46

I've heard lots of people say things like "race doesn't exist" and "race has no biological meaning." On the other hand, I've heard lots of disagreements too, from scientific popularizers like Steven Pinker & Razib Khan. The Wikipedia article on race is distinctly bloated and unhelpful.

What's the latest scientific consensus in regards to the biological meaning of human races?

  • Are you talking about human races (black, Asian, etc.) or some other concepts? – Borror0 Mar 6 '11 at 1:14
  • 2
    @Borror0 I thought what I meant would have been clear from the context: yes, I'm referring to that, or any sort of broad classification of human ethnic groups. Can it be done? – Uticensis Mar 6 '11 at 1:21
  • 2
    A brief survey of modern and early modern history of western thought will turn up variety of racial "theories" which are now thoroughly discredited, which does not preclude the existence of a useful theory. That said, many (most?) of those earlier "theories" where used as cover for all kinds of abuse, and it is more than reasonable to treat new ones with some diffidence because of that history. – dmckee Aug 21 '11 at 19:30
  • 2
    'Black', 'Asian' and so on are clearly not races. Inhabitants of north-west Africa didn't mix for centuries with those of North-East, with Middle-West, Middle-East, South-West-Africa and so on - you have, if you like to use the term, hundrets or thousands of 'black' races, and they don't have much in common, including skin color. The same is true for Asians and Europeans, but is changing rapidly with modern transport possibilities and people mixing all over the globe. A person from Mocambique might share more Genes with another one from India or Thailand than with one from Ghana. – user unknown Aug 21 '11 at 20:13
  • 4
    @ Dave Bauer, Actually taking that approach you could argue there are no sub-species in other species. In fact, you could argue that there are no species as occasionally you get cases there where the boundary is blurry. A lot of these strawman type arguments are dealt with in this paper by Nevan Sesardic: Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept, Biology and Philosophy 25 (2010), 143-162. ln.edu.hk/philoso/staff/sesardic/getfile.php?file=Race.pdf – Josh Bloomberg Feb 21 '13 at 5:02
53

These are quotes from Lynn B Jorde's & Stephen P Wooding's paper Genetic variation, classification and 'race'.

Genetic variation is geographically structured, as expected from the partial isolation of human populations during much of their history. Because traditional concepts of race are in turn correlated with geography, it is inaccurate to state that race is "biologically meaningless".

On the other hand, because they have been only partially isolated, human populations are seldom demarcated by precise genetic boundaries. Substantial overlap can therefore occur between populations, invalidating the concept that populations (or races) are discrete types.

Modern human genetics can deliver the salutary message that human populations share most of their genetic variation and that there is no scientific support for the concept that human populations are discrete, nonoverlapping entities.

It depends on how you define "race": geographically, genetically, socially. But either way, you'll almost always find an "overlap" between populations.

  • 7
    Excellent find. I contend that the concept of race is quite silly for humans. We have one of the least diverse genomes of all major mammals. What we define as race is just geographical variation! :) And with the continued globalization of our species, I hope that eventually that will go away. – Larian LeQuella Mar 19 '11 at 0:11
  • 2
    @Larian What do you mean that race is "just" geographical variation? The most controversial issues that using "race" as a biological term bring up are intimately tied with "geographical variation." An example: Research shows that the closer one gets to the equator, the shorter the lifespan of closely related species. Some extrapolate this fact to the human condition, and so argue that the short lifespan of Blacks in the US is partially due to evolutionary adaptation to geographic variations. That is, discrimination isn't sufficient to explain existing inequalities. – Uticensis Mar 23 '11 at 8:51
  • 9
    @Larian So your "just" doesn't make sense; both "racist", distateful, ideas, and ideas premised on the benign, superficial distinctions between racial groups rely on the reality of "geographic variation." You seem to be assuming that "geographic" means "doesn't matter", which is utterly wrong. – Uticensis Mar 23 '11 at 8:57
  • 7
    We need to be careful not to conclude that a lack of "discrete, nonoverlapping entities" is equivalent to saying the concept is meaningless. To do so would to be to fall for the continuum fallacy. (I'm not accusing Oliver_C of doing this, but the discussion seems to be sailing close to these rocks, so I wanted to point them out.) – Oddthinking May 14 '12 at 15:06
  • 3
    What @Oddthinking said. There is nothing said here that cannot also be applied to species in general. There are billions of examples of borders between species that are not only fuzzy, but simply do not exist. The number of species changes based on how you are looking at them, and the reason you are categorizing them. That does not mean we do not benefit from categorizing genetic groups into discrete categories. – Jonathon Aug 26 '15 at 15:55
41

Race is not meaningless. But it is not a very effective way of dividing people's genetic identity.

The idea that race has been shown to be a biologically meaningless concept was popularized by Richard Lewontin. From the Wikipedia article on Race and Genetics (which you may find more helpful than the general one on Race):

In 1972 Richard Lewontin performed a FST statistical analysis using 17 markers including blood group proteins. His results were that the majority of genetic differences between humans, 85.4%, were found within a population, 8.3% of genetic differences were found between populations within a race... Lewontin's argument led a number of authors publishing in the 1990s and 2000s to follow Lewontin's verdict that race is biologically a meaningless concept.

This analysis is sound, but the verdict that race is "meaningless" has since been shown to break down when more than one genetic variable is taken into account at once. Simply put, if you plot traits in one-dimension, you can't find "clusters" that correspond to race. However, if you plot it in two dimensions, racial differences are readily distinguishable. Here's an illustration (lifted from Wikipedia):

Illustration of Lewontin's Fallacy

Lewontin's argument is now frequently referred to as "Lewontin's fallacy," following a famous paper by A.W.F. Edwards: "Human genetic diversity: Lewontin's Fallacy", Bioessays 25(8), Aug 2003, pp. 798-801, the abstract of which states in whole:

In popular articles that play down the genetical differences among human populations, it is often stated that about 85% of the total genetical variation is due to individual differences within populations and only 15% to differences between populations or ethnic groups. It has therefore been proposed that the division of Homo sapiens into these groups is not justified by the genetic data. This conclusion, due to R.C. Lewontin in 1972, is unwarranted because the argument ignores the fact that most of the information that distinguishes populations is hidden in the correlation structure of the data and not simply in the variation of the individual factors. The underlying logic, which was discussed in the early years of the last century, is here discussed using a simple genetical example.

So race is not meaningless biologically. Clear genetic distinctions exist. For instance, this (freely available) study was able to use genetics identify some race groups such as Hispanics with almost perfect accuracy.

But this does not imply that race is not meaningless for most practical/political purposes.

EDIT: It is important to note that none of this detracts from the importance of Lewontin's original discovery: There really is more variation within populations than between populations. Race really is not a very significant way of dividing people. Considering people as individuals is much more effective, and that's the direction medicine is moving as personalized sequencing costs plummet. And all the other answers which highlight the continuum between races are spot-on.

  • Can you please add an excerpt from the paper? – Sklivvz Mar 9 '12 at 19:06
  • Welcome to Skeptic! Great answer. Do you think you could summarize Edwards' critique in your answer for completeness? – Borror0 Mar 9 '12 at 19:14
  • 1
    Which Wikipedia article is the graph lifted from and what does it show? For the moment it’s completely meaningless. And what this answer doesn’t address (and what’s crucial) is how well distinct clusters from correlated variation data correspond to distinct races (caucasian, black etc.), rather than something else. And in fact that’s simply not the case. You will not be able to generate a plot where “black” forms a distinct cluster, because the variation within that cluster will be higher than between all other clusters combined. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 28 '13 at 15:30
  • 2
    @SigmaX Please use @-replies in comments, otherwise I’m not notified. To answer you: “the claim […] only applies to 1 dimension” – this is wrong. It does apply to higher dimensions as well. You get distinct clusters, but those do not correspond to classical racial distinctions. You will get some of those, but then other races are invariably mashed together. And no, I’m not saying anything about the number of traits here (although you can of course cherry-pick traits that will give you your desired distinction, but that has no expressive power). – Konrad Rudolph Mar 5 '13 at 13:28
  • 1
    @SigmaX This has been studied by – amongst others – Sarah Tishkoff and published in Science. It’s worth nothing that her research has been misrepresented by Nicholas Wade (and others) as support for the race concept. To which she, along with other evolutionary biologists, has replied, explicitly rejecting this interpretation. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 13 '14 at 22:40
11

At the risk of repeating Oliver_C's answer, I wanted to add in one more item and maybe pull out a few other quotes without totally re editing his answer.

The human genome is surprisingly narrow when compared to other large mammalian species. This would lend credence to the idea that any distinction of a "race" is meaningless.

humans have remarkably little genetic diversity, especially in comparison to our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

What we observe as a "race" is really just a population variance amongst a localized group adapted to the environment they live in. Specific selection pressures would lead to fair skinned individuals surviving better in the north, and then later that becoming a consciously selected sexual preference.

Overall, I this article in Nature may have some more answers for you:

Not surprisingly, biomedical scientists are divided in their opinions about race. Some characterize it as "biologically meaningless"4 or "not based on scientific evidence"5, whereas others advocate the use of race in making decisions about medical treatment or the design of research studies6, 7, 8. Amid this controversy, modern human genetics has generated a staggering array of new data. For the first time, it is possible to study human genetic variation using not just a few dozen polymorphisms, but hundreds or even thousands. In addition to neutral polymorphisms that inform us about population history, increasing numbers of variants that contribute to disease are being discovered.

This article also backs up my earlier quote/claim about variation:

The average proportion of nucleotide differences between a randomly chosen pair of humans (i.e., average nucleotide diversity, or pi) is consistently estimated to lie between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 1,500 (refs. 9,10). This proportion is low compared with those of many other species, from fruit flies to chimpanzees11, 12, reflecting the recent origin of our species from a small founding population13.

And from the conclusion of the article (my emphasis) is the answer to the question you asked:

Race remains an inflammatory issue, both socially and scientifically. Fortunately, modern human genetics can deliver the salutary message that human populations share most of their genetic variation and that there is no scientific support for the concept that human populations are discrete, nonoverlapping entities. Furthermore, by offering the means to assess disease-related variation at the individual level, new genetic technologies may eventually render race largely irrelevant in the clinical setting. Thus, genetics can and should be an important tool in helping to both illuminate and defuse the race issue.

I hope that helps.

  • 5
    A salutary message. I don't really feel comfortable seeing that in a (supposedly) unbiased report. I think scientific procedures should not take into consideration whether a piece of knowledge (or a finding) is salutary or not. Science should be objective and publish whatever is found whether or not the results are politically correct or even desirable. – Felipe Almeida Oct 14 '12 at 8:30
  • @FelipeAlmeida But can't you express satisfaction that what is objectively true happens to be socially fortunate? I tend to think that most people appealing loudly to objectivity in face of political correctness are no less biased themselves. – Relaxed May 14 '14 at 9:14
  • 1
    I see no reason to believe that group differences in physical and/or mental traits originating in the fact that different groups of humans evolved in different environments has been 'objectively' refuted (or confirmed). I have a feeling that the harshness of environments selects more intelligent humans as opposed to 'friendlier' climates like the tropics. This issue has never been touched by academia because people are afraid of what they will find out. – Felipe Almeida May 15 '14 at 4:01
  • @FelipeAlmeida Well, that's your opinion and as far as I am concerned a pretty crude version of old-fashioned scientific racism (I guessed as much, kind of my point) but what the authors wrote is precisely that it has been objectively refuted and that they are happy about it. Not, as you charge, that we should believe it because it's desirable. – Relaxed May 15 '14 at 10:02
  • "What we observe as a "race" is really just a population variance amongst a localized group adapted to the environment they live in." This hasn't been refuted, it is the definition of race according to the author. This "population variance" is precisely what I mean when I say that groups of people have differences in behaviour patterns/attitude towards life. – Felipe Almeida May 17 '14 at 0:13
11

Long and Kittles provide the following breakdown of biological theories of race in the last century or so:

Essentialist [Hooton (1926)] "A great division of mankind, characterized as a group by the sharing of a certain combination of features, which have been derived from their common descent, and constitute a vague physical background, usually more or less obscured by individual variations, and realized best in a composite picture."

Taxonomic [Mayr (1969)] "A subspecies is an aggregate of phenotypically similar populations of a species, inhabiting a geographic subdivision of the range of a species, and differing taxonomically from other populations of the species."

Population [Dobzhansky (1970)] "Races are genetically distinct Mendelian populations. They are neither individuals nor particular genotypes, they consist of individuals who differ genetically among themselves."

Lineage [Templeton (1998)] "A subspecies (race) is a distinct evolutionary lineage within a species. This definition requires that a subspecies be genetically differentiated due to barriers to genetic exchange that have persisted for long periods of time; that is, the subspecies must have historical continuity in addition to current genetic differentiation."

Note that they suggest that "[s]urprisingly, a great deal of genetic variation within groups is consistent with each of these concepts. However, none of the race concepts is compatible with the patterns of variation revealed by our analyses."

6

If you search in Sciencedirect in the category of Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology you get a variety of articles that speak about race such as:

Race/ethnic variation in serum levels of IGF-I and IGFBP-3 in US adults by David Berrigan et al

The concept is still used in academia. Whether or not you learn a lot from using the concept is however another question.

  • The concept as used in academic discussions in genetics is now very different from the common usage. The common usage harkens back all the way to Aristotle and beyond, and takes race to be an unchanging category as opposed to a cluster of genotypes that may rise and vanish over time. – Charles E. Grant May 1 '11 at 2:05
  • 3
    “The concept is still used in academia” – this is misleading. It is used by some people in academia but a good many scientists explicitly criticise this usage. As a prominent example, take Craig Venter, who has called the usage of this term in biology “not rational” and “bad science”. – Konrad Rudolph May 17 '11 at 11:35
  • @KonradRudolph Which seems to completely miss the point. A small or medium number of scientists directly criticizing the term "race" does nothing to invalidate hundreds of peer reviewed papers. Obviously the scientific community as a whole has not rejected "race" in any meaningful way. And all of that is even ignoring that fact that much of the dissension is OPINION, and not actual scientific proof and as such is an (appeal to authority), without solid evidential backing. – Jonathon Aug 26 '15 at 18:52
  • @JonathonWisnoski You are (intentionally?) inverting the numbers here. The vast majority of experts who have spoken out on the subject reject the concept of race in humans as meaningless. See the response to “A troublesome inheritance”. To claim that “the scientific community … has not rejected ‘race’”, in the context of human race, is flat out wrong. These are also not opinions but simple facts (although there’s a bit about how differences in definitions, which vary to some extent, although none is consistent with racism). – Konrad Rudolph Aug 27 '15 at 10:44
  • @KonradRudolph Where are you getting your numbers? There are tens of thousands of peer reviewed papers. I would say the vast vast vast vast majority of scientists who have spoken about race have implied it was meaningful. And again, you cannot equate a scientist's opinion with the same value as a scientific peer reviewed paper. And "A troublesome inheritance" goes well belong claiming Race is meaningful. They probably objected more to the claim that Black people are inherently violent and stupid than the use of the term race. – Jonathon Aug 27 '15 at 12:50
6

Human races don't exist as clear distinguished groups, but as you can see there are at least some differences between races. However, current research indicates that the traits that can be linked to specific races are more or less limited to what we see (skin color, hair,...). This maybe attributed to (relatively) recent adaptations to local wheather and living conditions at different places.

As for other traits, the variance inside each race is larger then the variance between races.

References:

Apportionment of Global Human Genetic Diversity Based on Craniometrics and Skin Color

Conceptualizing human variation

  • 1
    This looks like a typo: "more more less" does not make any sense here, I guess your intention was "more or less". whether - looks like another typo: weather? Other that that: can you provide any sources for those claims ("current research" - some links?)? – Suma Mar 18 '11 at 7:51
6

Race is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language.

It literally refers to any genetically passed traits that are shared within a group. This can include skin-colour, but it also includes hair colour, freckles, even nationality. In other words, any shared genetic traits mean you share the same "race" as someone. As you can imagine, this makes the term rather meaningless for lots of reasons.

For example, because of the huge amount of genetic diversity in Africa, two people from two different African nations will have less in common, genetically, than a European and someone from an African nation. And yet the average person would most likely guess it was the other way around.

Perhaps because humans are very visually orientated, however, we have now becomes fixated on skin-colour, and using that to define "race". Unfortunately people don't understand that there is little or no biological basis for any other traits, beyond skin colour. For example, The gene for skin-colour has no relation to things like musical ability, eye shape, athletic ability, etc.

Genetic traits are measurable, and often have other effects on a person (blonde people are more likely to have fairer skin, and so get sunburned more easily, etc), but other traits are stored in completely different areas of the human genome. A good way to look at it is to remember that skin colour is as biologically significant as hair colour or eye colour. The biggest mistake is thinking that "race" means something more significant about someone more than just "shared genetic history".

Until people understand that the difference between a black person and a white person is as biologically significant as someone who has freckles and someone who doesn't, common misunderstandings about the importance of race are likely to continue.

Most people don't even understand that "French" people are a race, for example, and I've even been "corrected" by people using it in that way!

In short: So much talk about "race" has placed far too much emphasis on the word, as if it means something significant. It doesn't.

Sources:

And a billion other papers and research all saying the same thing.

  • The question was specifically about biological meaning and none of the meanings in your first paragraph correspond to any of the typical biological meaning. – Konrad Rudolph May 15 '11 at 16:49
  • 2
    @Konrad - What does "biological meaning" mean, and why are you saying that "genetically passed traits" for example doesn't correspond to "biological meaning"? – ChrisW Jun 16 '11 at 13:21
  • @ChrisW Skin colour for instance is a genetically passed trait. But (almost) no modern biologist would assert that “blacks” or “whites” are meaningful races. Likewise for redheads, women or congenital diabetics. Yet all these are genetically passed traits. The closest we could get to a meaningful definition of “race” would be in an isolated group that share one common ancestor not shared by any other group. In other words, a precursor to (sub-)speciation. The closest “real” biological concept is “breed”. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 16 '11 at 13:40
  • 1
    @Konrad, We're saying exactly the same thing. The only difference is that I took the time to explain the actual definition of the word before I pointed out how meaningless it is. – Django Reinhardt Jun 18 '11 at 15:27
  • I would take issue with the vision of language underlying this post. If most English speakers do take “race” as referring to a small number of discrete groups defined mostly by skin color, then that's what it means. If you agree that this distinction is outdated and untenable then you ought to give up the word instead of redefining it to fit our current understanding of human diversity. – Relaxed May 14 '14 at 9:12
3

If you take the approach used for races and sub-species in other animal species then there are human races.

As Jerry Coyne notes, in evolutionary biology, races of animals (also called “subspecies” or “ecotypes”) are morphologically distinguishable populations that live in allopatry (i.e. are geographically separated). And, as we all know, there are morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas, though those differences are blurring due to recent innovations in transportation that have led to more admixture between human groups.

Also, self idenfitied ethnicity matches genetic clusters almost perfectly.

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/

  • “self idenfitied ethnicity matches genetic clusters almost perfectly.” – This is almost true, but crucially wrong. The article you link actually shows that you cannot get a clustering which resolves the classical races: what you get is invariably that some races resolve as expected, while others will cluster together (precisely because inter-racial differences are not consistent between different groups). See also my comments on SigmaX’ answer. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 5 '13 at 13:30
0

Race is a discredited concept. All variation is on a spectrum. There is no way to draw a line between races. This is very well explained http://skepticallyspeaking.ca/episodes/83-race-and-reality in discussion with Guy P. Harrison, author of Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know about Our Biological Diversity.

This is a very eye opening look at the real biological facts.

  • 6
    Yet we still draw lines for subspecies (and other cladistic entities), where the same reservation applies. So no, this isn’t a valid reason to discredit the concept. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 16 '11 at 13:53
  • 1
    @Konrad Reading the blurb of the cited book on Amazon, the gist of it seems to be: a) Racism is not good; b) Can you say whether there are 3 races, or 3000 (and if you cannot answer this question, then 'race' is undefined/meaningless). – ChrisW Jun 16 '11 at 14:02
  • 2
    @Chris I’m wary judging a book by its blurb only. Maybe the book actually does a good job. But neither the blurb nor this answer provide a valid rationale for the biological meaninglessness of the concept of race. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 16 '11 at 14:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .