Saturday, December 28, 2019

I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.

The essay that follows was declined by the NY Times. However, a few days later (27 December 2019), they published a column by Bret Stephens on Jewish genius (or, Jewnius©) that actually cited the horrid 2005 paper on that subject by the late biological anthropologist Henry Harpending. Harpending was regarded by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a White Nationalist.

That is a very unusual status for an anthropologist. It raises an interesting issue, though, about Harpending’s legacy. I am in favor of his total erasure. I think his racism probably tainted everything he published, however nice he may have been in person, and I do not see what value there is in talking about him at all politely or respectfully, when his legacy is a black eye for the field of anthropology. Adam Rutherford has been crapping on him over on twitter.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s page on Harpending also uses the phrase “human biodiversity” quite a bit.


I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.
Jonathan Marks

It is rare for a professor to birth a meme. We inhabit ivory towers, very few of us are in the public eye, and those that aspire to be so are often regarded disdainfully by our peers.

For me, it increasingly seems as though my lasting contribution will be to have coined the phrase “human biodiversity” in my 1994 book of that name. Unfortunately it has come to mean the opposite of what I meant, due to the distortions of internet racists. In fact, they have even abbreviated “human biodiversity” as a meme for the semi-literate, HBD.  Journalist Angela Saini describes the appropriation of the phrase in her recent book, “Superior: The Return of Race Science.”

I was proud of the coinage a quarter-century ago, because I intended it to encapsulate the major discovery of the science of biological anthropology over the course of the 20th century. That century began with the scientific assumption that the human species came naturally divisible into a fairly small number of fairly discrete and homogeneous pseudo-taxonomic groups. We called them “races”. By century’s end, however, a great deal of empirical research had shown that our species does not in fact come structured that way. 

“Human biodiversity” was intended to label our newer understanding of the patterns by which people actually differ from one another, as an alternative to the earlier “race”.

“Race” and “human biodiversity” are quite simply different things, two sets of patterns that map very poorly onto one another – and it took the better part of the 20th century to demonstrate it. The subtitle of my book was “Genes, Race, and History” – to suggest that genes demonstrated that the proper place for race in science lay in its history, along with phlogiston, pangenesis, and creationism.

Race exists, of course, but its reality is not primarily biological. The reality of race is in the domain of the symbolic. Race is most real in the sense that, as is well-known, Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his black slave, Sally Hemings. Yet according to the only extant descriptions of her, Sally Hemings had light skin and long, straight dark hair. Why? Because only one of her four grandparents was African. She was a slave because of her symbolic ancestry, not because of her biological ancestry or her appearance.

Race is thus now recognized to be very real, as a system of human classification, as lived experience in a society of inequality. While it sometimes correlates with biology, the proper study of race lies in the study of law, discrimination, sociology, and political economy; the primary exception being in how social prejudice can affect the body itself.

“Human biodiversity” was intended as an alternative way of talking about human variation without the overarching assumption that our species sorts out into fairly discrete, fairly homogeneous races – as was assumed by scientists a century ago. But in the late 1990s, racists began to coopt the phrase as a more genteel and sciencey way to simply say “race”. In other words, they began to synonymize what should be antonyms.

Today all sorts of ideas that were only recently outmoded and unthinkable have become thinkable and real. The advancement of knowledge is clearly unsteady at best. I doubt whether the racists who invoke the phrase actually consult my book and learn that they are misapplying it. They probably wouldn’t care anyway.

To have provided racists with a scientific-sounding cover for their odious ideas is not something to be particularly proud of, but I can’t take it back. All I can do is disavow it.


Postscript:: on 12/29, The New York Times published this apology.
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  1. When things are perceived as real they are real in their consequences (W. I. Thomas, 1904). I hear ya man. Very cogent setting forth of the problem. It locates the negation. Thank you.

  2. Jon, why do you refer to yourself as a faux geneticist? What was faux about it?

    1. I did a Master's and post-doc in genetics, and used genetic techniques in my early independent research, but my formal credentialing is in anthropology. I also push back when Cavalli-Sforza or Jared Diamond is identified as an anthropologist.

  3. One issue in calling human biodiversity as race is very puzzling to me. Biodiversity does not entail hierarchy, while race does. Why this fact is so often overlooked? Also, the question of homogeneity does not distinguish human variations as separate sub-species at all. We can fruitfully interbreed!

  4. I greatly appreciate you're writing this. Genuine knowledge and accurate labeling is everything. You shouldn't disavow this creation of yours. Instead, you should defend it. This is the battleground that the political right has been allowed to take control because the political left has ceded it.

    This happened with libertarianism, another word that described left-wing politics for more than a century before right-wing reactionaries co-opted it. Even earlier, Federalism was taken over by those who were promoting centralized power in place of Federalism, which forced those arguing for genuine Federalism to be ironically called Anti-Federalists in the history books.

  5. Every human is different and name calling people studying the issue is anti-science. There is a taboo looking at human differences and if you don't like the ethics of those talking about the issue, make the issue less taboo and guide it rather than name call.