Questions for Alan Goodman

Learn more about my research In April, 2007, Alan Goodman answered visitors questions about biological anthropology.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

A high school student in Minnesota recently raised concerns about reading Huck Finn as part of required curriculum for their English class. Their concern is Twain's use of racially charged language. What are your thoughts on educational standards that involve "classic" works, literary-historic-artistic value to culture that include language and sometime arguments and ideas that can be experienced as bigotry by today's students?

posted on Tue, 04/10/2007 - 9:30pm
Alan Goodman's picture

Although I do not teach fiction and literature, I actually have the same sorts of concerns with historical sources and even science books and articles. For example, students in my class frequently critically read scientific and popular writings from the 19th and early parts of the 20th century that are virulently racist. While such writing can cause pain, I think in the end the worse problem is to ignore the past. There are many valuable lessons.

I have a couple of thoughts about how to present “racist” literature. It is important to put the work in its historical context and in the case of fiction, to provide a sense of what the author’s intentions and motivations may have been. I think it is also critical to understand what was acceptable and common in the past. Finally, these are the ideas and worldviews that shaped our society. Such racist language – and the thoughts behind the language – are still around today. Reading Huck Finn could lead to a valuable class discussion about how the forms of acceptable language have changed compared to the underlying idea about race and racism.
Alan Goodman

posted on Fri, 04/27/2007 - 1:36pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How is racism different from classism? Stated differently, is racism simply how classism manifests? Or vice versa? This is a question many of my students ask (usually when I mention Charles Barkley's -I'm not black anymore; I'm rich- comments) and I'm interested in your thoughts.

posted on Sat, 04/14/2007 - 9:38am
Alan Goodman's picture

Great question! Racism and classism are separate constructs and realities, but obviously connected. Racism is unequal access to power and resources by race whereas classism is unequal access to power and resources by ones social and economic position in society. Measurable manifestations of racism and classism are variations in accumulated wealth and life expectancy by race and class.

In the United States, there is a strong association or correlations between race and class, meaning specifically that those of greater socioeconomic status tend to be white whereas those of lesser socioeconomic status tend to be in other racial and ethnic groups Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, including Mr. Charles Barkley. I would venture that all societies manifest some degree of racism and classism, some interactions between racism and classism, and some variation in the relative importance of racism and classism.

An interesting way to think about racism and classism is through the lens of health. In the United States, there are gradients by both race and class in nearly every disease and in cumulative measure of health such as life expectancy and infant mortality. If one “controls” for race there is some reduction in the impact of class because race and class are correlated, but there is still in statistical terms a residual class component. Race does not explain all of the class differences in health. Similarly, if one “controls” for class, there is still a racial component to health that is left over. Class does not explain all of the racial differences in health. Upper class African Americans are not as healthy as upper class whites and lower class whites are healthier than lower class African Americans.

This makes some sense because the lived experience of “class” varies depending on one’s skin color or race, and the lived experiences of race varies somewhat depending on one’s class position. Identities and experiences are not singular but multiple and fluid. So, with all due respect, I think Charles Barkley is wrong. As a rich person, he accrues the benefits of his class position. But in the US, he is still subject to racist comments and beliefs.

Alan Goodman

posted on Fri, 04/27/2007 - 1:37pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What is white privilege?

posted on Sat, 04/14/2007 - 9:39am
Alan Goodman's picture

White privilege is a system of ideas, actions, and structures that methodically advantage whites over other individuals and groups. White privilege also refers to the results of the system.

For examples, in school and on the job, the performance of non-Whites is frequently seen to reflect not only their own abilities and motivations, but that of their “race” whereas whites do not carry a similar burden. In health care, medicines are tested mostly on white males, and the results, therefore, are probably best fitted to them, rather than to females and members of other ethnicities. These are examples of a systems in education, work life and health care in which whites are taken for granted as culturally and socially normative.

I believe that white privilege is pervasive and “at work” everyday and everywhere, sometimes with consequences that are relatively trivial, other times with seemingly trivial consequences that add up to something big, and other times white privilege is hugely important.

For me, white privilege is an extremely useful idea because it brings to the foreground the notion that racism is a system. It is the water we swim in. White priviledge also point to something that is largely invisible to whites, and indeed, that is another general aspect of white privilege – like a fish not thinking about water, whites in a racist culture can function without awareness of their privilege.

posted on Tue, 05/01/2007 - 2:05pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The exhibit says that we are all African Americans. My grandparents are from Ireland, so how is that possible?

posted on Sat, 04/14/2007 - 9:43am
Alan Goodman's picture

We are all Africans on a much deeper time scale. Humans appear to have originated in Africa, evolved there, and eventually came to populate the world, including, Ireland and the United States. While your grandparents are from Ireland, in a sense you are I are related with all of humanity in our common African origins. We all came from Africa.

This seems to be a rather strange proposition when we look at each other, but if we look at our genetics it become very clear that all of the world’s groups share an incredibly high amount of the same genetics (alleles) with Africans.

posted on Fri, 04/27/2007 - 1:44pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What did you study to get to the position you are in now? How did you decide to pursue this career?

posted on Sat, 04/14/2007 - 9:44am
Alan Goodman's picture

By the time I was a college undergraduate, I knew that I was interested in biology and behavior and how they go together. I discovered anthropology my very last semester of my undergraduate studies. However, I had studied biology and psychology so I had a strong science background. Eventually, I got a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. Since 1985, I have been a professor of biological anthropology.

Most colleges required a Ph.D. in order to teach at the college and university level: it is the main training requirement. In addition, however, it is important to have a research area and specialization. Mine include studies of teeth and bones and also human biological variation, the subject of the RACE exhibit.

To be honest, I don’t think there was a clear moment when I decided I would grow up and be an anthropologists or a college professor. What I did do is follow my interests. (And I hoped that I would be able to make a living at it!) I hope that the advice to “follow your passions” is still good advice.

I hope that helps! Thanks for asking.

posted on Tue, 05/01/2007 - 2:06pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what sets biological anthropology apart fron the other disciplines of anthropology? Like for example cultural anthropology?

posted on Sat, 04/21/2007 - 4:16pm
Alan Goodman's picture

Biological anthropologists study human (and primate) evolution, behavior, and variation with a focus on – humans as biology beings. Whereas, cultural anthropologists, study much the same, but with a focus on (Guess what?) – humans as social and cultural being. To make it a little more complex, archaeologists study the evolution of humans both culturally and biologically.

In a sense, biological and cultural anthropology are like two wings of a plane with the plane being anthropology, or the holistic study of humans in the past and present. What is important, I think, is that the wings are connected In order that the plane can fly right, it needs both wings.

Today, we need scientists that understand humans as social beings and humanists that understand biology and science.

posted on Tue, 05/01/2007 - 2:07pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

People often confuse race and culture; their predjudices or sterotypes being based on cultural difference as indicated by phenotype difference. Is there a relationship between phenotype and culture? Between genetic variation, culture and "race"? How do YOU define--understand--race?

posted on Thu, 04/26/2007 - 12:09pm
Alan Goodman's picture

When the idea of race was first used by anthropologist, it was used to describe and explain everything that is biological and cultural and everything in between. Race was THE explanation. Then, around the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of race became a more limited, yet still powerful; it was seen as somewhat unscientific to view race as explaining cultural differences.

What is important to understand (and a main message of the RACE exhibit) is that race is an idea that was once used to explain genetic variation. Similar to the movement to separate race from culture in the early part of the 20th century, most now realize that race also does not explain genetic variation. The reason is that genetic variation is very complexly patterned and greater within than among “racial” groups.

What is Race? Race is the perfect hoax. It seems so plain and obvious. The idea of race developed from a worldview of fixed and ideal types. In the original notion of race, from the 18th and 19th centuries, the powerful and all encompassing explanatory force of “race” made clear all one needed to know about biology, behavior, and culture. As sciences developed, “race” became a more limited yet still powerful folk idea that now stands in for the structure of genetic and phenotypic variation. The idea of race has become reified (made to appear to be real) by constant use. It persists because for the longest time it seemed to capture the observed variation, and obviously too, because it does work in maintaining the status quo.

Race is the perfect hoax and a powerful illusion. It does not explain genetic variation (it hardly correlates well with genetic variation!). Yet, thinking it does, influences sciences and nearly all aspect of our daily lives, sometimes with mortal consequences. At the same time, race has become a self-description and way of developing political power that, somewhat paradoxically, has a place in science and politics. Without collecting data by race, one cannot track the path of racial justice.

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 7:58am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what has been one of your greatest findings when working in your field? Have there been any fieldwork that has been very memorable and intriguing?

posted on Sat, 05/05/2007 - 3:23pm
Alan Goodman's picture

I have been fortunate to do a lot of different thing. I participated in archaeological field work in the US, physiological research in Sweden, nutritional research in Mexico and Egypt, and I have done a whole lot of laboratory work. All are memorable and it is hard to pick one memorable event, but since you asked for one ….

About a decade ago, I was part of a team that excavated a bronze-age tomb in the United Arab Emirates. The site is called Tell Abraq and the individuals who built the site and are buried in the collective tomb lived around 4200 years ago. We excavated one side of the tomb one field season and we found very little. It appeared to be more of an entrance way with only a scattering of human skeletal remains. It was a little bit of a let down but archaeologically still interesting.

We returned a couple years later and we didn’t have much time. But as soon as we started digging we found lots of fabulous stuff: pots, bronze daggers and spears, jewelry of all sorts, and of course, the bones of the people too. It was amazing.

While this archaeological work was memorable, I would not list it among my greatest finding or discoveries. Those “finding” usually come after the field, working for sometimes rather long times with data sets and thinking about what you’ve seen in the field or laboratory and the data that came emerges.

For examples, when I first started looking at tooth development, it was a strong consensus that all teeth responded similarly and to the same degree to an environmental stress or perturbation during their development. It was not even something that scientist debated or talked about. But when I started looking closely at some of my data I came to the conclusion that the consensus opinion was not true. What, then, is interesting is to figure out why teeth respond differently and in different degrees to the same environmental stress.

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 7:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Looking at projections, will there be a time when the majority of the planet is "mixed" so that there will be no differentiation between the groups??
Thank you!

posted on Sun, 05/06/2007 - 1:43pm
Alan Goodman's picture

What is interesting is how much we are already mixed -- and have always been mixed.

We developed as a species about 100 thousand years ago, and it the evidence suggests that we have had very little (reproductive and social) isolation ever since. Moreover, even a little gene mixing can have a large blending consequence. The sort of genetic mixing that largely went on before 1492 was like a set of dominos. One domino hits the one next to it, then the next one, and the next one down the line.

After 1492, and especially now, individuals are moving much further so the pace of mixing has increased and the type of mixing now includes mixing of individuals from vastly divergent parts of the globe.

The key issue is that there were never pure types – we have always been mixed.

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 7:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

According to the Red Cross website, people of African ancestry have specific antigens in their blood absent from populations of more recent European ancestry. First, is this true, and does it affect the importance of black patients getting blood from other blacks--will it help the body better accept the transfusion?

posted on Sun, 05/06/2007 - 9:27pm
Alan Goodman's picture

It sounds like the Red Cross is a little behind the scientific curve! There are not any antigens that are specific to one race or another. The data show that they might be higher or lower in one group or another, and that there is incredible variation within any so called race. So, I do not think race is important in terms of the compatibility of someone for a transfusion.

What is important is to match up the specific antigens. Statistically, that is more likely in a family member or close relative, for sure. But to know if one has a good match, one has to test for the antigens. Race is not going to work as a proxy for that, just as it doesn’t work in general as a proxy or shorthand way to classify human genetic variation.

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 8:00am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How much human variation falls within any population, and how much between races?

posted on Fri, 05/11/2007 - 10:11pm
Alan Goodman's picture

Starting with a famous statistical paper by Richard Lewontin published in 1972, Lewontin and researchers to follow have consistently found that only about 6-8% of genetic variation is statistically found among “races’ and most of the remaining variation is profoundly local – it is found within small populations. So, statistically, race does not explain very much.

But the problem of equating race with genetic variation is deeper than that. Evolution and history acting at a local level, not race, causally determines the structure of genetic variation. Race is weakly correlated but not causal. So, on a conceptual level, race does not explain anything. History and evolution, however, do explain a whole lot, and that is fascinating.

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 8:01am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Is there a connection between athletic ability and race?

posted on Fri, 05/11/2007 - 10:11pm
Alan Goodman's picture

Individuals and perhaps even small group might differ in athletic ability (defined one way or the other). However, this does not mean that there is a connection between the idea of race (as genetic variation) and athletic ability. To say the later is just untrue.

Clearly, some individuals have more athletic ability than others do. Further, this ability might even cluster, in families, for example. Nevertheless, as we know, variation is local – and race simply is a meaningless unit of analysis. So, the extrapolation to race totally falls apart.

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 8:01am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Will we ever become color blind?

posted on Fri, 05/11/2007 - 10:12pm
Alan Goodman's picture

That is a hard question to answer because it really depends on both the individuals in power and all of us. It depends on you and me and all of us. Right?

I certainly think exhibits such as the RACE at the Science Museum of Minnesota help a lot. I guess the question I would ask back is “What steps do we need to take to become a color blind society and how do we start taking those steps?”

posted on Wed, 05/16/2007 - 9:13am