Friday, December 7, 2012

Is There Such a Thing As Race?

Think about race. What comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you think of White (Caucasian), Black (Negroid), and Asian (Mongoloid). Maybe with a little reflection you add Native American. (The terms in parentheses are the scientific names for these races.)
These categories basically conform to the racial categories I grew up with, which we crudely called white, black, yellow, and red.
Now ask yourself: What is the meaning of race? Does it mean there are significant differences between groups based on variations in physical characteristics? Does it mean differences in abilities as well?
Do you think one race is superior to others in athleticism? Do you point to the number of black football and basketball players, or the winners of the 100-yard dash at the Olympics?
Do you think that one race is superior in intelligence? Do you point to the results of IQ tests that show Caucasians and Asians with higher average IQs than those of Negroid extraction?
Let’s think of regions of the world. What race are Mexicans—are they white? What race are Egyptians—are they black? What race are Indians—are they Asian? What race are Australian aborigines? Think about Europe. Are the blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Norwegians the same race as the dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned Spaniards? How do you draw the lines that separate races? What is the basis for the categories?
Now let’s think of specific people. What race is the current president of the United States? Barack Obama is commonly called the “first black president.” But he is equally Negroid and Caucasian. He is just as much “white” as he is “black.” To label him as a member of just the one and not the other is absurd.
To test your ability to sort individuals according to race, an anthropologist and an evolutionary biologist have created a race test. When you visit this webpage, you are given links to two .pdf files. The first contains photos of 44 people from around the world, each numbered. The test involves creating your own system for sorting those people into racial groups. After you’ve done that, open the second file, which provides the country of origin for each of the people. How did your sorting match reality?
The two scientists are pretty sure most people’s sorting will not match reality, and conclude:
The anthropologists who, for almost three centuries, tried to compile the catalog of human races met exactly with the same problem and failed to solve it, until Frank Livingstone wrote that humans do not come in the simple, discrete biological packages that in other species are called races or subspecies. Modern biological anthropology developed from Livingstone’s intuition that we are very different indeed from each other, but our diversity is continuous and distributed in gradients, rather than discontinuous and interrupted by boundaries.
What does the word “race” mean? defines its meaning from an anthropological standpoint this way:
a. any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics: no longer in technical use.
b. an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
c. a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
Obviously there are differences between humans. Certain characteristics have emerged in regional populations because of relative isolation over time. This inbreeding has resulted in the differential expression of alleles, which are variations of genes that all humans share. (definition of allele: “any of several forms of a gene…that are responsible for hereditary variation”). An example of allele variation is the amount of melanin in the skin that produces darker or lighter skin color.
Also, mutations regularly occur in individuals. When a mutation causes the bearer to survive better in the local environment, the mutation is passed on and becomes common in the local group. But these variations are incredibly minor compared to the vast amount of genetic material we hold in common.
In addition, there is no place where you can say a particular physical characteristic begins or ends. All physical characteristics change gradually over distance. This is called “clinal variation.” In "Race and Genetics: Controversies in Biomedical, Behavioral, and Forensic Sciences" (published in 2005 in American Psychologist) the authors write:
Anthropologists long ago discovered that humans' physical traits vary gradually, with groups that are close geographic neighbors being more similar than groups that are geographically separated. This pattern of variation, known as clinal variation, is also observed for many alleles that vary from one human group to another…
[A]nthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered that the more traits and the more human groups they measured, the fewer discrete differences they observed among races and the more categories they had to create to classify human beings. The number of races observed expanded to the 30s and 50s, and eventually anthropologists concluded that there were no discrete races.
Race is a shape-shifter. The characteristics we pay attention to shift over time. One hundred and fifty years ago the scientific discipline of phrenology (skull-measuring) “proved” that the Celts (Irish) were not White. At this time, during the height of British power, the White race was equated with Anglo-Saxons, because the majority of British citizens were Anglo-Saxon.
In Race and Other Misadventures: Essays in Honor of Ashley Montagu in His Ninetieth Year, Larry T. Reynolds (professor of sociology) and Leonard Lieberman (professor of sociology and anthropology) write about this British attitude of superiority:
In his Races of Britain (1885), John Beddoe proposed a similarity between the Celts and Cro-Magnon man. He also suggested that there had been a migration from Africa to Ireland, leading to traces of African blood in the Irish…It was a common belief in Britain during this period that only blacks and orientals were lower on the evolutionary scale than the Irish. In fact, some lecturers displayed a hierarchical arrangement of skulls in descending order from the Anglo-Saxons at the top to the Irishmen, and then the Africans and down to the Apes. In 1851 an editorial in Punch proposed that ‘the Irish were a missing link between the gorilla and Negro.’ Even Darwin (1871) in his The Descent of Man approved of the Galtonian [from the English eugenicist Frances Galton] idea that inferior races like the Celts threatened the superior races due to their rabbit-like multiplication.
Today we can’t imagine how anyone could perceive the Irish and the English to be of separate races, but that’s because our measuring stick has changed. Now we’re looking at skin color. Back then those authors were looking through a political lens: using race to justify British superiority and dominance.
Genetic research, which has established that there is no justification for dividing humans into racial categories, has also found that certain populations carry genes that predispose members of that group to particular diseases. Ashkenazi Jews screen for Tay-Sachs disease, and people with African ancestry are screened for sickle-cell anemia. But this is no different from being asked by your doctor whether there’s a history of heart disease in your family. If your father and grandfather both died of heart attacks, the doctor will treat you differently than if none of your ancestors are known to have had heart trouble. It’s a family trait. The only difference between your case and that of the Ashkenazi Jews is the size of the family.
Why do I think this is an important issue? I don’t think you can separate the belief in races from racism. One naturally follows the other. Once you believe in separate categories, you must also believe in differential qualities and abilities. Whenever you draw lines you create an “other,” people who are different. Humans can’t think of differences without adding relative value—some people are better than others.
To divide human beings up into races is as arbitrary and subjective an exercise as dividing the world up into countries. Just as the boundaries between nations have no real, absolute meaning, so the divisions between humans have no real, absolute meaning.
The belief in races creates, however subtly, racism.
To eliminate racism we have to eliminate race.
This post was also put on my We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity blog. If you'd like to read more about this issue, see another of my posts on that blog: The Belief in Race is an Example of Delusional Thinking.


  1. Thank you Katie, I found this of particular interest for many reasons, but also because I just found out (having been "adopted") that my father was Irish and his parents immigrated from Ireland. I have shared this with a couple of friends, one who is an anthropologist. You just made a good argument for Unity consciousness, i.e. Unity through diversity.

  2. Katie, I have long considered myself a human being, this and nothing more. Neither white nor black nor any other, just an earthling of the,presumably, human persuasion. My paternal grandparents were from Ireland, My maternal grandparents were from Italy and my mother was standing on this soil(America)when I was ejected from her womb. That's no excuse for accusing me of being an American or an Irishman or an Italian. I'm an earthling. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. I came across your blog on FB regarding bacteria that we carry with us all through our silly little lives and posted a reply. Excellent blog so thank you for that. I've been saying similar for years... and I'm just a stone mason, not a scientist. It was all terribly obvious but your research proves what I knew in my heart(or some place or other) all along.
    As to this blog that I am replying to:

    Your quote:
    Why do I think this is an important issue? I don’t think you can separate the belief in races from racism. One naturally follows the other. Once you believe in separate categories, you must also believe in differential qualities and abilities. Whenever you draw lines you create an “other,” people who are different. Humans can’t think of differences without adding relative value—some people are better than others.

    It is odd to me that we can watch some stupid movie about the population of some distant planet coming to get us, all of a piece but we cannot see ourselves the same way, as a single piece. Stunning... simply stunning.
    Well thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

    I hope you may be able to follow this link. I think it might be of interest to you...

    Peace, Bruce

    1. Thank you Bruce, for your comments. I can't remember when I started thinking of myself as an earthling either, but it was at least thirty years ago. It seems so obvious to me!

      Thanks for the link to the Jared Diamond video. His book Guns, Germs, and Steel was a definite influence on my thinking, although I didn't mention him in this post. He begins that book asking why people of European descent have ruled the world for the last 500 years, even though they are no smarter or more capable than other people, New Guinea for example (where he had spent decades doing research).