Genes, Race, and History
Are humans unique? This simple question, at the very heart of the hybrid field of biological anthropology, poses one of the false of dichotomies—with a stereotypical humanist answering in the affirmative and a stereotypical scientist answering in the negative.
The study of human biology is different from the study of the biology of other species. In the simplest terms, people's lives and welfare may depend upon it, in a sense that they may not depend on the study of other scientific subjects. Where science is used to validate ideas—four out of five scientists preferring a brand of cigarettes or toothpaste—there is a tendency to accept the judgment as authoritative without asking the kinds of questions we might ask of other citizens' pronouncements.
In Human Biodiversity, Marks has attempted to distill from a centuries-long debate what has been learned and remains to be learned about the biological differences within and among human groups. His is the first such attempt by an anthropologist in years, for genetics has undermined the fundamental assumptions of racial taxonomy. The history of those assumptions from Linnaeus to the recent past—the history of other, more useful assumptions that derive from Buffon and have reemerged to account for genetic variation—are the poles of Marks's exploration.
“Outstanding Title!... Marks traces the history of scientific attempts to describe and account for human biological variation. Covering the 17th century to the present, his study stresses the derivation of scientific ideas from the social problems and values with which they share history… A highly readable, thought-provoking, and comprehensive treatment of popular and scholarly interest in race and human variation. General readers; upper-division undergraduates and above.”
—S. A. Quandt, Choice
“[Jonathan Marks’s] thoughtful and witty book is about one of the “wrongest” of scientific notions: namely, the idea that the human species can be divided into discrete biological subunits, or races…. Marks casts his book as both an introduction to the current state of human genetics and a cautionary historical tale about what happens when scientists do not examine their most basic assumptions. Beginning in 1699 with the publication of Edward Tyson’s famous comparison of a human and a chimp, Marks structures his historical account around the assumptions that have given rise to the 20th-century biological concept of race…. What Marks has given us is truly a “people’s history of human biodiversity.” I do not know of a more lively and heartfelt introduction.”
—Misia Landau, American Anthropologist