Posted by: Dan | January 23, 2008

Are There Human Races?

In light of recent discussions on race, I came across a reading passage that I thought worthy of quoting. You see, I’ve been reading What Evolution Is lately, written by one of the great biologists of the 20th Century, Ernst Mayr. It truly is as clear and detailed an explanation of the modern understanding of evolution as you will find anywhere. But I digress – the passage that caught my attention was on page 262 in chapter 11 (“How did mankind evolve?”) – quoted below the fold:

Are There Human Races?

When one compares an Inuit with an African Bushman, or a Nilotic Negro, an Australian aborigine, a Chinese, or a blond, blue-eyed northern European, one cannot escape recognizing the so-called racial differences. But does this not conflict with our fervent belief in human equality? No, it does not, provided we define both equality and race properly.

Equality is civil equality. It means equality before the law and it means equal opportunity. But it does not mean total identity, because we now know that one of the 6 billion human individuals is genetically unique. Not every human has the mathematical ability of an Einstein or the speed of an Olympic sprinter, nor the imagination of a good novelist or the aesthetic sense of an outstanding painter. Every parent knows that each of his or her children is uniquely different. The time has come that we must honestly face and admit these differences. What is important is to realize that these differences also exist within all of the human races.

The major reason for the existence of a race problem is that so many people have a faulty understanding of race. These people are typologists, and for them every member of a race has all the actual and imaginary characteristics of that race. To translate this bias int an absurd example, they would assume that every African-American can run the 100-meter dash faster than any European-American. Yet, if in a racially mixed class in a school of students were seated according to their performance in various mental, physical, manual, and artistic challenges, each ranking would be different and each “race” would be distributed through a greater part of the ranking. In other words, by rejecting the typological approach, which considers the members of each race as a type, and replacing it with the populational approach in which each individual is considered on the basis of his or her particular abilities, a truer understanding of reality can be achieved that avoids any typological ranking and any discrimination based on such a ranking.

Mayr’s passage is right on, no? I think so, and reinforces the point that race does not automatically indicate superiority or inferiority by any metric that one would care about in structuring a society. Individuals within each race, or population, vary widely and unpredictably, necessitating that we consider each person by looking beyond their race, ethnicity, or skin color.

Funnily enough, our trollish commenter accused the those with that point of view as being “flat-earthers.” Hardly. However, his is almost as out-dated as the flat-earth worldview.



  1. Good excerpt. Many people who viewing equality in terms of the individual, though, I think will often try and pretend that no racial (population average) differences exist at all. If I took a racially mixed population and subjected everyone to a test (say, susceptibility to sunburn), the results would not be neatly divided among racial lines, yet there would certainly be a higher percentage of dark-skinned individuals on one end of the spectrum.

    I think it’s an important and careful point to keep in mind: racial population differences imply little about the individual, yet differences between racial populations are often valid (not as superior or inferior, just different).

  2. Very interesting perspective. I wonder how the consept of “Race” and for that matter identity is going to change in the future in relation to the unprecedented inter-marriage?

  3. Andre,
    I don’t think that race will disappear, but mixing of gene pools and cultures would tend to blur the lines of race, from the population perspective. Mayr actually addresses this in What Evolution Is? by describing human evolution as being in a period of stasis. That is, no race or culture is currently capable of allopatric speciation, owing to the lack of geographic isolation between them, the lack of selective pressures currently on mankind, and the vastly large population size.

    Individuals such as Anaplat, who appear incompletely understand how evolution works, suggest that segregation would be better, so as to halt this stasis and regain a sense of progress in evolution – effectively artificially selecting a human race, and creating a slippery slope to eugenics. Evolutionary progress, however, is purely an a posteriori observation based on assessment of environmental factors after the fact. We can have no foreknowledge of what would promote adaptiveness in future conditions, only that we have escaped selective pressures in our current conditions. And, Anaplat also implies that racial mixing might dilute the White Race. This is of course a baseless assertion for the same reasons that we cannot have foreknowledge of advantages of Caucasians in future conditions. And, the vast size of the human gene pool means a huge degree of genetic variation – that is, there’s no chance of loosing any useful genes by interbreeding, even on geological timescales.

    So, while identities might change by interracial marriage, the species will not change until the human environment changes, and that is both unforeseeable and a long way off.

  4. Put this on your reading list: “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin. It’s exceptionally good.

  5. I get tired of reading the same old stuff regarding this issue time after time from educated people who should know better. “Race” is, by definition, a method of classifying people according to culturally determined stereotypes. And yes, it IS a social construct.

    What you think you mean when you think “race” is actually what is scientifically referred to as “morphology.” And sure, there are morphological differences among populations, no question.

    The problem is that we know far less about morphological differences than we do about “racial” differences, because the former can be understood only after scientific studies have been done, while the latter is, of course, immediately “understood” by any fool who can “plainly” see similarities and differences he’s been programed to see by his culturally determined biases.

  6. Victor,
    Yes, I agree with that on morphology vs. cultural.

    I don’t understand though you’re opening sentence – you say that educated people should know better (which I assume means you disagree with me on something), but then go on to paraphrase sentiments that I have already expressed.

  7. I would never accuse you of being a bigot, Dan, because you refuse to judge people on the basis of their “race,” and I certainly agree. But my problem is with the whole notion of “race” itself, as though the division of the world into various races were, as Mayr implies, more or less obvious. It is NOT.

    The notion of “race” is in itself both unscientific and harmful. What especially disturbs me is the existence of a whole movement aimed at restoring this notion, as though the only objections to it stemmed from “political correctness” concerns.

    Mayr’s idea that one could easily distinguish an Inuit from people of other “races” is typical of the problem. First of all, “Inuit” is not a “racial” class, it is a cultural affiliation associated with a population — and a language. Second of all, Mayr’s claim is an assumption, not a scientifically established fact.

    I have examined many photographs of many people from various parts of the world and what impresses me most of all is how often one runs across faces that do NOT conform to the “racial” stereotypes.

    If you took a truly random sampling of people from all over the world, gave them exactly the same hairstyle, dressed them exactly the same and photographed them in exactly the same pose, I have a feeling it would be very difficult to sort them into the standard “racial” categories. In any case, that would make a very interesting experiment.

    The whole notion of race becomes especially problematic when one considers the “racial” status of so-called “African Americans,” a great many of whom would be more accurately classified, in terms of genetic background, as “Euro-Americans” with some trace of African ancestry.

    All it takes is a smidge of African “blood” to place one in that category — and in fact anyone with a trace of African ancestry would have been incarcerated and sold as a slave in the American south prior to emancipation. “African American” is a racial classification, based on how one is perceived in American society, and not a scientifically valid category, based on either genetics or morphology.

  8. I agree that colloquial use of the term ‘race’ is often harmful to the discussion and frequently misused in general conversation.

    As a scientific or biological term however, it is quite valid, regardless of what species you choose to describe the races of (human or other). Shared visual similarities between different races, subspecies, or (in the human case) ethnicities does not equivocate to the nonexistence of race. That’s not to say that there is complete agreement about how to demarcate races or other populations in a species, especially when their populations mix and coexist. Certainly that’s a problem, owing to the difficulty in determining how much divergence between subgroups of reproductively isolated H. sapiens is required for a group to split into subpopulations (or at what point two or more coexisting populations become one population, for that matter).

    For instance, you say that Mayr’s idea is that “one could easily distinguish an Inuit from people of other races.” I’ve been reading a good bit of Mayr lately, and I haven’t seen that written in by him. In fact, in the quote I provided above, Mayr appears to be saying just the opposite – that even in different races of humans, it is no surprise to see drastic overlap of characteristics in individuals of the groups.

    What this says, and I think you overlook in the excerpt above (esp. the 3rd paragraph of the excerpt), is that while races exist as valid grouping terms, it is conceptually false to attribute the characteristics of a species subgroup to all members of that subgroup (we call that prejudice).

  9. Here’s what Mayr wrote, in the quotation you provided above:
    “When one compares an Inuit with an African Bushman, or a Nilotic Negro, an Australian aborigine, a Chinese, or a blond, blue-eyed northern European, one cannot escape recognizing the so-called racial differences.”

    The assumption behind this statement is that one can indeed, as you say, “easily distinguish an Inuit from people of other races.” First of all, I’m not at all sure whether or not one could make such a distinction, based on a random sampling of Inuit populations and other populations from different parts of the world, when things like hair style, costume, etc. are controlled for. What Mayr is referring to is our stereotyped notion of what a typical Inuit looks like, not a real one. It’s a testable hypothesis, certainly — but Mayr offers no reference to any such tests.

    Secondly, if such testing were to be done today, it would be under the heading of “morphology,” NOT “race.” I don’t know of a single scientific study done over the last 15 years, or more, concerned with the sorting of people into various races. If it’s so valid as a scientific term then why aren’t scientists using it anymore?

    People are certainly arguing for it, no question.
    But I doubt whether any of THESE people have ever attempted a genuinely scientific study along such lines. There are reasons for this.

    Political correctness is certainly one reason, but there are others far more compelling:

    The geneticists are reporting that that there is no simple one-to-one correlation between a haplotype or haplogroup and any given population — or morphological type. This in itself tells us there is something very wrong with the notion that the various peoples of the world can be meaningfully sorted into such types, or, if you prefer, races. Various haplotypes and haplogroups can be used, statistically, to infer certain types of historical relationships, no question. But there are no one-to-one correspondances, as would be expected if morphological classes (races) were genetically meaningful.

    Even if it were possible to sort people morphologically into standardized types, it would be a pointless exercise, since we are learning far more about human lineages by studying our DNA.

    This is not to say that “race” [i]as a social construct[/i] is to be ignored — and this confusion is, I think, at the base of many of the erroneous arguments concerning race. Race as a social construct is an important part of modern society that has and still has a tremendous impact on our world, and is, on that level, definitely a valid subject for scientific research.

  10. It’ll be a bit longer before I can respond in full, but I find it irritating that, when I suggested you go back and re-read the third paragraph, you went back and re-read the first paragraph.

    Please, I like the exchange of ideas and examining all points of view, but don’t be a bonehead – RESPOND TO MY POINTS, and don’t ignore my rebuttals. That’s just rude.

  11. Secondly, have you read the rest of the chapter that that was an excerpt from? You might want to go do that before presuming to know what Mayr was assuming.

    And thirdly, yes, morphology is an element of all classification schemes, at all levels – races, species, genera, families, etc. As is genetics. That doesn’t invalidate races, species, etc., at all. In your point here – that the overlap of the morphological characteristics between races obliterates race – well that’s just silly. No two races are identical, however similar they may be. That is patently obvious, and the point of Mayr’s first paragraph, as you note.


    I don’t know of a single scientific study done over the last 15 years, or more, concerned with the sorting of people into various races. If it’s so valid as a scientific term then why aren’t scientists using it anymore?

    Scientists ARE using it – clearly you haven’t heard of Cavalli-Sforza et al.’s The History and Geography of Human Genes. In particular, check out this review on Amazon.

    Genetically, morphologically, and culturally, races exist – the more rational question is, how do we demarcate populations or regions into races. For instance, the geneticist Cavilla-Sforza uses 2000 groups as separate races. I think that that is a bit extreme. It would be more interesting to describe them by biogeography, leading to such criteria as relatedness of language, genetic relatedness, morphological relatedness, and historical descriptions of geographical boundaries. On the geography, clearly we are in a global community, but races arose during a time of human history when this was not the case. Africans, Caucasians, Asians of the Far East, Asians of the Indian subcontinent, Aborigines, Polynesians, and Native Americans are all clearly separate races.

  12. Dan,

    “Africans, Caucasians, Asians of the Far East, Asians of the Indian subcontinent, Aborigines, Polynesians, and Native Americans are all clearly separate races…”

    Suggestion: rather than “separate races”, a better term would be “distinctive races”, or “recognizable races”. Races are not “separate”, inasmuch as they are inter-related and blend into one another. The boundaries are not fixed and distinct. They have not been, for millennia, because there has long been interaction amongst populations throughout the globe (via trade and warfare), to a surprising degree.

    Racial categorizations can be demarcated in all kinds of different ways and therefore they are in a sense arbitrary constructs. Nevertheless they refer to real variation amongst humankind that needs to be taken into account in public policy and personal interactions. To recognize racial differences is not racism. To demonstrate prejudice on account of those differences is racism. Closer interaction amongst different racial groups and the development of a sense of common humanity is essential. But it seems likely there will be recognizable characteristics amongst populations in particular geographic locations for a long time to come, since geographical proximity is kind of necessary to producing offspring! However, the patterns could change a fair bit. For example, it could well be that the majority New Zealanders of 200 years from now will have an interesting amalgam of European, Polynesian and Asian characteristics. But they will likely be in some way recognizably New Zealanders, and likely there will still be recognizable sub-groups within the NZ population.

    We should celebrate racial diversity, and abhor racial prejudice.

  13. Dan, I’m sorry if I offended you by ignoring the passage by Mayr to which you referred. In the light of his initial paragraph, however, a response to the third seemed irrelevant. Clearly both you and Mayr are attempting to distance your views of race from the views of racists. That’s commendable, certainly, and I strongly sympathize with everything both you and he have said regarding that distinction.

    But that was never my point. My problem is not with the moral aspect, but with the view that race can be regarded as a legimate scientific notion at all, period. It’s for that reason that Mayr’s first paragraph bothered me, because it’s based on an a priori assumption that racial distinctions can be defended on purely scientific grounds and, moreover, that such distinctions are obvious to everyone.

    The problem is not simply the patently racist view that “every member of a race has all the actual and imaginary characteristics of that race,” but the more general view that race can have any meaning at all (beyond it’s admittedly very important though problematic meaning as a social construct).

    I have read Cavalli-Sforza’s book, in fact I own it and have studied portions of it very carefully. I am also familiar with the review you cited. The reviewer makes a very interesting point by quoting from a description of the map on the cover, which does indeed use racial categories. I must admit that this quote puzzles me, because such classifications are criticized by C-V himself — in this very book, and in no uncertain terms.

    Even Cavalli-Sforza himself, it seems, was not always able to divorce himself from the social construct that so powerfully ties us to racial thinking. At other times in this book, as I recall, he uses racial categories as a handy way of making certain informal distinctions. But at NO point does he treat such distinctions as part of his strictly scientific research.

    Section 1.5 of The History and Geography of Human Genes is a review of “Classical Attempts To Distinguish Human ‘Races.” Section 1.6 is titled “Scientific Failure of the Concept of Human Races.” These two chapters make his position crystal clear. I can think of no better argument against the notion of “racial science” than the one he presents here (see pp. 16-20 of the paperback edition). And by the way, there is no mention of the political or moral aspect of racial thinking until the very last paragraph. Most of his argument is strictly scientific, not ideological. I urge you to read these passages before posting any further on the issue of race.

  14. Now I’d like to respond to John, who very commendably is attempting to move away from rigid categories and presents a nuanced view of race. I find the following particularly meaningful, but also just a bit misleading as well:

    “Racial categorizations can be demarcated in all kinds of different ways and therefore they are in a sense arbitrary constructs. Nevertheless they refer to real variation amongst humankind that needs to be taken into account in public policy and personal interactions.”

    The danger here is not in the overall sentiment, with which I totally agree, but in the failure to distinguish between race as something “real” (i.e. scientific) and race as a social construct. This is crucial.

    Racial distinctions are “real” only to the extent that powerful social constructs are real. Such distinctions are part of the world we live in, they are part of the way we “construct” reality and are therefore important, because they have a very real impact on people’s lives.

    “To recognize racial differences” in THIS sense is, indeed, not racism. Because such differences are the basis for the way most people in our society perceive other people and must therefore be taken into account — in public policy especially.

    Just because someone is “in fact” (i.e., scientifically) of largely European ancestry, with only a small percentage of African ancestry, that fact does not mean he shouldn’t be entitled to benefits associated with affirmative action principles, for example. Because that small amount of African heritage might be just enough for him to be perceived as “black,” and therefore suffer from just as much stereotyping — and racism — as though he were 100% of African origin. This is where the social construct becomes just as “real” as scientific fact.

    Nevertheless, it would be a serious mistake, from a scientific viewpoint, to classify this person as “negro” or “black” or “African American,” because strictly speaking he is mostly of European origin. Such are the pitfalls and puzzlements of racial thinking. We have to live with it, yes. But we do NOT have to accept it as scientific truth.

    And no, this is not just an anomaly affecting only small groups of people, since just about everyone on Earth is and for a long time has been, of mixed heritage.

  15. Victor,

    When I was living in Samoa as a child in the 1960s, I was acquainted with an older man who had arrived in Samoa many years before as a “ship’s boy”, as a I recall, at maybe 12 years of age. He was born an Englishman, but had made his life in Samoa. In every way that mattered he was Samoan — a fluent Samoan speaker, married to a Samoan wife, living in a traditional Samoan house, etc. To some extent, even though his skin was “white”, he “looked” like a Samoan, because his gestures and mannerisms were typically Samoan.

    I mention this story to illustrate the complexity of ethnic and cultural identity. One can culturally belong to a certain “race” even though having no ancestral connections to it. The ethnic groups that peopleidentify with has a very great importance in forming cultural communities. Nevertheless, in the great majority of cases this is a greater much degree of correlation between ancestry and cultural identity than in the example I gave above.

    It appears that when you say that the concept of race is not “scientific”, your meaning is that the concept of separate races does not have a strict genetic basis. This is obviously correct. Nevertheless, it seems to the untrained observer such as myself that groups identified, say, as “Han Chinese”, or “Polynesian”, have an identity and an ongoing life over time where both physical and cultural characteristics are passed on from generation to generation. Is it not so that science (e.g. anthropology), can and does study races in this sense? For example, the origin of the Polynesians can be traced through clues of DNA, language, archaeology, etc., and it has been determined that their ancestors originated in Asia. They are related to Indonesians, Filipinos, and the indigenous people of Taiwan, etc.

    Your scientific knowledge is much better than mine. My comments, for what they’re worth, come from the perspective of a lifetime of interaction with people of different “races”, and a conviction of the inherent spiritual equality of all human beings (beyond surface differences).

  16. John,
    Thanks for the qualifications to my statements. While your comment echoes the thoughts that I was trying to express, you’re absolutely right that care should be taken in how such things are said – even synonyms have distinctly different connotations.

    I’m not sure at what point I was suggesting that races are “rigid categories.” The whole point of this post, from my perspective, was to emphasize that the human species and its races can be characterized by diversity and uniqueness. This is the point of the first paragraph, while the third paragraph emphasizes that these categories are not rigid whatsoever, despite the obvious differences described in the first paragraph. So when you say that clearly I and Mayr are trying to distance ourselves from racists, you only see half of the picture. You fail to recognize that, like you, Mayr and I are trying to describe that while races exist, they are NOT rigid.

    But it’s not only that – you naively suggest that races do not exist, as though all H. sapiens was a monolithic entity, without diversity or distinct populations. This is, of course, an absurdity. It is equally absurd to suggest that, by acknowledging that races exist, that I (or Mayr) am advocating discrimination or prejudice based on race. I have neither said anything to that effect, nor having I insinuated it.

    As to the first absurdity, you say:

    The problem is not simply the patently racist view that “every member of a race has all the actual and imaginary characteristics of that race,” but the more general view that race can have any meaning at all.

    Of course the patently racist view that you mention here is a problem. I agree with that, without reservation. Further, I agree that race should not have any meaning in a social sense; the ideal situation is that, in society, all opportunities are blind to race. Yet you say this as though this means that races and diversity and uniqueness of both populations and individuals do not exist. As any biologist (and particularly any evolutionary biologist) will tell you, that is incorrect.

    That is to say, that biologically, the racial diversity of mankind is obvious, but plastic – and that sociologically, we are not “created” equal, but deserve equal opportunity.

    Thus, my big problem with you Victor, is that you say that race is merely a social construct. How could anyone read Cavalli-Sforza’s book and come away saying that races don’t exist, or that they H. sapiens is a monolithic entity, is beyond me. There are clear genetic (as well as morphogenic and linguistic, and other criteria) differences between Caucasions, Sub-Saharan Africans, and Asians (not to mention the multitude of their subpopulations), that cannot be denied. Yet (and I haven’t claimed otherwise), these racial differences are highly plastic, are impermanent, contain ambiguities, are not rigid by any means, and possibly disintegrating in an ever more-interconnected and globalized world, and are NOT the basis for judgments regarding individuals.

    It is the plasticity of these relations that I think both you and John are alluding to, in sociocultural terms. But it is the former geographic isolation of human species, ending less than 100 generations ago or so, not to mention the existence of rival subpopulations within the continental regions themselves, that established the diversity that exists today. When similar diversity arises in species in various avifauna, ornithologists rightly identify and classify subspecies and races. Similarly, ornithologists occasionally describe the merger of previously isolated populations within a species. I think that these processes are analogous to human history over recent centuries, and it probably is breaking down racial boundaries. Diversity, inheritance and evolution are such fluid and dynamic things, are they not?

    Lastly, I do not describe this phenomenon in the human species to denigrate humans of any race – I do so in order to better understand and appreciate such diversity.

  17. John and Dan:
    I think the problem we are all grappling with has to do with the slippery nature of the word “race” itself. Strictly speaking, race is a concept based on the notion that people can be classified according to their physical appearance and that, moreover, such a classification reflects their biological heritage. Such a classification was indeed the goal of the “racial science” of the past, the most notorious example of which was the “racial science” of Nazi Germany. As we now know, based on much more sophisticated genetic research, there is no basis for this view. No such classification is possible.

    Does that mean that one cannot draw meaningful conclusions of ANY kind based on distinctions of physical appearance? Of course not. No one has ever suggested that. There are certainly very clear physical differences between peoples from different parts of the world. That is what is now called, by scientists, morphology. And, yes, it IS possible to do real science based on morphological distinctions. Just as it is possible to do real science based on cultural differences. That is called ethnography or ethnology.

    But when you define race as having something vaguely to do with the way people look, the way they dress, the way they behave and their genetic makeup, then you are no longer talking science, because scientific research must be based on precisely defined terms and there is no way to precisely define the term “race” anymore, since there is no way of scientifically distinguishing people based on “race.”

    There seems to be some sort of vague hope being expressed that when you combine morphology, genetics, ethnology, etc. that will somehow boil down to some overall classification scheme equivalent to something that could vaguely be understood as “racial” difference — but there is no scientific evidence for such a hope.

  18. Victor,

    Strictly speaking, race is a concept based on the notion that people can be classified according to their physical appearance and that, moreover, such a classification reflects their biological heritage.

    That’s a cultural definition of race. There’s also the taxonomic term, referring to morphologically distinct subgroups within a species taxon, which is a valid scientific term regardless of whether one is referring to humans or any other animal species.

    But when you define race as having something vaguely to do with the way people look, the way they dress, the way they behave and their genetic makeup, then you are no longer talking science, because scientific research must be based on precisely defined terms and there is no way to precisely define the term “race” anymore, since there is no way of scientifically distinguishing people based on “race.”

    Regarding genetic makeup – again, how could you possibly have read Cavalli-Sforza’s book and come away thinking that genetic differences between races do not exist? Heck, screw Cavalli-Sforza’s book, just use common sense – no two humans (excluding perhaps identical twins) are identical, much less any two racial groups. Differences exist.

    But yes, the way you’ve been defining race is altogether consistent with your comments. That is not how I’ve been defining race however. I’m discussing it in the same sense that an ornithologist might discuss races of a given bird species. Moreover, I’m not referring to cultural diversity, I’m referring to biological diversity, having recently been thinking much about geographic speciation, through re-reading Mayr, Darwin, et al. This is altogether a different concept than what you’re talking about, having nothing to do with value-judgments, cultural preferences, or the like.

    So please, stop reading into my comments as though I’m talking about the same thing as you think I (and Mayr) am. Open your eyes. And while you’re at it, try reading Mayr’s What Evolution Is before passing judgment on it.

  19. I think that the key here, Victor, is that you have to wake up to the fact that the Human species is not a monolithic entity. It is diverse. Its various subpopulations are each unique, displaying a degree of diversity (genetic, morphological and other), just as individuals within those subpopulations are themselves unique and diverse.

    And yes, you’re patently absurd for suggesting that races exist ONLY as a social construct. Racial diversity is a beautiful thing, just as is the diversity of nature. Indeed, they obey the same biological characteristics of species.

  20. When you refer to “genetic differences between races” or “racial diversity” you are making an assumption — the assumption being that something called “race” already exists. If that’s the case, then please define it. And don’t equate it with morphology, because if race is the same as morphology, then one of those terms is redundant. What then is it that makes race different from morphology? Or population genetics for that matter?

    If you want to insist that race is a valid scientific concept, then please cite at least one scientific study that deals with race as such. Cavalli-Sforza’s field is population genetics, NOT race. He looks for differences based on haplotypes and haplogroups, which can by no means be equated with races.

    Other scientists have done studies based on morphology, which is also not the same as race. So please name some scientific studies based on race, NOT genetics or morphology, but race. Quote from some legitimate scientist currently active who has studied race as anything other than a social construct. Explain to us how such a study could be done, what criteria would be used, what methodology, what would be measured and on what basis would different “races” be compared?

  21. Dan and Victor,

    Besides the use of the word “race” by scientists, I’m also interested from the point of view of the meaning of words in ordinary language. (I understand that linguists and philosophers of language have pointed out that ordinary language is a kind of storehouse of wisdom/knowledge in itself.) The word “race” in ordinary language as used by the Nazis is not, I think, the meaning of the word as commonly understood today. Indeed, the Nazis tried to give a scientistic value to the word, based on bogus science.

    Let’s face it, these issues are “hot” because of the social implications. Anyways, thankfully, no one in the present discussion thinks racism is a good thing.

  22. Victor,
    Seriously – who are you kidding? I have been defining race (as a population concept). And, I have not been equating morphology with race.

    But I will ask you one last time, before closing this thread: Please, STOP READING INTO MY COMMENTS AS THOUGH I’M TALKING ABOUT THE SAME THING AS YOU THINK I AM. It’s infuriating.

    And, while you’re at it, learn something about taxonomy. You apparently know next to nothing.

  23. John,
    My apologies for my abruptness with Victor. You’re absolutely right that, thankfully, no one in the present discussion thinks that racism (or the view of one’s race being superior) is a good thing. Sadly, some here not only think that diversity does not exist, but that it is social construct.

    Denial denigrates our appreciation for diversity and uniqueness, both of humans, and of nature in general.

  24. Oh, and since I don’t have a handy and authoritative resource on the biological usage of the word race or subspecies, I hope that the wikipedia entry will suffice for now.

    While it is noted that “race” can be ambiguous as a taxonomic term, often owing to the connotations that the term carries and being used overly heavily perhaps regarding human species, I find “subspecies” disagreeable, even moreso than race, especially when it comes to our own race. Generally though, the terms are used more or less interchangeably, from what I’ve seen. And by what I’ve seen, I’m admitting that I’m not an expert on this, only referring to those books of scholars that I’ve read, and my own nature guides referring to the many varieties, races and subspecies described within species.

    Now, as I’ve admitted much, much earlier in this thread, where to draw the line between such subcategories below the level of species is very debatable. Heck, it is only since the 1940’s that an agreed-upon definition for species has been reached. But I don’t think that anyone in their right mind (except maybe Victor) would suggest that species or their subpopulations do not exist, simply because we cannot concisely define those categories or clearly delimit them.

  25. I give up.

  26. Dan,

    On this occasion, I’m at a loss to understand your vehemence! In my ignorance, the only difference I can discern between your opinion and Victor’s is that Victor seems to have a hangup about the word “race”. It seems to me an acceptable word, but not one worth going into battle for.

    “But I don’t think that anyone in their right mind … would suggest that species or their subpopulations do not exist, simply because we cannot concisely define those categories or clearly delimit them.”

    Quite right. There are myriad variations in nature where boundaries can’t be precisely defined, but are real variations all the same.

  27. Hi John,
    On my vehemance, I was thinking along the lines that I was at a loss to understand Victor’s – not to mention the frustration at trying to explain that geographical variation and species diversity, and being caricatured in response.

    On the use of the word race – I DID concede, in at least two comments days apart, that it is difficult to delimit races, and that the use of the word race could possibly and more accurately be substituted by the word subspecies (although I assume race to be the more conventional term, especially where concurrent gradations of genetic, morphological, and other, characteristics are observable across geographical landscapes, although this is debatable). So I am most definitely not battling for the word ‘race’ – I am asserting that it is absurd to suggest that Asians, Africans, Europeans, etc., are indistinguishable (i.e. that race is merely a social construct).

    Further, I find Victor’s dogmatic stance – that this geographic diversity is merely a social construct – to denigrate (by denial) our diverse and varied heritages. This is bothersome – afterall, how can you appreciate diversity if you pretend that it doesn’t exist?

  28. Dan,

    I regret the one-sidedness of my “vehemence” comment. Your objections are well founded.

    What you have said about diversity and the validity of the word “race” makes good sense to me. I have long thought that race is a valid concept if understood in a reasonable way. It is interesting to read your biological explanation of it.

    It is not clear to me that Victor denies human diversity, but he obviously does not like the word race. It appears that his rejection of the word relates to a particular meaning of the word. It is worth examining because Victor’s view, in my experience, is fairly widespread amongst well-meaning people.

    These debates may seem to be abstractly about science, but they are fuelled by social and psychological concerns.

    Some very strange and damaging meanings were attached to the word race in the late 19th century and early 20th. It has been one of the major moral achievements of the last hundred years that it has now been established that contrary to the older theories about race, there is only one human race, i.e. in the sense that humankind is a single species. I believe it is the significance and recency of this realization that sets off passionate statements that “there is no such thing as race”.

    However, now that it is widely realized that humankind is a single species, an understanding of diversity within that unity, in a nuanced manner, needs to be achieved. The “one human race” concept, if applied without regard for diversity, actually leads to a whitewashing of people’s particular identities, and can cause new forms of oppression, not liberation, for racial minorities.

  29. John,
    I’m not 100% sure that Victor was merely objecting to the word ‘race’ – otherwise I thought he would have taken my concession that another term be used instead, or acknowledged my claim that I was using the term strictly in the taxonomic or biological species sense of the word, as was Ernst Mayr (the book is almost entirely on the natural world, with only 2 pages out of 200 dealing with anthropological diversity), or something. And, not to mention, nary a mention in return of what I thought would be a gross exaggeration on my part (that he denies that human diversity exists, and that he must not be able to tell Asians, Africans and Europeans apart), leading me to think that he actually is arguing for those things.

    Of course, however, Victor is a well-meaning person – but I think that he misunderstands the concept of geographic variation to the extent that he is not even willing to address its existence. Simply put, you can’t talk about the characteristics of something if one side refuses to admit it exists.

  30. Dan, fair enough. I’ve nothing more to add.

  31. One more try:
    Dan, the problem is that you have been equating racial diversity with diversity. There is clearly diversity, morphological, genetic, and ethnic, all over the place, no one could deny that. What I’ve been objecting to is your use of the word “race” in characterizing that diversity.

    One of the many serious problems with the notion of “racial” diversity is that such a usage tends to collapse the morphological and the genetic, and often the ethnic as well, into a single category, as though all humans could be classified into distinct “races” by somehow lumping the way they look with their genetic lineage — and perhaps also their ethnic heritage as well, since this too affects the way they look.

    But current research on population genetics tells us that morphological similarity does not necessarily equate with genetic lineage, the two can often give a very different picture. I gave as an example the case of an “African American” who might look “negroid,” but in fact be principally of European dervation. This is not a rare situation, by the way — a great many in our country identified and even self-identified as “African American” or “black” are in fact mostly of European background genetically.

    Since the notion of “race” is based on lumping these two very different things, morphology and genetics, it can have no strictly scientific meaning.

    This is only one of many reasons for rejecting “race” as a scientific concept.

    You have, of course, claimed that you have your own definition of “race” that does not conform to the one I keep insisting on — and that may be true. One is free to define a term any way one likes, I suppose. If you think it a good idea to label population genetics as the study of “race” no one can stop you. But it would be extremely misleading and potentially harmful to do so, because the term is already so widely used to stereotype people into distinct classes based on the assumption that the way they look CAN in fact tell us what human “slot” they fall in to.

    You might think you are talking population genetics, but most people will hear you talking “race” in the same old, misleading and harmful way the term has been used for years. And all the racists will thank you for telling them what they want to hear — that their prejudices are based on “science,” and not merely a social construct.

    The scientific study of human diversity is currently known as population genetics, or anthropological genetics, and the study of morphology is a part of that science. It is NOT the same as racial science, no matter how much you might want it to be.

  32. Victor,
    Ah, so it IS just that you dislike the word race. WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO? Shall we use the term subspecies then? That, admittedly, is the more conventional term for species diversity, but it somehow sounds odd referring to human subgroups as subspecies.

    Regardless, I am (and so is Mayr, having read the book) most definitely not arguing that the subgroups of any population, human or otherwise, can be grouped into distinct categories based on any criteria – morphological or genetic. Species diversity is too plastic and fluid a phenomenon for that, as I’ve been repeatedly saying.

    To wit, your comment that morphological similarity does not easily equate with genetic lineage – gradations across the spectrum of variations makes separation of any biological diversity highly arbitrary. Yet, the fact that inheritance does play a role is patently obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with biology. So when you say…

    One of the many serious problems with the notion of “racial” diversity is that such a usage tends to collapse the morphological and the genetic, and often the ethnic as well, into a single category, as though all humans could be classified into distinct “races” by somehow lumping the way they look with their genetic lineage — and perhaps also their ethnic heritage as well, since this too affects the way they look.

    … I can only conclude one of two things – that you fall into the typological thinking that Mayr rants about (which is what I was in the mood to rant about, hence my quoting of him); or you think that I fall into that typological mode of thinking – which makes no sense, else I would not be criticizing it, would I?

    So I think that it is you who are the typologist here, who thinks that any measure of diversity necessitates “lumping” of anything. That you cannot grasp this concept – of the uniqueness of populations with gradations of characteristics amongst its members – is, I think, testament to your narrow typological view. Your repeated references to population genetics, while I’m referring to diversity, is testament to this inability of yours to understand what I’m talking about. Population genetics deals strictly with the rates of inheritance within a given population. This is vertical, or phyletic change that you’re describing. Diversity on the other hand, and geographic diversity specifically, refers to horizontal, or divergent change. That is to say, you’re talking about population (singular) genetics, while I’m talking about the genetics of populations (plural).

    I realize what you’re talking about, but this is my blog, and I started this topic, and I’m telling you, I’m not talking about change within one single gene pool – I’m talking about divergent change between separate populations, and you clearly have no understanding of this process. (Yes, I know, in the last 100 generations the human subspecies began mingling again – a good thing, IMHO – and once separated populations are rejoining again. I mentioned this, and again, you took no notice, leading me to believe that you didn’t understand the importance of what that means to my point with this blog post.)

    So really, go learn a bit more about geographic speciation. Here’s a hint – population genetics alone won’t tell you squat about speciation.

  33. I have no idea what you mean by “speciation” and in fact I find your last post extremely confused and confusing. “Modern” humans are regarded as a single species, so how does speciation apply here? Or are you talking about “subspecies,” as though the different “races” were subspecies and the terms could be used alternatively? I’ve been giving you a whole series of reasons why they cannot. And this isn’t just me, nor is it just Cavalli-Sforza, but just about everyone currently doing research in the field of anthropological genetics.

    If you could cite just a single scientific book or paper (by a legitimate scientist, not a journalist, amateur, polemicist, etc.) that illustrated your view, that would be a great help. I’m willing to admit that there is something important I may be missing, so if you provide a clear example of the sort of science you have in mind, I promise to look into it.

  34. Yes, it’s clear that you have no familiarity with the concept of speciation, and geographic speciation in particular.

    Citing Mayr isn’t enough of a start? Then feel free to read Douglas Futuyma’s textbook Evolution, the Understanding Evolution website, the wiki entry for Allopatric (or geographic) speciation, or the TalkOrigins website. The TalkOrigins site has a decent, but out of date, bibliography including:

    Weiberg, James R.. Starczak, Victoria R.. Jorg, Daniele. Evidence for rapid speciation following a founder event in the laboratory. Evolution. V46. P1214(7) August, 1992.

    Kluger, Jeffrey. Go fish. (rapid fish speciation in African lakes). Discover. V13. P18(1) March, 1992.

    Barrowclough, George F.. Speciation and Geographic Variation in Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. (book reviews) The Condor. V94. P555(2) May, 1992.

    Nores, Manuel. Bird speciation in subtropical South America in relation to forest expansion and retraction. The Auk. V109. P346(12) April, 1992.

    That is, of course, a very very narrow sampling of papers, but enough to demonstrate that geographic speciation is a valid biological concept, despite your ignorance of it. Of course, as the various websites note, it is not the only proposed mechanism of speciation in existence. Also of course, humanity is not strictly diverging geographically anymore – our various subpopulations and cultures are no longer isolated as they were 100+ generations ago. Adaptive radiation is an example outcome of such geographic isolation however – for instance with Darwin’s finches and thrushes.

    Surely you must see the beginnings of the diversification of humans, that one can see in full bloom with Darwin’s finches, right? That the isolation has ended and we are blending back together (at least a little) doesn’t hide that fact. Neither does the difficulty in demarcating the various groups, nor the difficulty in choosing the most appropriate word for these (formerly?) divergent populations. They’re still each unique.

  35. Two more references:

    Genetic Variation and Phenotypic Evolution During Allopatric Speciation, Russell Lande, The American Naturalist, Vol. 116, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 463-479

    Genetic Divergence, Reproductive Isolation, and Marine Speciation, S R Palumbi, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics Vol. 25: (Nov., 1994), 547-572

    Mechanisms of Speciation, E Mayr, C Barigozzi, The Scientist 2003, 17(22):14

    Coyne, A.J. and H.A. Orr. 1998. The evolutionary genetics of speciation. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B: 287-305. Check out other work by Jerry Coyne as well.

  36. Oh, and one more:
    Ernst Mayr in the Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archives, with his 1992 essay Speciational Evolution or Punctuated Equilibria (actually he ends up arguing for Punctuated Equilibria by geographical speciation).

    That, and the Coyne and Orr (1998) paper in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Evolutionary genetics of speciation, are the two single articles I would recommend for easy-access reading. Of course, as I said, there are plenty of other books and articles by evolutionary biologists worth reading as well. For now, I recommend reading these two, and then go back and re-read Cavilla-Sforza from that perspective.

  37. Of course I know what speciation is, Dan. My problem was with understanding YOUR idea of speciation, since that term is not ordinarily used with reference to the differentiation we find among modern humans. I was hoping you’d provide us with references to scientific studies that attempt to measure the sort of distinctions you are calling “racial,” or those pertaining to HUMAN subspecies. Are there currently any scientific studies based on “racial” distinctions — or the notion of subspecies as applied to human populations? Or is this something you’d like to see in future?

  38. And I was hoping that you would be able to grasp the concept of geographic diversity between populations in a species, a concept straight out of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Clearly that’s expecting too much of you.

    Just answer this – if you know and understand species diversity, why did you think that population genetics would be the answer? Did you think that Hardy and Weinberg had a variable for geographic or reproductive separation in their equation?

  39. Victor,
    Also, perhaps I was a bit quick to leave out citing Jared Diamond. In both Guns, Germs, and Steel, and its prequel The Third Chimpanzee, he explicitly looks at “geography, demography, and ecological happenstance in changing human populations,” to quote the book description. I think a discussion on the merits of Diamond’s books would be interesting (his arguments are usually speculative, and generally based on historical evidence instead of ‘hard’ data like genetics, etc.) – but his ideas certainly fit the description of geographical diversity, changing subpopulations, and per your request, an anthropological focus.

    Very interestingly, yes, I do not know of an authoritative and scientific treatise on the evolutionary forces that shaped the diversity of modern humans. Perhaps there simply hasn’t been a study on it, I’m not sure – but it is clear that Cavilla-Sforza’s huge collection of genetic data is a powerful piece of data to play around with conceptually.

  40. Another interesting and helpful perspective, pointing out valid and invalid applications of the words populations, subspecies and race in a scientific perspective. It does point out, as have I, that race is can only be delimited in a highly arbitrary fashion, and very many exceptions exist in any classification scheme.

    Race and Genomics

    This point requires further attention. There is no doubt that there are some important biologic differences among populations, and molecular techniques can help to define what those differences are. Some traits, such as skin color, vary in a strikingly systematic pattern. The inference does not follow, however, that genetic variation among human populations falls into racial categories or that race, as we currently define it, provides an effective system for summarizing that variation. The confused nature of this debate is apparent when we recognize that although everyone, from geneticists to laypersons, tends to use “race” as if it were a scientific category; with rare exceptions, no one offers a quantifiable definition of what a race is in genetic terms. The free-floating debate that results, while entertaining, has little chance of advancing this field.

    So that there exist differences between the populations (i.e. each populations of humans is unique, as is each individual in each of those populations), is without a doubt certain. But, as Mayr indicated [quoted], these differences are not rigid, clear-cut, or distinct insofar as the human phenotype goes. Instead, the concept of race that I am attempting to use, in line with the biological concept of species articulated by Mayr (1942), follows the rules of speciation in general.

    This is the message that I began this thread with, for those of you [Victor] who read the Mayr excerpt and failed to pick up that point in the third paragraph.

  41. NPR on human variation, involving discussion of Lewontin’s Fallacy:

    Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy is a 2003 paper by A.W.F. Edwards that criticizes Richard Lewontin’s 1972 conclusion that race is an invalid taxonomic construct because the probability of racial misclassification of an individual based on variation in a single genetic locus is approximately 30%.

    Edwards argued that while Lewontin’s statements on variability are correct when examining the frequency of specific loci between individuals, the probability of racial misclassification rapidly approaches 0% when one takes into account more loci. This happens because of correlations between the loci frequencies within each population. In Edwards’ words, “most of the information that distinguishes populations is hidden in the correlation structure of the data.” These correlations can be extracted using commonly-used ordination and cluster analysis techniques. As Edwards showed, even if the probability of misclassifying an individual’s race based on a single locus is as high as 30% (as Lewontin reported in 1972), the misclassification probability based on 10 loci can drop to just a few percent.

    Numerous studies have verified the ease with which genetic distinctions between races can be found. For instance, a 2001 paper by Wilson et. al. reported that an analysis of 39 microsatellite loci divided their sample of 354 individuals into four natural clusters, which broadly correspond to four geographical areas (Western Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, China, and New Guinea).

    Whether or not Lewontin’s Fallacy is a fallacy depends on how one defines the concept of “differences” between human groups. If “differences” are considered to exist when individuals can be accurately classified according to any single randomly chosen trait, then Lewontin’s results imply that human races are not distinct in this sense. If, on the other hand, “real differences” are considered to exist when individuals can be accurately classified using a number of traits, then human races are distinct. The ability to accurately classify individuals using multiple loci is, of course, not simply a property of populations from different races — any two populations can have their individuals accurately classified in this manner, if enough loci are used. Edwards’ argument rests on the point that a relatively small set of loci can provide enough information to distinguish between races.

    Similar conclusions have been drawn by several authors, such as Risch et. al., who, in a 2002 letter to the journal Genome Biology, stated that “genetic differentiation is greatest when defined on a continental basis.”

  42. Some possibly useful information — an article from “the Economist”, referring to a recent study published in “Nature Genetics”:

    races or human race?

  43. Thanks John,
    That’s an interesting study that the article talks about, and this Economist article gets to the heart of the confusion here I think (albeit indirectly), even though the Nature Genetics article it refers to does not comment on the word ‘race’ at any point in the article. The relevant question raised by the Economist is, “How much difference is required for subpopulations to be considered of separate races?”

    Quantitatively, they’re correct, in that the genetic diversity between the human races is rather small when compared to races within bird species, generally. There are exceptions to that though – such as for the Empidonax flycatchers in North America, which are indistinguishable except for by their song and by their habitat (e.g., marshes vs. woodland), yet are considered not just separate races or subspecies, but separate species. So, drawing a line between species is the subject of much debate, much less subspecies or races. What the Nature Genetics article argues, as with the articles I’ve mentioned (Coyne and Orr’s paper, Mayr’s paper in the Gould archives, and Edwards’ 2003 paper in the journal BioEssays, among others), is that while individual traits or genes may not be indicative of one’s genetic heritage, the whole mixture of traits and genes is.

    Qualitatively, however, the observed uniqueness of populations that are or were at one time geographically and/or reproductively isolated, is entirely consistent with the concept of species diversity as articulated by Mayr in 1942, and which he had described further in many of his later writings as consequence of his “biological species concept.” This concept of diversity has variously been described as geographic variation or speciation, adaptive radiation, and allopatric speciation – in general, divergence of populations, with gene flow as the counterbalancing process as populations interact. Generally speaking, when populations have been isolated in the past (by oceans and mountain ranges, more than anything else), populations diverge. This clearly occurred, albeit perhaps only slightly, in humans, particularly between continents. And it is true that we are capable of noting minute differences between individuals and groups within our own species, exaggerating those differences as a result – the social component that I think Victor spoke of. But to say that races exist only as social constructs is to suggest that the uniqueness of H. sapiens subpopulations exists only in our minds. That, of course, is manifestly false.

    [Sorry, I’ve mentioned most of this already and am repeating myself, I know. I’ve been learning about this as I go along over the past year, and this is good practice for me in developing my opinions.]

  44. […] that natural selection implies racism. Heck, even some evolutionists think that the mention of the word ‘race’ with regards to the human species, even when used in the taxonomic sense, implies […]


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