This article about conflicts in anthropology involving gender and ethnicity comes from the website of Jonathan Turley, whose name I’d heard before but whose work and politics I didn’t know. His Wikipedia bio doesn’t give much clue into his politics (to be truthful, I didn’t look hard for it, since it seemed irrelevant to the story), I wondered simply because he cites a right-wing website below.
But Turley is no weirdo: here’s one bit from his Wikipedia bio:
Turley holds the Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at The George Washington University Law School, where he teaches torts, criminal procedure, and constitutional law. He is the youngest person to receive an academic chair in the school’s history. He runs the Project for Older Prisoners (POP), the Environmental Law Clinic, and the Environmental Legislation Project.
I am assuming, then, that what he describes and quotes is accurate, and will give my views accordingly. Here’s the article at hand, which relates to the last article we had about ethnicity (which, of course, reflects ancestry). Click screenshot to read:
I’ll be brief: there is a cadre of anthropologists who want to stop their colleagues from classifying skeletons by sex and by trying to find out their ancestry. The reason? Because it doesn’t comport with today’s “progressive” Leftist views. I’ll quote Turley:
There is an interesting controversy brewing in anthropology departments where professors have called for researchers to stop identifying ancient human remains by biological gender because they cannot gauge how a person identified at that the time. Other scholars are calling for researchers to stop identifying race as a practice because it fuels white supremacy. One of the academics objecting to this effort to stop gender identifications, San Jose State archaeology Professor Elizabeth Weiss, is currently suing her school. Weiss maintains that she was barred from access to the human remains collection due to her opposition to the repatriation of human remains. The school objected that she posted a picture holding a skull from the collection on social media, expressing how she was “so happy to be back with some old friends.”
The conservative site College Fix quotes various academics in challenging the identification of gender and notes the campaign of the Trans Doe Task Force to “explore ways in which current standards in forensic human identification do a disservice to people who do not clearly fit the gender binary.”
Let’s take sex and ancestry separately. Turley’s prose is indented.
On gender and sex:
University of Kansas Associate Professor Jennifer Raff argued in a paper, “Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas,” that there are “no neat divisions between physically or genetically ‘male’ or ‘female’ individuals.” Her best selling book has been featured on various news outlets like MSNBC.
. . . However, Raff is not alone. Graduate students like Emma Palladino have objected that “the archaeologists who find your bones one day will assign you the same gender as you had at birth, so regardless of whether you transition, you can’t escape your assigned sex.”
Well, given that sex is pretty close to a complete binary in humans, and is reflected and diagnosable in our bones bones—hence “Lucy“, A. afarensis, was female and “Turkana Boy“, H. ergaster was male—you determine biological sex from skeletons, not gender.
Is that a problem? I don’t see how. Even if our hominin relatives or ancestors did have concepts of gender beyond male and female, there are genuine scientific questions to be answered by studying biological sex from ancient remains. What was the ratio of males to females in various places, and if it differed much from 50:50, why? If someone’s remains are associated with items, like Ötzi the hunter (actually a mummy), one can conclude something about ancient cultures and the possibility of differential sex roles. Is it important for scientists to debate whether Ötzi identified himself as a “they/them” given that we’ll never know the answer? Or are we forbidden to inspect the genitals? (He was a biological male).
Now it is of sociological value to determine whether our ancestors identified as “men and women” and saw only two genders, but if we can’t do that, it’s ludicrous to say that we shouldn’t identify remains on the basis of biological sex—a lot easier to do! I won’t give a list of scientific questions that can be addressed by knowing the sex of a fossil hominin, but there are lots, and yet some anthropologists want to stop all such research because hominins may not have had gender roles that matched their biological sex.
On ancestry and ethnicity:
Likewise for ancestry. It’s sometimes possible to guess one’s ethnicity from skeletal morphology, but it’s much more accurate to do DNA sequencing. (Sequencing of fossil DNA can tell us both biological sex and which group of either ancient or modern humans you most resemble genetically.) Yet some anthropologists want to stop that research, too. Turley:
Professors Elizabeth DiGangi of Binghamton University and Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida have also challenged the use of racial classifications in a study, objecting that “[a]ncestry estimation contributes to white supremacy.” The authors write that “we use critical race theory to interrogate the approaches utilized to estimate ancestry to include a critique of the continued use of morphoscopic traits, and we assert that the practice of ancestry estimation contributes to white supremacy.”
The professors refer to the practice as “dangerous” and wrote in a letter to the editor that such practices must be changed in light of recent racial justice concerns.
“Between the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and the homicides of numerous Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials, we have all been reminded about the fragility of life, and the failures of our society to live up to the ideals enshrined in the foundational documents which established the United States of America over two centuries ago. Tackling these failures seems overwhelming at times; however, changes can be enacted with candid and reflexive discussions about the status quo. In writing this letter, we direct our comments to the forensic anthropology community in the United States in hopes of sparking a discussion about the long-standing practice of ancestry estimation and changes that are frankly long overdue.”
Once again, research is supposed to be squelched for ideological reasons. Yet estimating ancestry of remains can answer lots of interesting questions. One, for example involves DNA sequencing of Neanderthals and modern humans. I would consider these to be different, long-diverged ethnic groups of a single species, not different species, for they could interbreed where they lived in the same area and also produce fertile hybrids.
That’s just a guess, but without sequencing their DNA, we wouldn’t know not only that they hybridized, but also that many of us still carry some ancient DNA from Neanderthals. Where did the Denisovans belong? (We don’t know whether they were a different species of hominin from modern humans or simply an “ethnic group.”) What about H. erectus? Did they die out without issue, or are they related to any modern populations? Do any of their genes still hang around in H. sapiens? (I don’t think we’ll answer these questions.)
It is the sequencing of DNA of people from different geographic areas (“races” if you will, but call them whatever you want) that has helped us unravel the story of human migration, how many times we left Africa and when, and when different groups established themselves in places like Australia and Polynesia, or crossed the Bering Strait into North America. DNA and estimation of ancestry has immensely enriched the story of human evolution and migration. That’s all from “ancestry estimation”, and you don’t even need a concept of “race” to answer these questions—only a concept of “ancestry” and “relatedness”. Nor does this research contribute to white supremacy, though of course some racists may coopt it.
In the interests of woke ideology, in other words, some anthropologists want to shut down two promising lines of research. I call that misguided and, indeed, crazy. If you despise white supremacy like most of us do, you don’t get rid of it it by banning anthropological genetics. If you want sympathy for people whose gender doesn’t match their biological sex, you don’t get it by stopping researchers from determining the biological sex of ancient human remains.
As the Wicked Witch of the West said, “Oh, what a world! What a world!”