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Race: Local
Biology and
Culture in Mind
Atwood D. Gaines

In this chapter, I consider concepts of “race” from several perspectives. I view
“race(s)” through the lenses of cultural and psychological anthropology, psychoanalysis, medical anthropology, and the cultural studies of science. The latter also
encompasses the study of biomedical research, theory, and practice. It is germane to
include in this discussion medical and scientific conceptions from the United States
for, as a preeminent world nation, its social categories, including “racial” ideologies,
are often exported in part or in whole to other countries as elements of portable
scientific and medical knowledge, inscription devices, theories, and practices.
While researchers have demonstrated the lack of empirical bases for any biological
conception of “race,” it remains a paramount, albeit declining, cultural, medical, and
scientific reality in the United States (American Anthropological Association 1998;
American Association of Physical Anthropologists 1996; Gaines 2004a). Examples
of the exportation of science, its conceptions and its devices, are many. They range
from the export of measurement devices (Biagioli 1999), to the movement of the
laboratory to the “outside” (Latour 1999), to an entire field of (English) psychiatry
exported to Greece (Blue 1992). German psychiatry was exported to the United
States along with notions of the biological bases of mental disorder (Gaines 1992a;
Young 1991), showing that disease notions also travel as with neurasthenia (see
Kleinman 1988) and Alzheimer Disease (Whitehouse et al. 2000). Life transitions
may also be borrowed, as with menopause being borrowed by Japan from the
United States (Lock 1993).
Botanical classifications diffused from Europe to the world, eliding their local
social and gendered assumptions (Schiebinger 1993), while statistical analyses in
medicine came to the United States from France (Cassedy 1984). Statistics used constitutively in the study of “race” were exported from England to the United States
and elsewhere (Gould 1981, 1996). By way of Germany and England, general notions
of the biological bases of differences among humans have been exported to the



United States (Barkan 1992; Gaines 1995, 2004a; Gilman 1985, 1988). As we shall
see, this latter idea of a biological basis for human physical and cultural differences is
a key element in the cultural psychology of “race” in parts of the West, which we
will consider in the context of the transdisciplinary field of the cultural studies of
science that increasingly includes anthropology, especially the more theoretical forms
of medical anthropology (see Gaines 1998a for an analysis of this trend; see also
Fujimura 1996; Hahn 1995; Kleinman and Good 1985; Young 1995). The cultural
studies of science (Rouse 1999) bridges and redefines disciplines, bringing history
and religious and cultural studies into the field of science and placing it in dialogue
and in common intellectual spaces with traditionally defined social sciences.





Science exhibits a “trust in numbers” (Cassedy 1984; Porter 1995), a trust that is
wedded to this culture’s mistrust of difference, even that which is manifestly falsified
(Duster 1990; Fausto-Sterling 1992; Gilman 1985; Gould 1995). Differences are
arranged hierarchically (Shweder and Bourne 1982). Because of these two central
cultural tendencies of the dominant culture in the United States (it is incorrect to
say that it is the “majority” culture: see below), both physicians and lay people
believe that life careers and illness courses and outcomes differ for reasons of nature/
biology in the form of “race.” Progress is seen in medicine when it advocates specific
treatment/therapies for specific “races,” as in the fields of cardiovascular medicine
and psychiatry (Gaines 2004a).
Science and popular culture ignore social factors, leaving only the biological
as explanations of difference (DeVos and Wagatsuma 1966; Kleinman 1986). The
social factors bear the mark of the oppressors, a group that includes the researchers
and clinicians (Devereux 1958). As well, social factors militate against the supremacy
and autonomy of the biogenetic models of biomedicine.
The scientific use of “race” is part of the cultural conversation that creates and
recreates in mind a local biology of “race”; it fashions a discursive formation into an
apparent natural, empirical, and biological reality (Duster 1990; Gilman 1985, 1988;
Gaines 1987, 1992a, 1992b, n.d.; Harding 1993). Because it is a thing of the mind,
the semantic meaning of “race” differs from place to place and time to time even
in the same place. Where (and when) such concepts are biological (some notions
of “race” are cultural), they constitute a key component of local biology, the local
cultural construction of human biology taken to be real, natural, and universal.
Because “race(s)” as categories of mind have a history, it is important to consider the historical construction of these social categories. I shall not segregate (pun
intended) the discussions of these enterprises, local and scientific, as their “racial”
discourses interpenetrate; separation into discrete realms would falsify their cultural
conceptions, wrongly suggesting that elites foist ideas onto an unsuspecting laity when
it is clear that laity and medical scientific elites share many racial beliefs (Gaines
1992a, 1992c; Young 1995).
“Race” is a psychocultural construct that intersects with other identity constructs,
such as gender and age, to define spaces of action and constraint (Andersen and



Collins 1995; Butler 1993; Devereux 1970; Rothenberg 1998). Here, I am primarily
concerned with cultural history and with the psychocultural construction of “race,”
and its implications and uses in societies, sciences, and medicines.




First, we recognize that concepts of “race” are not peculiar to the West, nor are they
universal. We find “racial” beliefs in a variety of cultures around the world. However, the meaning of the term is not the same in those places and, of course, did
not and does not exist in the majority of extinct or extant cultures. The meaning
of “race” also varies among the cultures of Western Europe. This variation exists
despite common assertions about a “Western view” of “race” as a rationalist product
of some allegedly culturally unitary expansionist enterprise (e.g., Gregory and Sanjek
1999). Such economic explanations, in fact, tend to give “racial” thinking a veneer
of rationality (and therefore, respectability in the West) that analyses demonstrate it
lacks. Rather, we see cultural historical mental patterns adapting to change rather
than rational responses to it. And we see that such mental phenomena are preeminently
local or (re)localized even when transplanted.
The views of “race” of the Latin and the Germanic traditions of Western Europe
are fundamentally distinctive. The differing conceptions are the results of profoundly
different cultural historical processes that have imprinted each tradition with a distinctive cultural logic (Gaines 1992b, 1992c).
In the United States, “race” is a central popular conception that derives not
from the Latin traditions of Western Europe, but from the Germanic tradition,
a tradition altered through its transmission to the United States through England.
This folk conception of the biological bases of human differences is, in the United
States, also central to a variety of scientific enterprises, including clinical, bench, and
population biomedical sciences. Notions of “race” are evident in the application of
biomedical theory, whether to populations as in public health or in genetics, clinical
therapy, and in the newer therapies such as the allocation of resources in organ
transplantation (Duster 1990; Gaines 1992a, 1992b, Larson 1995). The notion of
“race” is likewise enshrined in the use of codes to indicate the research populations of NIH-sponsored activities. There we find a “minority” code (and a code
for the scientific acceptability, or lack thereof, of the inclusion or exclusion of such
populations). As I note below, the concept of “minority” has meaning only in
the context of a “racial” ideology that defines group affiliation. We find ideas of
“race” in the social and psychological sciences, as well as in the popular cultures that
constitute its psychocultural contexts.

In the United States, an allegedly majority group, variously called “white” or
“Caucasian,” is distinguished in research not only as a biogenetic group, but also as
a distinct culture. The “majority” cultural group definition creates other groups as
“minorities.” However, this usage manifests an implicit “racial” classificatory system



and a leap in logic from there. That is, people assume that “race” is culture. Hence, in
science and society, individuals refer to something called the “majority,” “mainstream,”
or “dominant culture” borne by “white” or “Caucasian” people.
The subsumption of people of European ancestry in the United States under
a single cultural label is without basis (other than in “racial” ideology). In ethnic,
religious, or cultural terms, there exists no majority culture in the United States;
everyone in the United States belongs to an ethnic or cultural minority group. One
minority group does bear the dominant culture. I refer to this tradition as the Northern
European Protestant Tradition (for it excludes many of the Protestant groups in the
United States such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Evangelicals), otherwise
known as Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It is a minority group, as are all other ethnic groups
in the United States. Other traditions are those that derive from the Mediterranean
culture area (including France) (Gaines 1985; Gaines and Farmer 1986).




The system of social classification based upon cultural notions of “race” greatly affects
life chances in the United States and in other societies that hold “racial” beliefs,
such as Japan (e.g., DeVos and Wagatsuma 1966; Myrdal 1954). The fact of local
constructions of human differences at a biological level suggests that we recognize
that there are distinctive notions of biology in the world. That which is biological is
by no means universal, as biomedicine asserts (Mishler 1981; Gaines 1992b, 2004a).
Hence, one must pluralize and speak of “biologies,” not biology (Gaines 1987,
n.d.), and acknowledge the distinct biological constructs and processes we find in
local popular and scientific contexts.
I subsume these distinct notions under the general rubric of “local biology”
(Gaines 1992c, 1995, 1998a). Elements of various local biologies may include not
only notions of “race,” but also distinctive biologies of gender and social class
(Carlson 2001; Fausto-Sterling 1992, 2000; Gaines 1998a, 2004a, n.d.; Gould
1996; Haraway 1991; Laqueur 1990; Lock 1993; Pernick 1985). Such alleged biological identities often entail putative moral and intellectual, as well as cultural differences (Carlson 2001; DeVos and Wagatsuma 1966; Gaines 1992a, 1992c; Gould
1996; Lamont 2003).
“Race” is equally important in the development of anthropology as a discipline,
largely because it is within this field that there arose the first attacks on scientific
racism in the West as well as some early scientific characterizations of “race.” The
initiator of the struggle against scientific racism was the founder of anthropology
in the United States, Franz Boas (see his Race, Language and Culture, 1940, with
essays dating from 1910 and earlier; Stocking 1968). It is here that we find some of
the major critiques of the concept of “race” being used for the first time.
With respect to the several societies that hold biological “racial” beliefs, such as
the United States, Germany, and Japan, we find that they do not share the same
classificatory systems, nor do they share physiognomic stereotypes or characterological imputations. Though all systems of “racial” beliefs are cultural constructions,
they may form paramount social realities in a given culture. These conceptions are
examples of “culture in mind,” to use Bradd Shore’s felicitous phrase (1996), in the



form of local biology. In societies adhering to beliefs about biological bases of various
human groups, we find that differences having to do with achievement, wealth, intelligence, morality, and other indices of success and well-being, are presumed to derive
from biology. This deterministic view is (re)asserted in that paean to the “natural”
virtues of inequality, The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray 1994) (see also Carlson
2001; Cohen 1998). Such works typically ignore the rather obvious social (and
cultural) contexts and constraints on life status and achievement.




Beliefs in the natural inequality of peoples classed as “races” have been used historically as justification for domination, exploitation, and extermination (Gilman 1985;
Gould 1995, 1996; Gregory and Sanjek 1999; Weber 1992). The psychological
processes are rather clear. The victim is dehumanized such that their suffering carries
no moral implication or responsibility for the agent(s) of their suffering (Gaines
1992a; Lamont 2003).
We can observe today the dramatic results of difference in definitions of the
humanity, or lack thereof, of a subject people in the Americas. Whereas the Spanish
crown determined that Native Americans were people in the early seventeenth
century (and therefore to be converted, not slaughtered), the British and their
descendent colonialists in the United States did not (Takaki 1993; Weber 1992). As
a direct result, today there are many millions of Native Americans in Latin America
but scarcely one half million remaining in the United States.
In this way, the concept of “race” serves as a culturally constituted defense mechanism, as Spiro (1970) outlined some time ago with respect to Burmese religious roles.
Hence, as I discuss below, it is resilient and continues in the face of telling refutations of the concept by social experience, as well as genetic and social science
research findings.

While many, perhaps most, cultures of the world past and present did not and do
not hold “racial” theories, such theories are important to consider in discussions of
science and society, especially in the United States and, by extension, the Western
world. “Race” is one of a number of popular cultural conceptions about human
difference. The Western concept was developed in its present scientific and related
lay versions largely in the nineteenth century (Barkan 1992; Gossett 1965; Naroll
and Naroll 1973; Stocking 1968). It was not a result of scientific progress. In
classical and pre-classical times, people recognized differences in physical appearance,
but such differences were irrelevant or read primarily in the aesthetic domain (Kuriyama
1993; Sherwin-White 1967). Language differences were noteworthy in these times,
as well as differences in customs and morals (MacIntyre 1966). However, differences among human groups were nowhere perceived as reflections of inhering and
immutable biological distinctiveness expressed as culture.
Because early civilizations comprised a number of physical types and cultural or
ethnic groups in varying levels of assimilation (Sherwin-White 1967), it would have



been difficult to usefully assert a notion of biologically determined morals or behaviors
specific to one people or “race.” The moral component of group membership became,
in the West, a significant feature of “racial” attribution, one that continues to affect
the foci and data (mis)interpretation in US medical research and practice (Adebimpe
1981; Brandt 1978, 1985; Carlson 2001; Duster 1990; Gaines 1992a, 1992c, 1998a,
2004a; Gilman 1985; Osborne and Feit 1992).
The idea of “race” emerged slowly in parts of the West and it did so in very different terms in different locations. An important step in the development of the notion
of “race” that is believed to signify membership in a particular human biological
population comes in the eighteenth century in the work of the Swedish botanist
and taxonomist Carol Linnaeus (1707–78). His work built upon earlier notions of
“species.” Species were distinct animal populations that naturalists thought formed
discontinuous groups. These distinct groups were sufficiently different that, naturalists thought, they could not interbreed. In addition to his classification of plants and
other things, Linnaeus proposed a classification of human beings. He distinguished
six human “groups,” exemplars of most of which he had never seen. He labeled the
six “groups,” not “races.”
Any notion that the human groups were distinct species (as the term was then
used) already had been contradicted by the interbreeding of Europeans, such as the
French and the Spanish in the New World, with native populations. However, such
obvious realities would be ignored in subsequent periods (Carlson 2001; Gilman
1985; Gould 1996).
The French naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon (1707–88) introduced the term “race” into the biological literature in 1749. His term did not
refer to distinct human groups as having separate origins or biologies, however, as
he did not view them as distinct species (Montagu 1964). Buffon and Linnaeus’s
early reflections on human group differences saw these as representing variations of
a single species.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, English and German philosophy and
science began the construction of ideas of fundamental, incommensurate, biological
differences that distinguished human groups (Barkan 1992; Boas 1940; Gould 1996).
Nineteenth-century theories in the West were largely alike in expressing racist sentiments that incorporated a Spencerian “survival of the fittest” ideology (Gould 1996).
Such sentiments rather explicitly justified colonialism and genocide.
English historians of the nineteenth century repeatedly referred to such “racial traits”
as “rationality” and “freedom loving,” traits said to be found among the English
(the result of the merging of the German tribes of the Angles and Saxons in Britain,
and later the Danes) and their ancestors, the Germans (Barkan 1992; Gossett 1965).
In National Socialist “race science,” which included medical sciences, most people
commonly regarded in the United States as belonging to a “white race” were
excluded. Thus, Italian, Slavic, and Irish Americans and others belonged to separate
and inferior “races,” as did Africans and Asians. The so-called “master race” was the
mythical “German race,” not a generalized European or “white race” as is now
assumed in the United States.
A central figure in the shrouding of “racial” ideology in scientific terms congenial to the colonial mind in Western Europe was Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911).
Called the “father of statistics,” he lent both his ideas of the reality and inequality of



“races,” as well as methods allegedly useful in their determination. Scientists saw
his statistical methods as the epitome of science, as the “trust in numbers” took hold
as secular gospel. He coined the term “eugenics,” conceiving of his new “science” as
a program for “racial improvement” (Gould 1996).
The notion of the need for watchfulness over the genetic patrimony of a dominant
group was widely found in the West, in science and politics as well as social policy
(Brandt 1985; Carlson 2001; Gould 1996). The Nazis carried eugenics to its ultimate
extreme in science and medicine, but its ideas were well entrenched in US science
(e.g., Barkan 1992; Brandt 1985; Kater 1989).
Contemporary claims of innate differences, for example in IQ, continue to be
made by people on the political right. The Bell Curve showed the affinity of the
ideas of racism, sexism, and elitism in the United States that has been apparent in
English science. Most important, from a psychological anthropological viewpoint,
is the relationship to one another of the variety of forms of communalism. That
is, those who believe in innate “racial” differences are likely to believe in innate
differences between the sexes (beyond mere sexual dimorphism) and even the social
classes (e.g., the assumption that the wealthy are “better people” who are deserving
and hard working) (Gould 1996; Lamont 2003).

We may view this position as a particular “thought model” in Devereux’s (1958)
terms. This model views human differences as derived from biology (or genetics) and
is a construction that I have referred to as biological essentialism (Gaines 1992a).
Thus, racism and sexism appear as two sides of the same conceptual coin of biological
Biological essentialism is in fact a folk idea that science adopted and veiled in
its discursive mantel. There the concept directs research and colors interpretations of
results. For example, in research, in medical and social spheres in the United States,
comparison groups are selected to provide a basis for determining “difference.”
These groups are usually “racial” groups (now sometimes called “ethnic” groups)
employed as units of comparison for which researchers assume differences will be
found (Osborne and Feit 1992).

Researchers biologize people’s psychologies as well. This biologization is most
apparent in studies of IQ and mental disorders. Most notorious in psychological
research was England’s dean of educational psychology for most of the twentieth
century. Sir Cyril Burt (1883–1971) conducted a large number of twin studies
conclusively showing the heritability of IQ, or so UK psychologists (and educational policy makers) assumed. After his death, researchers found that most of his
twin studies, purporting to show the genetic and unchangeable basis of IQ, were
fraudulent, but by this time they had already made an impact on English notions
of “breeding.” In the United States, Burt’s elitist, biological essentialist arguments



were converted into racist (and sexist) theories by his students, most especially
psychologists Hans Eysenck (1990) and Arthur Jensen (see Gould 1995; FaustoSterling 1992). Jensen’s work on the heritability of measured IQ is built on the
same false assumptions as those asserted by the authors of The Bell Curve, Herrnstein
and Murray (1994), who wrongly assumed that IQ can be measured with a simple
number, then ranked and used as an unchangeable, universal standard (Gould 1996;
Fausto-Sterling 1992).
Murray built upon and defended Jensen’s position in a 1971 article that was
without documentation. He then went on to provide with Herrnstein (often false
and/or distorted) documentation in The Bell Curve. Jensen himself has tried to
defend the “legacy,” such as it is, of Burt (e.g., Jensen 1992), an important defense
since the entire heritability argument is fundamentally grounded in Burt’s fraudulent
The research course in the United States articulated its key notion of difference,
“race,” in the stead of England’s (biological) notion of class distinctiveness. While
their statistics might be hard to challenge, one can easily falsify the social categories
on which the statistics related to IQ were and are collected. First, researchers mistakenly and steadfastly presume that the social categories represent distinctive genetic
groups. Second, they presume that genetics determines IQ. Third, they presume that
social experience and expectation does not influence performance on tests. However, the Human Genome Project has demonstrated the central impossibility of all
attempts to classify groups on the basis of distinctive genomes, for humans share
some 99.95 percent of their genes.
The genetic approach is also a psychological defense of intellectualization, for it
is a way for researchers, policy analysts, and lay persons to exclude the obvious
differences in opportunity that result in great differences in education, wealth, and
health. The genetic approach often allows a seemingly scientific approach to mirror
racist (or classist and/or sexist) beliefs and assumptions. Such work also facilitates a
blame-the-victim approach in science.
A dominant idea since 1980 in US psychiatry is that mental illnesses are biological
(Gaines 1992a, 1992c; Luhrmann 2000). This position is a version of biological
essentialism that was borrowed from German psychiatry, which in turn borrowed it
from German philosophy. German philosophy itself had internalized the concept
from German popular culture (Gaines 1992c; Young 1991). This gives the United
States a genealogy of an ostensibly scientific conception. The ideas serve cultural,
social, and personal psychological interests. That is, members of the elite or dominant
group comfort themselves with notions of superiority and just desserts (Gaines 1992a;
Lamont 2003; Rowan 1995).




Evolutionists of the nineteenth century explained the increasing knowledge of human
diversity in biological terms (Barkan 1992; Boas 1940; Gossett 1965). They proposed that different “levels” or stages of societies, typically evaluated by measures of
material culture, signified inborn abilities. As a consequence, “history” meant European
history. Racist evolutionist ideas, and many that were not evolutionist, permeated



much of medicine, psychology, biology, and other sciences in both Europe and
the United States. Among the first to lead a concentrated and protracted attack on
scientific racism was Franz Boas (1858–1942).
A German immigrant and the founder of US anthropology, Boas was among
the first to challenge the homogenized notions of “race” in science at a time when
people inside and outside of anthropology were quite comfortable with them. He
showed the malleability of the human form. His findings flatly contradicted assumptions about the conservative biological nature (and culture) of “races.” We now see
the differences among populations as less and less significant. These differences have
been produced by human biology so plastic that all its variations have developed
from a common group (in Africa) in something less than 120,000 years.
However, most importantly, Boas showed that biology was not related to culture.
He demonstrated that groups said to be “races” do not have “race-specific” languages, religions, or other cultural practices. As he demonstrated, members of the
same “race” spoke different languages, held different religious beliefs, and otherwise
exhibited distinct cultures. Thus, “race” (or biology) cannot determine forms of
human behavior (Boas 1940; Stocking 1968). Many of the positions advanced by
Boas remain the most powerful anti-racist arguments. It is remarkable that he began
his assault on scientific racism before 1910, when blatantly racist statements were
common in science and popular culture, including Teddy Roosevelt, who worried
about “race suicide” (see Brandt 1985).
By the late nineteenth century, scholars saw evolutionary schemes as being based
on biased conjecture. There were no empirical bases for the evolutionary stages of
Marx, Spencer, Tylor, or any of the other evolutionary theorists. Diffusionism replaced
evolutionism in the United States (functionalism in Europe) with its still-important
ideas of relativism and the unrankable differences among cultures.
We may see here an analogy with psychology. Whereas anthropology recognized
cultures in the place of Culture, psychology yet maintains the idea that there is a
universal “g,” or general human intelligence, that can be measured. Different cultural beliefs and values become, in this view, noise interfering with the reading of
the underlying, universal psychological reality. Anthropology has shifted, in a parallel
fashion to Boas’s use of cultures rather than Culture, in recognizing cultural psychologies, not a universal psychology (Shore 1996; Shweder 1990).
Evolutionists rank people and cultures from low to high, worst to best. Implicit
in evolutionist thinking is the idea of progress, the idea that things are changing for
the better. The two ideas, evolution and progress, are unrelated and must be kept
separate. Evolutionary change is simply descent with modification; there is no implication of improvement, superiority, or progress of later social or biological forms over
earlier ones. A counter to the linking of evolution and progress is Boas’s notion of
“cultural relativism.”
The relativist thrust within anthropology was further enriched by Geertz’s (1973)
concern with people’s understandings of their own experiences, rather than with
“experience-distant” explanations of human behavior. Further developments have
shown that individuals may contest notions or beliefs in their cultures and that one’s
vantage point in society affects one’s view of it (i.e., Shweder’s “view from somewhere”). We see cultures and their psychologies more as organized diversity than
replicated uniformity, as Wallace (1961) suggested long ago.

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