Is race biologically real? Or is it just a social construct?
In 1912 most Western scientists would have said yes, race is real, a fact of nature. They took it for granted as “obvious”. But in 2012 most geneticists and biological anthropologists would have answered no.
What seems to have changed their minds:
- The Holocaust made “race” seem like a dangerous idea now that white people were getting killed. Many scientists began to question it.
- Advances in genetics made race seem arbitrary, subjective and, at best, skin deep. It did not match what genes did.
- The rise of colour-blind racism in the US, which seeks to address the issue of race by – not seeing it!
- Out of Africa – once it became clear that humans came from Africa, not Europe or North Eurasia, scientists did not trade their white supremacism for black supremacism. Instead it was: “Race does not matter!”
The genetic argument against race, as I understand it:
- Race is skin deep, at best: Any two humans are 99.9% genetically the same, according to the Human Genome Project. And even that 0.1% is mostly made up of individual differences. Only 6.3% of that 0.1% comes from differences between races (Lewontin, 1972). Deep down we are pretty much all the same. You cannot, for example, tell a person’s race by looking at their brain or their heart.
- Not race but gene frequencies: Races have pretty much the same set of genes, just in different frequencies. And even those frequencies do not always fall along the lines of race. Skin colour changes as you go north to south. The frequency of blood type B changes as you go east to west.
- Race is in the eye of the beholder: There is no clear, objective way to divide living humans into races that is based on biology. Are there three races? Six? Seven? How do you tell? And where do you draw the lines between them? And why?
The US, just so you know, is kind of strange:
- Most of its people come from the extreme ends of the Old World (China, Siberia, western Europe, West Africa).
- Racial segregation keeps them separated into “races” (castes) long after they arrive. If Blacks and Whites were to mix freely, for example, you would not be able to tell them apart after a hundred years.
Some geneticists think race is real:
Neil Risch in 2002, for example, took DNA samples from 3,636 people in the US and Taiwan. His computer program looked for certain genetic markers and, on its own, divided the sample into four clusters. When he compared the clusters to how people self-identified, he found this:
- Cluster A: 99.63% Caucasian,
- Cluster B: 99.65% East Asian,
- Cluster C: 100.00% African American,
- Cluster D: 97.62% Hispanic.
I find that hard to believe, particularly Cluster D.
Risch says there are five races worldwide: Caucasian, African, East Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American. Some people are a mix between these. Ethiopians and African Americans, for example, are part Caucasian, part African.