Opinion: Classification of humans into races 'the biggest mistake in the history of science'

December 20, 2016 by Darren Curnoe, The Conversation
The human faces of Asia. First published in the first edition (1876–1899) of Nordisk familjebok. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Science is one of the most remarkable inventions of humankind. It has been a source of inspiration and understanding, lifted the veil of ignorance and superstition, been a catalyst for social change and economic growth, and saved countless lives.

Yet, history also shows us that its been a mixed blessing. Some discoveries have done far more harm than good. And there's one mistake you will never read about in those internet lists of the all-time biggest blunders of science.

The worst error in the history of science was undoubtedly classifying humans into the different races.

Now, there are some big contenders for this dubious honour. Massive blunders like the invention of nuclear weapons, fossil fuels, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), leaded petrol and DDT. And tenuous theories and dubious discoveries like luminiferous aether, the expanding earth, vitalism, blank slate theory, phrenology, and Piltown Man, to name just a few.

But theory stands out among all of them because it has wreaked untold misery and been used to justify barbaric acts of colonialism, slavery and even genocide. Even today it's still used to explain social inequality, and continues to inspire the rise of the far right across the globe.

Take for example the controversy that surrounded Nicholas Wade's 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance if you doubt for a moment the resonance race still has for some people.

The human races were invented by like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach back in the eighteenth century in an attempt to categorise new groups of people being encountered and exploited as part of an ever expanding European colonialism.

From the very beginning, the arbitrary and subjective nature of race categories was widely acknowledged. Most of the time races were justified on the grounds of cultural or language differences between groups of people rather than biological ones.

Their existence was taken as a given right up until the twentieth century when anthropologists were busy writing about races as a biological explanation for differences in psychology, including intelligence, and educational and socioeconomic outcomes between groups of people.

Yet, there always was a great deal of unease about race and a widely held belief that were in practice extraordinarily difficult to apply.

One famous critic of racial theory was the American anthropologist Ashley Montagu who wrote in 1941: "The omelette called 'race' has no existence outside the statistical fryingpan in which it has been reduced by the heat of the anthropological imagination".

If race still resonates today publicly and politically, what do scientists think about it? Do anthropologists in particular believe that races are still valid?

A new survey of more than 3,000 anthropologists by Jennifer Wagner of the Geisinger Health System and her team has recently been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and it offers some valuable insights into their views and beliefs.

The people surveyed were members of the American Anthropological Association, the largest professional body of anthropologists in the world.

They were asked to respond to 53 statements about race covering topics like whether races are real, if they are determined by biology, whether races should play a role in medicine, the role of race and ancestry in commercial genetic testing, and if the term race should continue to be used at all.

Most revealing was the response to the statement, "The human population may be subdivided into biological races", with 86% of respondents strongly disagreeing or disagreeing.

To the statement, "Racial categories are determined by biology", 88% strongly disagreed or disagreed. And, "Most anthropologists believe that humans may be subdivided into biological races", 85% of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed.

We can take from this that there is a clear consensus among anthropologists that races aren't real, that they don't reflect biological reality, and that most anthropologists don't believe there is a place for race categories in science.

But buried within the survey results were some troubling findings like that anthropologists from privileged groups - in the US context 'white' males and females - were more likely to accept race as valid than non-privileged groups.

These privileged scientists represent 75% of the anthropologists surveyed. Their power and influence reaches right across the field. They are the main people determining what research is done, who gets funding, they are training the next generation of anthropologists, and are the public face of the field as well as the experts whose opinion is sought on issues like race.

The take home message is clear. Like everyone else, anthropologists are far from immune to unconscious bias, especially the effects of social status and culture in shaping our beliefs on issues like race.

Ironically perhaps, we anthropologists need, as a discipline, to work a lot harder at challenging our own deeply held and culturally embedded views, as well as on giving a greater voice to those scientists from historically non-privileged groups.

Still, the survey makes a very powerful statement. It is a resounding rejection of race by those scientists whose discipline invented the system of racial classification itself.

It also marks the near universal acceptance by anthropologist of decades of genetic evidence showing that human variation can't be pigeonholed into categories called races.

Stepping out of my ivory tower, I can't see the political class or broader community adopting such a strong view against race any time soon.

Explore further: Human races: biological reality or cultural delusion?

Related Stories

Human races: biological reality or cultural delusion?

August 14, 2014

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 ...

Removing race from human genetic research

February 4, 2016

A group of scientists are urging their colleagues to take a step forward and stop using racial categories when researching and studying human genetics.

Recommended for you

Japan to make crater on asteroid to get underground samples

March 18, 2019

Japan's space agency said Monday that its Hayabusa2 spacecraft will follow up last month's touchdown on a distant asteroid with another risky mission—dropping an explosive on the asteroid to make a crater and then collect ...

Bright X-ray galactic nuclei

March 18, 2019

All massive galaxies are believed to host supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers that grow by accreting mass from their environment. The current picture also imagines that the black holes grow in size as their host ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Dec 20, 2016
See the article on actual measurable differences in the Inuit reported in Physorg today
3 / 5 (4) Dec 20, 2016
Races certainly do exist, have distinct genetic profiles and are treated separately as in the case of some diseases (eg sickle cell anaemia), predispositions such alcohol and lactose tolerance, but have difference ancestry such as the existence of Neanderthal DNA in Europeans but not Africans.

The argument that there are more genetic differences within a race than between them could equally be applied to genders as there is more genetic diversity within a gender than between them, the Y chromosome only having a small number of genes on it and some females have a Y chromosome.

The argument that racial classification was used as a tool for discrimination and therefore we should deny races makes no more sense than arguing that nuclear weapons are detrimental to the well-being of humanity and therefore declaring that E does not equal mc² in the hope that this will make the nuclear bombs go away. It won't, it is a childish and anti-scientific argument.
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 27, 2016
RobertKarlStonjek seems to be wedded to the idea that the very minor genetic distinctions that exist between what he thinks of as "races" are important. In practice such distinctions are often no greater than those that distinguish families. In essence, like climate change or holocaust deniers he views everything through the distorting lens of confirmation bias.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 27, 2016
"But race theory stands out among all of them because it has wreaked untold misery and been used to justify barbaric acts of colonialism, slavery and even genocide. Even today it's still used to explain social inequality, and continues to inspire the rise of the far right across the globe."

-Sure. And I feel guilty about killing all those Indians too.

We can dwell on all that wreaking and justifying and miss the very real effects of the potential for speciation in the human race of animals.

The urge to diverge. The thing that enables life to inhabit new niches. In humans it inhabits embodied in the tribal dynamic ie internal amity in conjunction with external animosity.

And accepting this reality is not embracing it but understanding how it directs the behavior we see that cannot be explained in any other way.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 27, 2016
(Spellcheck replaced 'is' with 'inhabits' above)

Pundits know that humanity must accept the concept of universal tribe because tribalism endangers us all. But sociopolitics is an applied science concerned not with explaining human behavior but with modifying it.

And so we cannot expect sociopolitics to explain anything other than the critical need for continuing domestication.

For example it is obvious that homogenization is critical to the concept of universal tribe. And the mechanics of homogenization involves the ancient art of demographics ie the analysis of growth, distribution, migration, conflict.

This is no different for instance than roman efforts to homogenize the disparate germanic tribes throughout europe by spreading a religion tailored for the purpose of forgiveness and reconciliation; but on a planetary scale.

This was by the way after these tribes were driven westward by turkic peoples for the purpose of displacing the indigenes and cleansing europe.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 27, 2016
In other words, if we accept the realities of speciation and tribalism in the human condition, we might begin to suspect that all of recorded history is the story of efforts to mitigate their effects, of trying to preserve stability and progress despite the potential for chaos and collapse.

We might suspect that our history is the result of Planning on the grandest of scales and not of mere happenstance and chronic divine intervention.

Which is the real reason that pundits refuse to acknowledge human speciation and tribalism. For they would then have to acknowledge ongoing Efforts for millenia to compensate for it.

And the people would not like that story one bit.
Uncle Ira
4 / 5 (4) Dec 27, 2016
The worst error in the history of science was undoubtedly classifying humans into the different races.
That's just too easy, eh? I suspect that classifying was already completed long time before any "scientists" came along.

May they should say it was "The worst error in the history of religion, politics and philosophy." How's that for "undoubtedly"?
not rated yet Dec 28, 2016
Among other things, "scientists" not taking a lesson from what they see. They will talk about opinions once wifely held now being "discredited" and abandoned. Then go on to declare that an opinion having a popular following today automatically makes it "true", and incapable of being rejected later. The only difference between the two is that one opinion was held then, the other now. And "scientists" hold to the idea that "science" today is perfect and nothing it says is false. In fact, to say there is no sociopolitical agenda in considerations like denying the existence of race is laughable. Remember, there were those who, among other things, erected huge, free standing open space buildings and invoked philosophical considerations while others chipped stone arrowheads.
3 / 5 (2) Jan 02, 2017
Julian's post only confirms my understanding that religionists are the most vicious bigots in the world.

What else, with gods which convince you that you are the chosen people, that the world was built for you alone to inhabit, and that only you can be good and kind and decent and just.

Common among tribalism is the perception that members of the next tribe are a little less human than yours. Religion created morally perfect beings who guaranteed you that this was so, and gave you books to remind you of the fact.
not rated yet Feb 04, 2017
Denial of the obvious is thought to be a bulwark to racial discrimination, that the desire to believe in one world human phenotype somehow comes true if we just deny the obvious and *believe*.

Of course it is true that the differences are small, but they are consistent enough for racial identification. Forensic scientists can tell the race (generally) of a deceased individual by their DNA. Surely that is sufficient proof of the existence of distinct regional phenotypes?

Not for some. But doctors now take race into account when treating certain diseases, so, when it comes to practical situations such as forensics and medicine, the reality of racial differences must be considered.

We share more than 98% of our genes with mice...those tiny differences in genes do make a difference. But the differences between humans evolved for adaptation to the physical environment they lived in and generally make no difference in the modern urban environment and that is what counts.
not rated yet Feb 04, 2017
Deniers of racial or regional ethnic differences ignore the fact that lactose tolerance, for instance, is regional, as is the tolerance for alcohol (many Asian people can not tolerate it the cause of that intolerance was used to develop the anti-alcohol drug antabuse), the genetic variation causing sickle cell anaemia on one chromosome only confers resistance to malaria and is found where people live in areas infested with malaria carrying mosquitoes, the genes for the eye folds found in Asian people are not found (or active) in westerners etc

Regional phenotype variations are so pronounced that there are genetic tests offered these days which can tell a person the region of their ancestry.

This is hardly surprising. Not only are their pronounced physical differences that make identification of the most diverse difference fairly straight forward but natural & sexual selection, the known mechanism of evolution, consolidate beneficial traits in isolated human populations.

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.