Skip to comments.The Biological Case Against Race
Posted on 06/04/2002 5:24:31 PM PDT by cornelis
. American Outlook
In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin outlined the basic reasoning that still stands today concerning the races of mankind. Darwin pointed out that if we used the techniques that naturalists used to identify race in nonhuman species, we would conclude that there really were no races in anatomically modern humans. Over one hundred and forty years of research have demonstrated that Darwins reasoning was correct. . .
In my recent book, The Emperors New Clothes, I demonstrate that our social construction of race was contingent upon the assumption that significant biological variation between groups of human beings existed that could be used to identify and classify these same races. Scientists now know that this was a false proposition, both at the level of the physical features and of the genes that produce them. Yet most Americans still believe that there is some biological legitimacy to our socially constructed racial categories. However, our modern scientific understanding of human genetic diversity flies in the face of all of our social stereotypes.
Many of our present political and social problems are rooted in racial misconceptions. The tragedy of this is that virtually none of the people directly involved in addressing our political and social disparities fully comprehend how our racial confusion influences how we deal with the consequences of injustice. Racist ideology has always relied on the mistaken assumption that significant biologically based differences exist between various groups of humans. In particular, racist ideology has always assumed that social inequality resulted from the biological inequality of races. Thus they saw racial differences as determining an individuals morality, character, intelligence, athleticism, and sexuality, among other features. They also thought that these features were immutable and passed directly on to offspring. Seen in this way, society would never change, and injustice could never be eliminated from it, because nature itself had created fundamental genetic differences between the races. Most nineteenth-century Americans never doubted that both God and science declared the existence of race, and that there was a hierarchical relation among the races. According to this thinking, the European stood at the pinnacle of perfection, and all other races were to be measured against him. For this reason, they thought it legitimate to declare the African slave as chattel and to deprive the American Indians of their sovereignty.
We have come a long way since then. However, our change in thinking did not happen without tremendous struggle; the ideological battle against racism has now been fought across three centuries. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer and die as a consequence of racist policies. Still today the root cause of racism remains entrenched in the American consciousness. Many of us still believe that there are innate racial differences among people, reflected in their character and habits.
The core ideological principle that maintains racism is the mistaken belief that biological races really exist in the human species and that individual aspects of character and morality can be identified by ones racial ancestry. Ironically, race theory is a consequence of relatively modern historical developments. We do not find clearly articulated theories of racial hierarchy in the writings of the ancients. They recognized that human beings had some physical differences from one another and that they had formed different cultures, but they did not believe that any specific race of people was inherently better than any other. Even Western civilization did not immediately develop substantial ideological support for theories of race classification and racially based variation in character and temperament. Anthropologists in the eighteenth century did not uniformly agree on the superiority of Europeans; Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, considered the founder of anthropology, did not accept the idea that races could be hierarchically classified. Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, schemes of racial hierarchy would become entrenched. The rise of racial ideology coincided with the rise of Darwinism (specifically, a misunderstanding of how Darwins observations applied to humans) and the development of social institutions that exploited human biological differences for profit. This meant that a persons West African ancestry could be used as the sole reason to reduce him to chattel slavery, and that a groups American Indian ancestry in itself provided sufficient reason for the partial extermination of their population and seizure of their land.
Development of Biology and Race Theory
Pre-Darwinian biology utilized the great chain of being and ranked man higher than all other earthly life forms. This scheme suggested that the supernatural creator was responsible for the hierarchy of life, including the varieties of human beings. Naturalists of this period sought to find objective measurements to validate their beliefs, and turned to activities such as the measuring of skull volumes and other metrics. Not surprisingly, their studies supported the notion of European superiority. Yet to fully understand what modern biologists mean when they talk about race requires reference to evolutionary theory.
Without realizing it, Charles Darwin solved the problem of race when he asked how new species arose in nature. The origin of species was the most important scientific problem of the mid-nineteenth century, equivalent to what the discovery of the structure of DNA or the publication of the human genome was for us in 2001. However, to understand the origin of species, one also had to understand the significance of biological varieties or races, which result from genetic adaptation to local conditions and from chance events in the history of a given species that might radically change its genetic composition. Darwin recognized that the formation of biological varieties or races was essential to the formation of new species. His genius was in appreciating the significance of biological variation within species and the relationship of this variation to how new species were formed. He identified natural selection as the chief mechanism responsible for the adaptation of species to their environments. He thought that natural selection would eventually create varieties sufficiently different in their features so that they would become new species.
After the publication of The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin was forced to address the nature of human races. The anthropological debates of the latter portion of the nineteenth century had still not yet clarified whether there was one species of modern humans, or whether the races should be considered separate species. In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin outlined the basic reasoning that still stands today concerning the races of mankind. Darwin pointed out that if we used the techniques that naturalists used to identify race in nonhuman species, we would conclude that there really were no races in anatomically modern humans. Over one hundred and forty years of research have demonstrated that Darwins reasoning was correct.
Today the concept of geographical race is a cornerstone of evolutionary theory. Geographical races or subspecies have significant amounts of gene frequency differences form other such groups (usually on the order of about 20 percent). These differences result from natural selection for localized conditions, unique population history events (such as random fluctuations in population size), and a secession of gene flow with other populations within the species. Geographical races are thus thought to be intermediate steps along the way to the formation of new species. It is because this concept has been so thoroughly investigated that we can say with so much certainty that no biological races exist in modern humans.
Basic Definitions of Race
If humans had biological races, there should be some non-trivial underlying hereditary features shared by a group of people and not present in other groups, or possibly average differences that could be made sense of in some statistical way. Biology has developed relatively precise tools with which to examine whether the hereditary characteristics of populations can be classified into geographical races. It is here that the Western socially defined concept of race and the biological concept of race diverge. When one attempts to examine any of the physical features that have been used to define human races in our history, the concept breaks down. Skin color, hair type, body stature, blood groups, disease prevalence: none of these unambiguously corresponds to the racial groups that we have socially constructed. Thus, the common person distinguishes what he or she perceives to be racial categories by observable physical traits. These physical traits do vary among geographical populations, although not in the ways most people believe. For example, Sri Lankans of the Indian subcontinent, Nigerians, and Australoids share a dark skin tone, but differ in hair type and genetic predisposition to various diseases. Further difficulty results from the fact that people commonly link directly observable physical variations with less directly observable variation in such attributes as intelligence, motivation, and morality.
Modern biology defines geographical races as equivalent to subspecies. Subspecies are units that are intermediate to legitimate species. The biological species concept relies on whether individuals in such groups cannot mate and form fertile offspring. Horses and donkeys are considered legitimate species; if they are mated, mules result, but these are sterile. Also, gorilla and chimpanzees are separate species; yet within gorillas, mountain and forest gorillas might be considered subspecies, or geographical races of gorillas. No such level of genetic variation exists within anatomically modern humans. There is more genetic variation within one tribe of wild chimpanzees than has been observed within all existing humans! (See P. Gagneux, C. Willis, and U. Gerloff, Mitochondrial Sequences Show Evolutionary Sequences of African Hominids, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 96 : 5077-5082.)
Genes, Human Variation, and Race
Only a fraction of the genetic information contained in the human genome has ever had anything to do with creating geographic variation associated with what has been historically called race. The DNA molecule in organisms like humans is associated with a group of proteins called histones. Together these make up a structure called the chromosome. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, with one set inherited from the mother and the other from the father. Along the DNA chain we can identify specific points, called loci, that are responsible for providing the instructions for a given trait, such as eye color. Some loci, called monomorphic (or one form) loci, control traits that are so crucial for the organism's function that no alteration of the genetic code is allowed. Loci that can allow genetic variation, usually because their functions are not as constrained as monomorphic loci, are called polymorphic (many forms). Polymorphic loci are defined by the presence of at least one rare variant, called an allele, that can be found at a frequency greater than 1 percent. A good example of a polymorphic locus i the A, B, and O blood group antigens. Polymorphisms occur when natural selection against any particular allele is weak, thus allowing all of them to persist in populations at different frequences. We might find that a given allele is better under one set of conditions, yet others are favored if we change the conditions. For example, alleles that produce darker skin are slightly favored in the tropics, as opposed to alleles that produce lighter skin in the temperate zones. The dark skin in the tropics might give better protection against ultraviolet light (UV) damage in the skin, or against skin parasites, while lighter skin in temperate zones might help with the synthesis of vitamin D (a hormone). In such a case, as the intensity of sunlight changes, we would expect to find a continuous change in the frequency of the alleles associated with changes in skin color. That is precisely what we find when we examine alleles for vitamin D binding proteins from the tropics to the northern latitudes. However, the whole story of skin pigmentation isnt as simple as that. Human pigmentation is genetically complex, and we can only say with certainty that variation at only one locus, the melanocrotin-1 receptor (MC1-R), can be definitely associated with physiological variation in hair and skin color. The authors of a recent study sequenced that gene from one hundred twenty-one individuals from different geographical regions. DNA has four nitrogenous chemical bases called nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). These bases are aligned in various orders and constitute the chemical message of the DNA molecule that directs the synthesis of messenger RNA, and eventually the protein. Gene sequencing is the process by which geneticists determine the nucleotide structure of the DNA within a specific region of the molecule. The different nucleotide sequences are the molecular basis for what we call alleles. The authors found that there were five alleles for the MC1-R gene. The original protein sequence was observed in all of the African individuals studied, but it was also found in the other world populations at lower frequences (See B. K. Rana et al., High Polymorphism at the Human Melanocortin 1 Receptor Locus, Genetics 151, no. 4 [April 1999]: 1547-57). We also know that skin color in sub-Saharan African populations is more variable than that found in any other of the worlds populations. This is also true of total genetic diversity and physical variables such as skull types ( see J. H. Relethford, human Skin Color Diversity is Highest in Sub-Saharan African Populations, Human Biology 72, no. 5 [October 2000]: 773-80).
These observations alone shed doubt on whether we can truly divide the human species into discrete racial groups.
Genetic Variation Within and Between Races
There are statistical ways to summarize the similarity between human populations with regard to overall allele frequency. For example at the histocompatibility antigen A(HLA-A) locus, African-, Asian-, and European-Americans are quite similar in their allele frequencies. The HLA loci are responsible for tissue recognition and play an important role in warding off disease. We can further investigate the frequencies of alleles at other loci, and we can also statistically determine what the genetic distances are between socially constructed racial groups. This has been accomplished for modern human beings, and we have learned that there is about 8.5 times more genetic variation within the classically defined racial groups as there is between them. Another way of stating this is that 85 percent of the genetic variation within modern humans occurs at the individual level, 5 percent occurs between populations found on the same continent, and 10 percent occurs between continents. This general rule can be violated in groups that were originally generated from small groups that were themselves genetically uniform, or for cultural reasons maintained marriages amongst themselves. However, this special case does not invalidate the general principle that the majority of genetic variation in human occurs between individuals, without regard to membership in a socially constructed race.
A particularly illustrative example of the fallacy of the race concept occurs when we compare socially defined human races to populations in other species that have been defined by biologists as geographical races or subspecies. The standard figure for identifying the existence of geographic races is usually about 20 percent total genetic distance between populations at polymorphic loci. This has been observed in various drosophila (fruit flies) species, but we dont see anywhere near that much geographical variation in modern humans. The estimates we have of the amount of variation between human populations varies between 3 and 7 percent at the polymorphic loci (see my book , The Emperors New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium [Rutgers University Press, 2001], 204). Again, because polymorphic loci only represent about 33 percent of the human genome, the total amount of genetic distance we observe in humans is between (0.03 x .33 = 0.0099) and (0.07 x 0.33 = 0.023). This value is ten times below the 0.20 (20 percent) figure. It is apparent that different standards of biological reasoning would have to be used to make the argument for the existence of enough genetic distance in modern humans to support the existence of biological races.
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Practical Implications of the Race Fallacy
In my recent book, The Emperors New Clothes, I demonstrate that our social construction of race was contingent upon the assumption that significant biological variation between groups of human beings existed that could be used to identify and classify these same races. Scientists now know that this was a false proposition, both at the level of the physical features and of the genes that produce them. Yet most Americans still believe that there is some biological legitimacy to our socially constructed racial categories. However, our modern scientific understanding of human genetic diversity flies in the face of all of our social stereotypes. Thus, if we cannot apportion humans into the socially constructed groups of American society, how can there be a genetic basis to the physical and behavioral features that have been ascribed to these mythological groups? In reality, the differences between groups we have been describing as resulting form biological race are really the result of cultural evolution. The rules that govern cultural evolution are dictated by the views of the eighteenth-century biologist Jean Baptist Lamarck, not those of Darwin. That is, cultural evolution occurs by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and cultures change far more rapidly than genetic material. Thus, the social construction of race was a feature of our recent cultural evolution. Our reliance on racial thinking can just as easily be deconstructed.
To begin the deconstruction of racism, we must ask ourselves what role racist ideology plays in modern society. First, it provides a moral justification for maintaining a society that routinely deprives various groups of its rights and privileges. Racist beliefs discourage subordinate people from attempting to question their lowly status; to do so is to question the very foundations of the society. In addition, racism focuses social uncertainty on a specific threat, thus justifying existing practices and serving as a rallying point for social movements. Finally, racist myths encourage support for the existing order. Thus it is argued that if there were any major societal change, the subordinate group would suffer even greater poverty and the dominant group would suffer lower living standards. History demonstrates that racial ideology increases when a value system is under attack.
Joseph L. Graves Jr. professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona State University West, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the author of The Emperors New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2001).
Good grief! The Europeans really like soccer!
Yes, possible. But not demonstrated biologically. Your proposition is excellent and experimentally it is shown to not be the case.
I am curious as to why you are hostile to something very simple and obvious?
It must be defeated, over and over again.
Not to mention some Italian populations.
Yes. That is correct and I would assume undesood and inherent in the comment.
What is proven is that sickle cell anemia does not correlate with with what we define as racial groups.
Why are you emotionally attached to the idea of biologically based race categorization?
Are there any IQ tests that do not require some sort of basic cultural awareness on the test-taker's part?
We Dodged Extinction
Pruned Family Tree Leaves Little Genetic Variety
Just one group of chimpanzees can have more genetic diversity than all 6 billion humans on the planet. (Corel)
Special to ABCNEWS.com
A worldwide research program has come up with astonishing evidence that humans have come so close to extinction in the past that its surprising were here at all.
Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at San Diego, and other members of a research team studied genetic variability among humans and our closest living relatives, the great apes of Africa.
Humanoids are believed to have split off from chimpanzees about 5 million to 6 million years ago. With the passage of all that time, humans should have grown at least as genetically diverse as our cousins. That turns out to be not true.
We actually found that one single group of 55 chimpanzees in west Africa has twice the genetic variability of all humans, Gagneux says. In other words, chimps who live in the same little group on the Ivory Coast are genetically more different from each other than you are from any human anywhere on the planet.
The branch lengths illustrate the number of genetic differences, not only between species, but among species as well. The pruned bush for humans shows how little genetic diversity exists. (Marco Doelling/ABCNEWS.com)
The Family Bush
The family tree shows that the human branch has been pruned, Gagneux says. Our ancestors lost much of their original variability.
That makes perfectly good sense, says Bernard Wood, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Origins at George Washington University and an expert on human evolution.
The amount of genetic variation that has accumulated in humans is just nowhere near compatible with the age of the species, Wood says. That means youve got to come up with a hypothesis for an event that wiped out the vast majority of that variation.
The most plausible explanation, he adds, is that at least once in our past, something caused the human population to drop drastically. When or how often that may have happened is anybodys guess. Possible culprits include disease, environmental disaster and conflict.
The evidence would suggest that we came within a cigarette papers thickness of becoming extinct, Wood says.
Gagneux, who has spent the last 10 years studying chimpanzees in Africa, says the implications are profound.
If you have a big bag full of marbles of different colors, and you lose most of them, then you will probably end up with a small bag that wont have all the colors that you had in the big bag, he says.
Similarly, if the size of the human population was severely reduced some time in the past, or several times, the colors that make up our genetic variability will also be reduced.
If that is indeed what happened, then we should be more like each other, genetically speaking, than the chimps and gorillas of Africa. And thats just what the research shows.
We all have this view in our minds that we [humans] started precariously as sort of an ape-like creature and our numbers grew continuously, adds Wood. Were so used to the population increasing inexorably over the past few hundred years that we think it has always been like that.
But if it had, Gagneux notes, our genetic variability should be at least as great as that of apes.
A Stormy Past
Gagneux is the lead author of a report that appeared in the April 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, carried out with researchers in Germany, Switzerland and the United States, is the first to examine large numbers of all four ape species in Africa.
We can do that now because new technology allows us to non-invasively take some hair, or even some fruit that these apes chew, and then we get their DNA from a couple of cells that stick to a hair or a piece of fruit they chewed.
Then they compared the DNA variability of apes and chimps to that of 1,070 DNA sequences collected by other researchers from humans around the world. They also added the DNA from a bone of a Neanderthal in a German museum. The results, the researchers say, are very convincing.
We show that these taxa [or species] have very different amounts and patterns of genetic variation, with humans being the least variable, they state.
Yet humans have prevailed, even though low genetic variability leaves us more susceptible to disease.
Humans, with what little variation they have, seem to maximize their genetic diversity, Gagneux says.
Its ironic, he notes, that after all these years the biggest threat to chimpanzees is human intrusion into their habitats. When he returned to Africa to study a group of chimps he had researched earlier, Gagneux found them gone.
They were dead, he says, and I mean the whole population had disappeared in five years.
Yet as our closest living relatives, chimps still have much to teach us about ourselves.
Lee Dyes column appears Wednesdays on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.
If 10 to 20% of the US population happened to be from malarial regions of Bangladesh we would understandibly, but superficially, associate Sickle cell anemia with that ethnic or racial group.
A description of typical XYY supermales gleaned from another web page:
The most dangerous creature on God's Green Earth is as follows: a man with a high IQ, high testosterone, a violently crackpot idea or two, an absolute certainty of his own righteousness, and an ability to turn on the "Reality Distortion Field" and inspire people to commit mayhem in his name.
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