Romanian Model Composite

December 28, 2009

Black History Professor Rejects Afrocentrism

December 20, 2009

Clarence E. Walker. We Can't Go Home Again: an Argument about Afrocentrism

By Fred R. van Hartesveldt
Teaching History: A Journal of Methods
Fall, 2003

The factual flaws in much of the writing about Afrocentrism have been exposed in the past. Clarence Walker does so again in We Can't Go Home Again, and does so effectively. In this regard he focuses particularly on the Afrocentric assertion that Egyptians were black and the wellspring of Western civilization. He makes very clear that the modern concept of race as identity simply does not apply to the variegated population of Egypt and would not have been understood there. The importance of his book, however, does not lie in renewing and expanding the critique of the factual and analytical content of Afrocentric literature.

Walker refers to Afrocentrism as "therapeutic mythology" asserted as a way to promote the self-esteem of African Americans (a term he does not like) "by creating a past that never was." He understands it as black nationalism; in fact he argues that the origins of Afrocentrism lay in black nationalism of the Romantic era, but rejects it as history. Were Afrocentrism a means of creating African American community and thus empowering a minority, it would be comparable to such mythologies used by other minorities. Such mythologies, however, have been grounded in historical thought, while Afrocentrism is factually errant and theoretically flawed.

By urging black Americans to seek empowerment in a misconstructed Egyptian history, Afrocentrists not only mislead, opening their students to ridicule, but they also assert that culture is "transhistoric" — that is, it can be transferred through time and space intact. Culture, Walker asserts, is always changing and will be different as a result of any transfer, willing or unwilling, on the part of those living it. African Americans have created a culture of their own — a culture of which to be proud, but not an Egyptian or African culture. To Walker's way of thinking, Afrocentrism turns African Americans into helpless victims whose ancestors created a glorious culture and then for thousands of years accomplished little. They became the dupes and victims of Europeans, enslaved and exploited, and now their descendants must look to a mythical African past for purpose and meaning. Such a denigration of the African-American struggle, which Walker regards as a triumph, clearly angers him.

Given the popularity of Afrocentrism and its spread through the academic community and popular culture, anyone teaching history or otherwise interested in the nature of historical methodology should read Walker. The manipulation of history to create a particular attitude or support a political point of view is, as Walker acknowledges, sometimes a way of creating unity and gaining power. To deny a people the heritage they and their forefathers built is not acceptable. Walker shows that historians should help African-American students to appreciate their own real history and not pursue distortions of the past in the name of identity, especially since their actual past offers them an identity worthy of enormous pride.

Walker's prose conveys his ideas and passions effectively, despite a painful tendency to fall into the jargon of social science. His arguments are clear, thoughtful, and easy to read. His concern for the discipline and its practitioners comes through forcefully. Even those who disagree with his conclusions will be engaged and will find much to think about if they are sincerely interested in historical scholarship and how it influences those who study it.

The value of this book for courses in historiography and methodology is obvious. It offers useful examples of how historians analyze material, and historical knowledge can shape our understanding of contemporary culture. Its applications go beyond metahistory, however. Students of modern American society and education will find much to explore in its pages, and anyone investigating African-American history should examine Walker's conclusions. Walker will help such students understand not only one way African Americans have come to view themselves but also an element in their contemporary efforts at gaining a sense of identity within American culture. Thus, although the title might not suggest it, this book can be a valuable part of a variety of courses.


Old Comments Are Gone

December 16, 2009

HaloScan's free commenting service is being discontinued before the end of the year, and users have been given the option of upgrading to a new paid service or exporting their comments for use elsewhere. I've opted for the latter. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't provide any way of importing them. Maybe that'll change in the future, but for now I'm afraid they're gone. (You can download the archive I exported, but it's not very reader-friendly.) Even though I don't like what HaloScan is doing (and I'm not alone), in a way it's a relief because using Blogger's built-in commenting system will simplify things in the long run.

Another Feeble Attack on FORDISC

December 9, 2009

The FORDISC computer program used for classifying unknown human crania has been at the center of a debate about its reliability. In 2005 the program's creators responded to criticism, setting the record straight. Now a new study is launching yet another attack. The authors' conclusion, based on tests they conducted, makes the following two points:

FORDISC will only return a correct ancestry attribution when an unidentified specimen is more or less complete and belongs to one of the populations represented in the program's reference samples.

1) Of course a specimen has to be "more or less complete" to be correctly classified. That applies in forensic anthropology in general and has nothing to do with the efficacy of the FORDISC program. No program or anthropologist can be expected to accurately classify highly incomplete crania, which is what the authors have simulated in one of their tests by reducing the number of cranial metric variables from 56 to 10. This argument is the equivalent of faulting someone for not being able to identify the image on a puzzle that's missing 80% of its pieces.

2) Under Materials and Methods, the authors explain that they only consider an ancestry attribution "correct" if the specimen is assigned to its source population or one that they've selected as its "most closely related population". So for example, they match up Berg (Austria) with Norse (Norway), and if a Berg specimen clusters instead with, say, Zalavar (Hungary) — Austria's next-door neighbor — or Gizeh (Egypt), they'd consider it "misclassified", even though the program has correctly identified it as West Eurasian/Caucasoid. Limiting the criteria for correct classifications to exact matches with source populations or, in the absence of these, pre-selected populations of questionable equivalence, is setting the experiment up to fail.

Marina Elliott and Mark Collard (2009). FORDISC and the determination of ancestry from cranial measurements. Biol Lett., vol. 5 no. 6, pp. 849-852.

Scientists Call for End to Race Denial

November 24, 2009

Let's celebrate human genetic diversity

Bruce Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein
Nature, 8 October 2009

Science is finding evidence of genetic diversity among groups of people as well as among individuals. This discovery should be embraced, not feared, say Bruce T. Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein.

A growing body of data is revealing the nature of human genetic diversity at increasingly finer resolution. It is now recognized that despite the high degree of genetic similarities that bind humanity together as a species, considerable diversity exists at both individual and group levels (see box, page 728). The biological significance of these variations remains to be explored fully. But enough evidence has come to the fore to warrant the question: what if scientific data ultimately demonstrate that genetically based biological variation exists at non-trivial levels not only among individuals but also among groups? In our view, the scientific community and society at large are ill-prepared for such a possibility. We need a moral response to this question that is robust irrespective of what research uncovers about human diversity. Here, we argue for the moral position that genetic diversity, from within or among groups, should be embraced and celebrated as one of humanity's chief assets.

The current moral position is a sort of 'biological egalitarianism'. This dominant position emerged in recent decades largely to correct grave historical injustices, including genocide, that were committed with the support of pseudoscientific understandings of group diversity. The racial-hygiene theory promoted by German geneticists Fritz Lenz, Eugene Fischer and others during the Nazi era is one notorious example of such pseudoscience. Biological egalitarianism is the view that no or almost no meaningful genetically based biological differences exist among human groups, with the exception of a few superficial traits such as skin colour. Proponents of this view seem to hope that, by promoting biological sameness, discrimination against groups or individuals will become groundless.

We believe that this position, although well intentioned, is illogical and even dangerous, as it implies that if significant group diversity were established, discrimination might thereby be justified. We reject this position. Equality of opportunity and respect for human dignity should be humankind's common aspirations, notwithstanding human differences no matter how big or small. We also think that biological egalitarianism may not remain viable in light of the growing body of empirical data.

Many people may acknowledge the possibility of genetic diversity at the group level, but see it as a threat to social cohesion. Some scholars have even called for a halt to research into the topic or sensitive aspects of it, because of potential misuse of the information. Others will ask: if information on group diversity can be misused, why not just focus on individual differences and ignore any group variation? We strongly affirm that society must guard vigilantly against any misuse of genetic information, but we also believe that the best defence is to take a positive attitude towards diversity, including that at the group level. We argue for our position from two perspectives: first, that the understanding of group diversity can benefit research and medicine, and second, that human genetic diversity as a whole, including group diversity, greatly enriches our species.


Box 2. Emerging understanding of human genetic diversity

Genetic diversity is the differences in DNA sequence among members of a species. It is present in all species owing to the interplay of mutation, genetic drift, selection and population structure. When a species is reproductively isolated into multiple groups by geography or other means, the groups differentiate over time in their average genetic make-up.

Anatomically modern humans first appeared in eastern Africa about 200,000 years ago. Some members migrated out of Africa by 50,000 years ago to populate Asia, Australia, Europe and eventually the Americas. During this period, geographic barriers separated humanity into several major groups, largely along continental lines, which greatly reduced gene flow among them. Geographic and cultural barriers also existed within major groups, although to lesser degrees.

This history of human demography, along with selection, has resulted in complex patterns of genetic diversity. The basic unit of this diversity is polymorphisms — specific sites in the genome that exist in multiple variant forms (or alleles). Many polymorphisms involve just one or a few nucleotides, but some may involve large segments of genetic material. The presence of polymorphisms leads to genetic diversity at the individual level such that no two people's DNA is the same, except identical twins. The alleles of some polymorphisms are also found in significantly different frequencies among geographic groups. An extreme example is the pigmentation gene SLC24A5. An allele of SLC24A5 that contributes to light pigmentation is present in almost all Europeans but is nearly absent in east Asians and Africans.

Given these geographically differentiated polymorphisms, it is possible to group humans on the basis of their genetic make-up. Such grouping largely confirms historical separation of global populations by geography. Indeed, a person's major geographic group identity can be assigned with near certainty on the basis of his or her DNA alone (now an accepted practice in forensics). There is growing evidence that some of the geographically differentiated polymorphisms are functional, meaning that they can lead to different biological outcomes (just how many is the subject of ongoing research). These polymorphisms can affect traits such as pigmentation, dietary adaptation and pathogen resistance (where evidence is rather convincing), and metabolism, physical development and brain biology (where evidence is more preliminary).

For most biological traits, genetically based differentiation among groups is probably negligible compared with the variation within the group. For other traits, such as pigmentation and lactose intolerance, differences among groups are so substantial that the trait displays an inter-group difference that is non-trivial compared with the variance within groups, and the extreme end of a trait may be significantly over-represented in a group.

Several studies have shown that many genes in the human genome may have undergone recent episodes of positive selection — that is, selection for advantageous biological traits. This is contrary to the position advocated by some scholars that humans effectively stopped evolving 50,000–40,000 years ago. In general, positive selection can increase the prevalence of functional polymorphisms and create geographic differentiation of allele frequencies.

Link to Abstract

Link to Box 2

Foreigners in Ancient Rome

October 23, 2009

According to the book Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers by David Noy (London: Duckworth, 2000), the main sources of foreigners in Ancient Rome were Gaul and Hispania, Central and Eastern Europe, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Jews (p. 205 ff.). However, it seems that most of those from outside of Europe were ethnically Greek, while Jews never fully assimilated into Roman society, and that the city's foreign population at its peak was only ~5%. Also, foreigners (especially slaves) had higher mortality rates and lower birth rates than natives and were sometimes subjected to mass expulsions. Here are some relevant passages from the book:

Population Size

Immigration was essential to Rome both demographically, to increase or at least maintain the size of the city's population, and socially, to provide skilled workers and soldiers. The slave trade met some of the requirements, but free immigrants were always needed. Provincials probably began to outnumber Italians among newcomers to Rome in the first centuries BC and AD. The third century AD, when all recruitment for the Praetorian Guard was done in the provinces, may have seen the numerical peak of Rome's foreign population. It is plausible to suppose that at least 5% of the city's inhabitants were born outside Italy in that period; the reality could be much greater.


Foreigners who did not have Roman citizenship were always liable to summary expulsion from the city, and by the fourth century the possession of citizenship was no longer protection against such treatment. Although there was a certain amount of xenophobia within the Roman literary class, expulsion was only used in certain circumstances: to deal with the actual or potential misdeeds or alleged bad influence of specific groups (which could be defined by nationality, religion or occupation), or to counteract the effect of food shortages by reducing the number of mouths to feed. Expulsions were probably not carried out very efficiently, and were always short-lived.

Mortality Rate

It is generally agreed that mortality was probably higher in Rome than elsewhere in the Roman world, because of insanitary living conditions and the risk of contagious diseases; diseases such as tuberculosis may have been endemic. Newcomers to [17th-18th c.] London were more susceptible to plague than natives were, and the same point has been made about the greater susceptibility of Rome's immigrants to plasmodium falciparum malaria. Tuberculosis might be particularly dangerous to the young adults who probably formed most of the immigrant population. [...] Slaves are likely to have suffered from higher mortality than the free population, and immigrant slaves would have been particularly vulnerable to diseases which were not prevalent in their homelands.

Birth Rate

It is also likely that the birth rate would have been lower at Rome than elsewhere. Many migrants coming to the city would already have spent some of their fertile years elsewhere, and the slave part of the population would have been less fertile than the rest. Free male citizen immigrants may have postponed marriage until they had access to the corn dole, which from the time of Augustus was only available to a restricted number of recipients. In London, for similar reasons, the natives were closer to reproducing themselves than migrants were, and the same would almost certainly have been true for Rome.

Asia Minor

Although literature emphasizes the significance of Asian slaves at Rome, inscriptions present a rather different picture. The large number of epitaphs in Greek, especially for people from the province of Asia, is consistent with the large number of recorded peregrini [foreigners] in suggesting that the migration of people of free status was particularly significant for this area. The evidence is, however, almost exclusively concerned with the Greek population of Asia Minor, and there is very little sign of people of non-Greek background coming to Rome except as slaves. This is consistent with the general predominance of the most romanized/hellenized section of their home society among free migrants to Rome.


However, most Syrians arrived at Rome through the workings of the slave trade. Syrus was a common slave name, although not necessarily given only to Syrians, since the association Syrian = slave seems to have been very widespread....

"Voluntary migration from Syria to Rome would probably have begun in the late Republic. Most of the evidence, however, is from the second century AD or later. There is a clear implication that some of the slaves and ex-slaves labelled Syrians in the literary sources were thoroughly imbued with Greek culture, whether their ancestry was Syrian, Greek or mixed. Solin (1983, 722) notes that Syrian immigrants in general tended to be of Greek descent or at least to be from the most hellenized part of Syrian society.


Most references to Egyptians at Rome concern Alexandrians, apparently of Greek extraction, rather than 'indigenous' Egyptians. On the other hand, the stereotyped Roman image of Egyptians concentrated on the aspects of their behaviour perceived as most outlandish, particularly the worship of animal-gods, and largely ignored the Greek component of their culture. There seems to be something of a contradiction between image and reality which may be due at least in part to anti-Cleopatra propaganda and its legacy.

North Africa

North Africa contained some cities which were Greek, Libyan or Phoenician foundations, but many of the main population centres began as Roman colonies (notably the re-established Carthage) or military settlements. Ricci (1994b, 198) believes that the colonization programme of Julius Caesar and Augustus in North Africa also stimulated a population flow from there to Rome. The inhabitants of the area came from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds (Italian, Greek, Punic, Libyan, Berber, Jewish), but, as with other areas, it is likely to have been the most romanized/hellenized section of the population which provided most of the free migrants to Rome.


The group which made the greatest effort to retain a separate identity was the Jews. In their religious and communal institutions, their use of separate catacombs, their epigraphic and liturgical use of Greek, and even their naming practices, they behaved differently from others and were able to pass on a Jewish identity, so that people whose ancestors had lived at Rome for generations and who were otherwise well integrated into Roman society were still identifiably Jewish.