe that their essentialism goes deeper than that?

Whatever their structure, though, they are not in power. You describe a twofold biopolitical process in which equality is constituted on one side, while on the other, individual actions are defined in terms of the individual’s biological capacities. This certainly sounds like the state of affairs that contemporary hereditarians would like. But the dominant ideology at present is highly reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of systematic variations in capacities, and vehemently rejects the possibility of mental differences between ethnic or racial groups. Hereditarians like Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, are left bemoaning what Murray calls ‘Orwellian disinformation about innate group differences.’ Do you think they would need to achieve hegemony for the biopolitical process to occur, or do you see it as something which can operate even though its premises are denied?

LP: It is not me who attempts at rewriting biology but, as Isabelle Stengers says, science is not a given affair, not a concluded history. Science is always in the course of being rewritten, remaking itself, challenging itself through the thousands of voices – including the sound of matter itself – claiming the achievement of objects of science. In a sense, science is a battlefield of perception, conception, affection – a messy combination of transagents – and not a mere paradigmatic establishment of truths. At the core of this standpoint is an issue of nonlinear time, which entails an infinite series of microdurations, microstories, small events that coexist with dominant views in science and that indirectly yet ceaselessly slip through to impact on such views. The important claim that endosymbiosis makes is to pose a hypothetical question to the dominant story of linear descent with modification. It is the fact that endosymbiosis poses a challenge by asking science: what if tree structures were not the whole story, what if scales of evolution are not so rigidly segmented across assumed simple and complex organisms, what if the very eukaryotic scale of animals, humans and plants was instead open to the rate of mutation of bacterial populations, what would it then mean to be human, to be an oxygen breathing creature, to have an immune system, to have sex differences.

Endosymbiosis challenges exactly the linear conception of time and scale which assumes that the evolutionary past – the bacterial past of eukaryotic cells – is confined somewhere in a box at the bottom of a forgotten ocean and thus that specific scales are all that we ought to be concerned with. What is central to such theory is a challenge to androcentrism in evolution. Yet it is true that such androcentric essentialism was already questioned by Darwinism, where the intrinsic relation between populations and territories, degrees of mutations and contingent natural selection was already challenging the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being – at the top of which was White Man. However, the legacy of Darwinism is also the focus on speciation, on formed complexities of genetic variance, on groups of individuals, on the molar scale of molecular assemblages. What instead endosymbiosis shows is that supposedly higher scales of evolution are coexistent with microscales of genetic trades running through nodes such as human, animals, and plants and affecting the genetic variance of such molar organisms. In this sense, it may be useful to consider that claims about race go hand in hand with claims about purity from infection, contamination, with preservation of individual unity – species – as opposed to the dissipation in mixtures of genetic variations. This may perhaps be one of the ways in which the microscale of evolution has always been relevant to the macroscale of evolved species, whereby issues of purity have to do with keeping the bacterial realm away from eukaryotic species.

I find it interesting that while we are discussing this level of evolutionary thinking, where for me the ‘scientific’ perception and conception of evolution entails the way science is entangled in material mutations themselves, your argument slips straightforwardly into the discursive level of claiming the truth as if this were the only level at which the notion of race becomes politically relevant and the investment of power in the organisation of life occurs. In other words, it seems to me that your argument is supported by a sort of cultural constructivist understanding of science, the body and politics. In a sense, to argue against essentialism through culturally constructed lenses for me entails a problematic dismissal of the materiality of the body in terms of the challenge that recent philosophies and sciences of the body have put forward: to rethink matter in terms of potentials – not the optimisation of already determined traits – but unpredictable capacities to change, to step beyond initial conditions, to decline from linear trajectories, to reverse the line of transmission and so on. This is the sense in which the notion of biopolitics has been used, implying a nature-culture continuum, by which is meant not identity but dynamics of differentiation, where culture is the becoming of nature and not the interpreter of natural facts. Here biopolitics is not an ideology but a matter of relations of force operating through many levels of affective power – material, biological, semiotic, technical and so on – based not on essence and construction, body and mind, biology and culture, but involving an ontological rearticulation of what is a body and what a body can do, what is mind and what mind can do.

In this sense, a biopolitics concerning the impact that natural selection has on individual groups entails an anti-essentialist position based on environmental conditions and not internal traits. Yet, it also shows that the difference does not lie between internal essence and external constraints since they are both embedded in an ontopolitics of determination, based on the constant return to sameness. Either internal essence or external conditions determine material difference, implying that the body is a passive recipient of chromosomal traits or natural selection of the fittest – the most adapted to external changes.

Whilst it is true that eugenics realises the impossibility of preserving internal traits because of the external influence of natural selection, it is also true that Darwinian eugenics is strictly based on the role that sexual reproduction has in the filiative transmission of hereditary genes undergoing only small changes. The problem of such eugenic Darwinism here entails, as Henri Bergson argued, the passivity of internal difference unable to differentiate from itself. Thus in a sense, both claims about internal and external differences are based on an ontopolitics of determination – internal or external, aiming at preserving life under controlled conditions. In this sense, biopolitics does not need to achieve a hegemonic dominance since its power is at the core of the political investment in what counts as life. The Bell Curve book is a symptom of the explicit expression of a biopolitics concerned with the government of life and appealing to an ontopolitics of determination of material differences.

MK: Endosymbiosis and what’s known as ‘lateral’ or ‘horizontal’ gene transfer certainly poses a question to biologists about whether there is more to life than Darwin’s tree of shared descent. There does seems to be more to it in the bacterial world, where new knowledge about the likely extent of lateral gene exchange now makes trees look like only part of the story. But I infer from your comments that you are referring to the possibility of such processes acting upon complex organisms, including humans. The evidence for this is doubtful and sparse. A few years ago it was claimed that human genome sequencing revealed the presence of about 100 genes derived from bacteria, but this interpretation of the data has been challenged. Similarly there have recently been claims of extensive lateral gene transfer in one plant species, but alternative explanations are possible.

There is also the question of the significance of a small number of bacterial genes in a very large genome. I gather from your comments, though, that for you this is an issue of principle rather than quantity: that the presence of genes from distantly related organisms poses questions about the reality and nature of species. Biologists themselves have plenty of questions about the nature of species, and a number of competing concepts of species. They are possibly less sure what and how important species are than they were, say, twenty years ago.

All extant human populations are potentially capable of interbreeding with each other, and with no other populations; which means that we are a good species by the criterion of the widely-used ‘biological species concept’. But the situation in our evolutionary past is highly controversial. There are bitter disputes over how extinct hominins (the lineage dating back to the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees) were related, how they should be classified, and whether they interbred. Evidence from mitochondrial DNA has supported a story in which modern humans emerged from Africa about 100,000 years ago and replaced all the other hominins, such as Neanderthals, without significant interbreeding. This story has been challenged by a number of researchers including the geneticist Alan Templeton, who has analysed patterns in a range of genes and has calculated that the likelihood that modern humans completely replaced all the others is extremely remote. He has produced diagrams of gene flow between human populations in different parts of the world, going back almost two million years – not a tree, but a ‘trellis’.

So it is possible to reflect on the question of human species and to come up with a network model instead of a tree, without invoking genetic transfers between very different organisms. And race has long been a powerful presence in discourse about human evolution. But even so, we haven’t reached a point where ideas about species can be used to intervene in current controversies about race and science. Contemporary advocates of racial theories would be equally happy with any of the current accounts of the origins of modern humans, ‘tree’ models or ‘net’ models. Racial-scientific claims are claims about variation within a species. What it is to be human is another question altogether.


[1] Editor’s note: ‘The endosymbiotic theory concerns the origins of mitochondria and plastids (e.g. chloroplasts), which are organelles of eukaryotic cells. According to this theory, these originated as separate prokaryotic organisms, which were taken inside the cell as endosymbionts, and mitochondria developed from proteobacteria (in particular, Rickettsiales or close relatives) and chloroplasts from cyanobacteria. […] The endosymbiotic hypothesis was fleshed out and popularized by Lynn Margulis. In her 1981 work Symbiosis in Cell Evolution she argued that eukaryotic cells originated as communities of interacting entities […] According to Margulis and Sagan (1996), “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking” (i.e., by cooperation), and Darwin’s notion of evolution driven by natural selection is incomplete (see Evolution and natural selection). However, others have argued that endosymbiosis constitutes slavery rather than mutualism.’ From Wikipedia,

[2] Editor’s note: ‘A eukaryote […], also spelled eucaryote, is an organism with a complex cell or cells, in which the genetic material is organized into membrane-bound nucleus/nuclei. Eukaryotes comprise animals, plants, and fungi – which are mostly multicellular – as well as various other groups that are collectively classified as protists (many of whch are unicellular). In contrast, other organisms, such as bacteria, lack nuclei and other complex cell structures; such organisms are called prokaryotes. The eukaryotes share a common origin, and are often treated formally as a superkingdom, empire, or domain.’ From Wikipedia,

Marek Kohn’s [] most recent book is A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, Faber, 2004

Dr Luciana Parisi <L.Parisi AT> convenes the Interactive Media MA at Goldsmiths College. She works on endosymbiosis in models of information transmission and her book Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire, was published by Continuum Press, 2004