Entrevista (Edição nº 36)

"The invention of races" (*)

>> CVA - In your book you state scientifically that genetically we are all equals, belonging to the same human race. Can we say that there is a racial identity and ethinical differences?

Barbujani - No. “Ethnic” and “racial” really mean the same thing. Both concepts are based on an idea that has proved wrong, namely that we can represent human genetic diversity as the assemblage of distinct units, each one different from the others and homogeneous within itself. This is true of orangutans, whose populations of Borneo and Sumatra are well distinct and are, in fact, races. Like orangutans, us humans are genetically different and sometimes very different. However, unlike orangutans, in us humans these differences do not come in neat racial packages, each one genetically different. Human differences form a continuum in space, and each human population or community harbours a large fraction (85% on average) of the global genetic diversity of the species. Thus, we can say that all human populations largely share the genetic variants transmitted to us by our African ancestors, and differ mainly for the frequency of these variants.

>> CVA - What are the factors that affects the physical differences among populations?

Barbujani - Genes do have an importance in determining our physical aspect, as shown clearly by the fact that children resemble their parents. But then we have diet, physical exercise, as well as many other factors that are part of our environment, not of our genome. As a result, once again, physical differences are often large between members of the same population (compare Prince and Ella Fitzgerald), and are generally small between the averages of different populations.

>> CVA - Your argue in your book that the “race idea” is social, not biological. But we see that the idea of race is still strong, justifying racism and xenophobia. What do you think about the black militancy from the marginal segments of the society that are proudly and strongly defend their “blackness”?

Barbujani - Once again, this shows how the idea of racial subdivision has its roots in politics, economics and psychology much more than in biology. Defending “blackness” (or “gayness”) seems to me the response of sectors of the society which have long been discriminated. If, as happens in the US, the racial label is accompanied by small privileges, such as easier access to some university courses (for blacks and hispanics) or the possibility to open a casino (for US natives), it is understandable that these groups will stick to these labels. But this is a very US phenomenon, and it sometimes leads to paradox. To understand this, I warmly recommend reading Philp Roth’s amazing novel “The human stain”.

>> CVA - On the borders of the identity and nationality we see, mainly in European countries, land and blood criterias classifying human population. Do you agree with those criterias?

Barbujani - I agree that one of the worst legacies that us Europeans left to the world is the emphasis on national identity, which is generally understood to mean one people, one language, one territory and one flag. In this context, “people” means that the territory is occupied by the descendants of ancestors who have been living there forever. Modern DNA studies clearly demonstrate that that concept is incorrect because all populations, and Europeans in particular, are highly admixed. I cannot agree with criteria that perpetuate such a myth. Instead, I agree with Amin Maalouf, (who was born in Lebanon and lives in France, is Arab but not Muslim) when he defends his multiple identities and insist that each of us has multiple identities, which are not, and need not be, correlated. If we reduce our cultural richness to one single identity (“I am a Scot” or “I am English”, “I am a Catholic” or “I am a Muslim”, etc.), we lose much and gain nothing.

>> CVA - The history teaches how arbitrariness and social/cultural injustices have been perpetrated and justified by the general colonialism based on the “Social difference”. Can we say that the social construction of the race idea is an invention of the regime and fanatic governments, despotical or totalitarian?

Barbujani - I would say that governments are probably not so powerful as to create global problems such as racism and xenophobia. In a sense, the potential for racism is in all of us. We are naturally suspicious of people who do not look like us; think of the classical distinction between Greeks and Barbarians. However, increasing knowledge also means, in general, increased mutual understanding; the diffidence for people who do not seem much like us vanishes when it turns out that we have something in common. Then I would say that, in these years, those who claim a war of civilizations is taking place, those who speak of profound barriers between human groups, be they biological or cultural, have a political goal in mind, which is not going to bring humankind any benefit.

>> CVA - And how about scientists? Why a segment of them insists on the idea of “the race”, when the researches shows that this concept is not scientifically defendable, that this notion brings more violence and social injustice, without bringing any scientific contribution?

Barbujani - Let me first make it clear that if our DNA showed evidence for racial differences, scientists ought to say it. Those, like me, who think that prejudice and discrimination are a bad thing would not change their mind for that. However, our DNA shows evidence to the contrary. The problem is that this evidence is in conflict with stereotypes that have long dominated the way many of us look at the world. As Jonathan Marks put it, today convincing people that human races are not a biological reality is as difficult as convincing people, in the 17th century, that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa.

>> CVA - You state on your book that the human biodiversity comes from a small part of our biological heritage and from all our social relations, which makes us understand the difference between the populations. Actually, the studies about cultural identity and diversity are central for anthropologists. Do you think that, in practice, anthropology and biology are walking together? Does the Anthropology have been doing its job well?

Barbujani - In the last chapter of my book I try to say that what we perceive as our identity depends only to a small extent on our biological differences, and is rooted much more in our culture and individual character. We are not slaves of our genes, in other words. I think that some biologists and anthropologists are doing well their job, some less so, and some are not doing a great job at all: much like any other human professional group.

>> CVA - Dr. Guido, in the name of The Virtual Community of Anthropology I would like to thank you very much, and wish a huge success on your researches. Congratulations for your important work. Gláucia.

Barbujani - Muito obrigado.

[Clique aqui para ler o primeiro capítulo e o sumário da obra.]

(*) A tradução português-inglês das perguntas feitas pela CVA/Gláucia ao autor Guido Barbujani foi feita por Diego Jock - Depto. de Marketing Editora Contexto - telefone para contato: +55 11 3832-5838.