Human races: biological reality or cultural delusion?

Aug 14, 2014 by Darren Curnoe, The Conversation
It don’t matter if you’re black or white (or yellow, or beige, or brown). Credit: Suedehead/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The issue of race has been in the news a lot lately with the canning of proposed amendments to Australia's Racial Discrimination Act, attempts by extremists to commit genocide on cultural minorities in Iraq and a new book by US author Nicholas Wade that has scientists claiming their work was hijacked to promote an ideological agenda.

The idea that races are part of our existence and daily experience, especially those of us living in multicultural societies, seems to be just taken for granted by many people.

But are races real or simply social/political constructs? Is there any scientific evidence they exist in humans? Or are some scientists just being politically correct in denying their existence?

Race in nature

Biologists have used the "" category for hundreds of years to classify varieties of plants and animals and, of course, humans. It has normally been reserved for geographic populations belonging to a single species, and has often been used as a synonym of "subspecies".

While the species concept, or definition, has also had its share of controversies, biologists agree that species are real, not arbitrary. They represent reproductively cohesive evolutionary units.

Yet the use of "race" in biology is far from straightforward. It has been controversial for many decades irrespective of which species it has been applied to; human or otherwise.

Ernst Mayr, one of the intellectual giants of biology during the 20th century and a pioneer of the classification of biological diversity, was critical of the use of races and subspecies by taxonomists.

Unlike species, races and subspecies are very fuzzy categories. They lack a clear definition as a biological rank, being arbitrarily and subjectively defined and applied.

Races have been identified on ecological, geographical, climatic, physiological and even seasonal criteria. There are subraces, local races, race populations and microgeographic and macrogeographic races; even "ethnic taxa".

Races simply aren't real like species are: species represent genuine "breaks" in nature while races are part of a continuum and can only ever have very arbitrary boundaries.

Their lack of favour in biology today has a great deal to do with a desire to remove subjectivity and fuzzy thinking from the enterprise of classifying nature.

A race to the bottom

The history of scientific racialism has a very chequered history. Many large-scale atrocities and instances of genocide were carried out in the name of race, usually involving notions of the superiority of one race over another, particularly during the 17th through to 20th centuries.

Anthropology was obsessed with race from the 18th to 20th centuries and has a lot to answer for in terms of the part it played in justifying political and ideological racism.

If you doubt for a moment the impact that race has had on many people, just ask an indigenous person anywhere in the world what they think of race.

History doesn't lie

Putting aside the ethics for a moment, is it legitimate from the biological perspective to apply race to humans? We might consider this from two viewpoints:

  1. How would we go about recognising races?
  2. How many races might we then identify?

Both questions were the source of regular consternation during the 20th century, and earlier, as anthropology struggled to make sense of – and pigeonhole – the geographic variation seen in humankind around the world.

The three great races according to Meyers Konversations-Lexikon of 1885-90. The subtypes of the Mongoloid race are shown in yellow and orange tones, those of the Caucasoid race in light and medium grayish spring green-cyan tones and those of the Negroid race in brown tones. Dravidians and Sinhalese are in olive green and their classification is described as uncertain. The Mongoloid race has the widest geographic distribution, including all of the Americas, North, East and Southeast Asia, the entire inhabited Arctic and most of Central Asia and the Pacific Islands. Credit: Wikimedia Common

What evidence was used to identify human races? Well, as it happens, just about anything, and most of it unscientific.

The book Races of Africa, published in three editions from 1930 to 1957, recognised six races inhabiting the African continent. Its author, British anthropologist C G Seligman, readily admitted that the races it described were defined on non-biological grounds, a fact "readers should appreciate in order to make necessary allowances and corrections".

How were these races identified? Mostly using the languages people spoke: as Seligman further informed his readers, "linguistic criteria will play a considerable part in the somewhat mixed classification adopted."

Seligman should be praised for his honesty. Many other anthropologists continued the ruse of biological objectivity well into the 1970s; some stick to it today. The reality is that most races were identified on cultural or linguistic grounds, or simply on account of educated intuition, not biology.

Another fascinating example of the arbitrariness of this category is the so-called "Negrito" "pygmy" race, which sometimes still gets talked about by anthropologists and archaeologists with respect to the origins of indigenous people in East Asia and Australasia.

It has been defined to include people from the Congo of Africa, the Andaman Islands, several Southeast Asian countries, New Guinea and Australia. The Negrito race is not a biological reality reflecting history, but an artificial construct based on superficial similarities.

The skull measurements, brain size estimates, hair form, skin and eye colour, intelligence and blood group data used to justify races were simply retrofitted to each of them.

Moreover, these physical features were very far from flawless in reinforcing established notions of race. None of them has provided any evidence for discrete boundaries between human groups – or groups as genuine geographic entities – and many of them simply reflect the environment, not biological history.

Take skin colour, or pigmentation, as an example, a feature that has been used in almost every racial classification published. While anthropologists employed discrete categories such as "black," "brown" and "white," in actuality, pigmentation grades continuously along a geographic cline from the equator to northern and southern latitudes, regardless of race.

How many races have been recognised for living people? Well, there seems to have been no real limit in practice, reinforcing their arbitrary nature.

During the 20th century, estimates of the number of races varied from two to 200 across the globe. For Europe alone, one book published in 1950 estimated six, while another one the same year identified at least 30 races.

Sure, you might recognise races if you compare the skin pigmentation of people from a village in the Scottish Highlands to one in coastal Kenya. But you'd be kidding yourself because you would be ignoring all of the people who live along the thousands of kilometres that stretch between them who don't fit into your concocted moulds.

Genetics: the final arbitrator

Developments in the field of genetics from the 1960s onwards made new inroads into the question of race. In fact, genetics marked the death knell of the scientific race debate.

Geneticists have found a number of features about human diversity that just don't fit the pattern expected for the ancient subdivisions we might anticipate if races actually existed.

Some important findings that show racial categories to be unfounded include:

  • humans are genetically much less diverse than most mammals, including our chimpanzee cousins
  • common estimates are that around 2%-8% of genetic variation occurs between large groups living on different continents; a pattern that again contrasts with most mammals, which show much greater differences on continental scales
  • living Africans possess substantially more genetic variation than other populations. This reflects the ancestry of our species in Africa – only a couple of hundred thousand years ago – and the establishment of all non-African populations by a small founder group from Africa – less than 60,000 years ago
  • most populations show high levels of mixed ancestry indicating that people have migrated regularly in the past, with most groups far from being isolated from each other for any great length of time.

Are we all the same then?

There is no denying that humans are variable. Some of that variation – a small amount – reflects our geographic origins. Genetic data show this unequivocally.

But this is simply not the same as claiming that this geographic variation has been partitioned by nature into discrete units we call races. Humans have simply refused to be classified along taxonomic grounds – beyond the fact that we all belong to the single species Homo sapiens.

The facts are that the races recognised by anthropologist during the 19th and 20th centuries simply don't hold up to scrutiny from physical or genetic evidence; besides, races never were scientific to begin with.

Explore further: Scientific racism's long history mandates caution

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Scientific racism's long history mandates caution

Feb 14, 2014

Racism as a social and scientific concept is reshaped and reborn periodically through the ages and according to a Penn State anthropologist, both medical and scientific researchers need to be careful that the growth of genomics ...

Recommended for you

Beyond human: Exploring transhumanism

Nov 25, 2014

What do pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, Iron Man and flu vaccines all have in common? They are examples of an old idea that's been gaining in significance in the last several decades: transhumanism. The word ...

User comments : 20

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MrVibrating
3 / 5 (6) Aug 14, 2014
This whole misconstrued premise is nothing but a sophist straw man - no doubt well intentioned, but spurious in the extreme - the fact that there may be all manner of intermediate minor differences between extremes of difference doesn't obviate the concept of race, nor diffuse any of the corresponding sensitivities. Moreover it comes across as another form of racism in its own right that seeks to disavow, at the stroke of a pen, the very concept of race itself - what is so challenging about our obvious diversities that we feel compelled to deny or obfuscate them?

Suffice to say the horrific genocides being perpetrated by the Islamic State are ideological, not racial, in their motivation.

Sorry to be so dismissive; i just don't see that this leads anywhere useful, and it seems like a misconceived false rationale in the first place. A false start of a non-answer to a question nobody's asked..

Are the distinctions between black and golden labradors 'scientifically' valid?
ormondotvos
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 14, 2014
So so politically correct, with the prescribed amount of well, but...
Egleton
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 15, 2014
In a minimal exposure flash test of photos of people the first thing we notice is their sex. The next thing is their race.
Why are humans so obsessed with race? Possibly due to periods of cannibalism.

The tricky bit is to understand our true nature, without the usual knee-jerk denialism. For, Ganga Jim, we have far darker family secrets.

http://www.macroe...ins.html
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 15, 2014
Why are humans so obsessed with race?

We aren't obsessed with race. We're obsessed with pattern. Our brains are foremost pattern matching mechanisms. The reason being: It lowers energy consumption (because if you can classify something into a group then you only need to be able to remember what to do with the group instead of having to remember what to do with every instance of the group separately)

So it makes sense that the first classification when looking at a face is for the largest group (male/female) and the second classification is for particular traits (visual traits in this case because that is out best developed sense which takes up most of our brain porcessing power)
Watebba
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
Humans have simply refused to be classified along taxonomic grounds – beyond the fact that we all belong to the single species Homo sapiens.
Humans also simply refused the evolutionary option - but does such an argument means something for science? Now when the Ferguson faces a civil war such an article has apparent political context - but from some strange reason all the protesters there know surprisingly well, into which race they belong - with scientific analysis or without it.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Aug 15, 2014
Prejudice is a component of evolution. It is an expression of the mechanism which promotes the formation of new species. It also serves to preserve adaptedness. It is a primary component of tribalism among humans. It is the 'urge to diverge '.

But it is anathema to modern civilization like most of our other animalistic tendencies and so we must be taught to ignore it and resist it which takes considerable effort and continuous reinforcement. This is another indication that humans are the product of domestication and not evolution by natural selection.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Aug 15, 2014
It is the 'urge to diverge '.

Evolution is a passive process - not an active one.

It's not "I think I might need flippers in teh future - so I'll develop some". It's more along the lines of "Haha: look at the mutant with the flippers...Oh God, I'm drowning...save me flipper-boy!"
kochevnik
2 / 5 (4) Aug 15, 2014
Prejudice is a component of evolution.
I can't agree with that. Many white women will, for example, have sex with those outside their race if the latter are rich or socially popular. Race is not a good predictor for desirable genes. Race is a bad descriptor for gene bundles as well. Race was created by geographic and cultural isolation, which have both evaporated in the past few decades
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2014
It is the 'urge to diverge '.

Evolution is a passive process - not an active one.

It's not "I think I might need flippers in teh future - so I'll develop some". It's more along the lines of "Haha: look at the mutant with the flippers...Oh God, I'm drowning...save me flipper-boy!"
And neither are our instincts. We don't decide to be prejudiced - we decide not to be. And it often takes a lot of coercion and conditioning to get us to make it.
I can't agree with that. Many white women will, for example, have sex with those outside their race
Adaptedness is acquired through mating. In cursive individuals, say from the tropics, might instinctively wish to mate with indigenes to acquire this.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
More spellcheck mangling. 'Cursive' should be 'incursive' as in 'people from elsewhere may want to acquire adaptations for their offspring to improve their chances of survival in their new environment, while indigenes would want to avoid losing them to outsiders for their own offspring.'

Our history and prehistory are full of overgrowth-driven migration and incursion. Rape was common and it may be an expression of the desire to acquire adaptations in conjunction with the resistance to it.
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2014
The answer to the article's question is cultural delusion.

I believe there is less genetic variation amongst all humans than any other mammalian species.

That doesn't mean that cultural delusions don't have real consequences in people's lives, but it's important to point them out for what they are.
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
This article reads a lot like a continuum fallacy. Just because races are continuous and not discrete doesnt make them not real. Genetics has not invalidated the idea of race, in fact analysis of human genetic clustering shows that large scale genetic clusters roughly correspond to the classic ideas about races if you choose small number of clusters (the number is a subjective choice).

https://en.wikipe...ustering
Bob Osaka
not rated yet Aug 18, 2014
So the answer is "No," races do not exist. There is only one very confused, slow learning human species: homo sapiens. How to cure the deeply rooted, inbred, narcissistic, self-destructive mental illness which grips the world is the big question. It seems most have difficulty assimilating new information and will cling to and defend with violence much older unprovable assumptions about the world. Racism isn't the only delusion humans are suffering. Allowing a short history to define one's identity, thinking paper money is wealth, the idea that the government or anyone is in control or actually knows what they're doing. The world is built upon the Earth, unlike matter, the world was created and will be destroyed. Between now and then our collective ideas and our limited ability to assimilate new knowledge will continue to build it.
Watebba
1 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2014
So the answer is "No," races do not exist
It apparently doesn't apply in Ferguson. Sometimes the ignorance of differences between people gets more harmful and dangerous, than the honest attitude. After all, the existence of races doesn't imply, we should handle them differently.
Modernmystic
not rated yet Aug 18, 2014
So the answer is "No," races do not exist
It apparently doesn't apply in Ferguson.


No actually it applies everywhere at all times. It's the ignorance of the reality that's causing those problems.

Sometimes the ignorance of differences between people gets more harmful and dangerous, than the honest attitude.


An honest attitude is exactly what's needed, not cultural baggage masquerading as a misguided need for tolerance that doesn't actually exist if you don't classify people and put them in check boxes.

After all, the existence of races doesn't imply, we should handle them differently.


Well that's a nice sentiment, but it's extraneous, unnecessary and, moreover, realistically doesn't work that way at all.

I'll put it another way. If someone believes in God, and goes nuts shooting people because they don't, or they do but differently (an all too familiar occurrence) does it help for an atheist to pretend to buy into the delusion? How?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2014
There is only one very confused, slow learning human species
-Says the confused misanthrope. When a behavioral trait is as pervasive as bigotry, one must consider whether it is biological. Does it confer an advantage or not?

Bigotry serves to preserve adaptedness and the mechanism of species creation. It is common among other animals. Why wouldn't we expect to observe it in humans?
How to cure the deeply rooted, inbred, narcissistic, self-destructive mental illness which grips the world is the big question
It has only very recently been defined as such, and only in the west. Elsewhere it thrives. Most cultures and their religions are based on it.

If you want to stop prejudice then you will have to destroy the cultures which are based on it. The way to do this is to provide a refuge for the small minority who are willing to accept the notion of equality, and then promote violence among the remnants until their cultures cease to exist.
Watebba
1 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2014
No actually it applies everywhere at all times. It's the ignorance of the reality that's causing those problems
The Afro-americans are just black - this is a reality. Who is ignoring the reality here? You can give this blackness a different name (other than race), but this difference will not disappear anyway just because of it.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (3) Aug 18, 2014
Obsession with race is due to ignorance.
Modernmystic
not rated yet Aug 18, 2014
The Afro-americans are just black - this is a reality. Who is ignoring the reality here? You can give this blackness a different name (other than race), but this difference will not disappear anyway just because of it.


People with brown eyes just have brown eyes, that's a reality. It's all the stuff we do on top of that other than recognizing the simple fact that causes the problems. People with brown eyes are not considered a different RACE of people. Are you ignoring reality by not making a fictive classification for them?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2014
The Afro-americans are just black - this is a reality
Theyre black because they are adapted to a tropical climate. Melanin protects them from the sun but restricts the creation of vitamin D in the skin. This adaptation is a disadvantage to people in higher latitudes and would be selected against at the cost of many gens of vitamin-deficient children who would not grow old enough to reproduce.

Nature must have developed a mechanism early on to prevent the loss of these hard-won adaptations. In humans, this mechanism is expressed most clearly in the tribal dynamic.

"Kropotkin (1902) argued that the life of 'savages' was split between two sets of actions and ethics, that applying within the group, and that applying to outsiders: "Therefore, when it comes to a war the most revolting cruelties may be considered as so many claims upon the admiration of the tribe. This double conception of morality passes through the whole evolution of mankind, and maintains itself until now"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.