October 8, 2002

A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race

By NICHOLAS WADE
NY Times 8 October
 

Two physical anthropologists have reanalyzed data gathered by Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, and report that he erred in saying environment influenced human head shape. Boas's data, the two scientists say, show almost no such effect.

The reanalysis bears on whether craniometrics, the measurement of skull shape, can validly identify ethnic origin. As such, it may prompt a re-evaluation of the definition of human races and of ancient skulls like that of Kennewick Man.

"I have used Boas's study to fight what I guess could be considered racist approaches to anthropology," said Dr. David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "I have to say I am shocked at the findings."

Forensic anthropologists believe that by taking some 90 measurements of a skull they can correctly assign its owner's continent of origin — broadly speaking, its race, though many anthropologists prefer not to use that term — with 80 percent accuracy.

Opponents of the technique, who cite Boas's data, say the technique is useless, in part because environmental influences, like nutrition or the chewiness of food, would overwhelm genetic effects.

Boas measured the heads of 13,000 European-born immigrants and their American-born children in 1909 and 1910 and reported striking effects on cranial form, depending on the length of exposure to the American environment.

But in re-examining his published data, Dr. Corey S. Sparks of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Richard L. Jantz of the University of Tennessee find that the effects of the new environment were "insignificant" and that the differences between parents and children and between European- and American-born children were "negligible in comparison to the differentiation between ethnic groups," they are reporting today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The groups that Boas studied were Bohemians, Hungarians, central Italians, Jews, Poles, Sicilians and Scots. As to why he drew the wrong conclusion, Drs. Sparks and Jantz note that he was much involved in disputing contemporary belief that many different racial types could be reliably distinguished.

Boas's motives, they write, "could have been entwined in his view that the racist and typological nature of early anthropology should end, and his argument for dramatic changes in head form would provide evidence sufficient to cull the typological thinking."

Dr. Jantz said that Boas "was intent on showing that the scientific racism of the day had no basis, but he did have to shade his data some to make it work that way."

"Corey and I," Dr. Jantz said, "certainly aren't arguing that scientific racism is something you should go back to. But that doesn't mean cranial morphology is meaningless, either."

The new report raises the issue of whether an earlier generation's efforts to play down the role of genetics in fields like behavior and racial variation may not have been carried to extremes. Dr. Steven Pinker, who assigns a larger role to genetics in shaping behavior in his new book, "The Blank Slate," said it was not Boas but his disciples, including the anthropologists Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and Ashley Montagu, who "helped establish the blank-slate, social-constructionist, antibiology mindset of the social sciences."

Dr. Thomas said that "once we anthropologists said race doesn't exist, we have ignored it since then." In that context, the reanalysis of Boas's data "really does have far-reaching ramifications," he said.

One is the question whether present day races existed as such in the past, an issue brought up by the discovery of Kennewick Man. The skeleton, including a Caucasoid-looking skull 9,000 years old, was found by a Columbia River bank in Washington. Indians and their supporters contend that the skull differs from present day Indians because of environmental changes. Scientists who want to study the skull, instead of handing it over for reburial, said it was evidence that other ancestral groups had reached North America besides the Central Asians whom Indians most closely resemble.

In "Skull Wars," his recent book on Kennewick Man, Dr. Thomas argued that it was bad science to introduce racial concepts like "Caucasoid" in the context of people who lived 9,000 years ago, because environmental factors would have extensively changed body shape since then. Scientists on the other side, who included Dr. Jantz, "took a lot of heat in saying they could project racial classifications back in time," Dr. Thomas said.

Because no DNA was extracted from the Kennewick bones, craniometrics is the only way to learn about his population, Dr. Sparks said. By that measure, the skull most closely resembles those of the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Japan who now live in the country's most northern islands. Boas's immigrant data, Dr. Sparks said, "has been the burr in our bed for 90 years for people who tried to study population history using cranial data."

"I would love to see this wrong," Dr. Thomas said. "But I don't see any holes in the study."

But Dr. Alan H. Goodman, a biological anthropologist at Hampshire College, said that the authors were setting up a straw man by "purporting to show that Boas was a rampant environmentalist, when in fact he wasn't."