“Race”: “There are No Races”,

What do Scientists Mean?

Part I

The unequal impact of the corona virus and of law enforcement on some communities has laid bare the inequity in the lived experience of groups called “races” and the issue of racism. But what are ‘races’: Is this the right word to describe these groups? We will explore these issues in a series of posts, not necessarily sequential.

Ask a number of people to define race or say what race is and you will get various answers. Confusion can be elicited with a few questions. “Race” — the term gets used in various ways, applied to different entities. A notion of difference underlies all of them. In everyday language, in the United States and other places, the term race is applied collectively to groups that are thought of as being fundamentally different from each other. The term is also shorthand, even a synecdoche, for the conflict and inequality between groups that are called races, and the attitudes that justify actions to maintain inequality and inequity — or the fight to end these. A good example would be saying that a particular election or policy is actually “all about race” with a meaning well understood in United States (US) society (and perhaps some others as well). The US government gets involved with mediating, or constructing, aspects of sociocultural (and political) life with questions on “race” in the census, and requirements for data on race in various institutional and grant making situations — including scientific ones. The census actually tells everyone what to mark for their “race” while simultaneously funding scientists who say that there are no races. It is fair to say that the term “race” migrated from old science to society impregnated with all sorts of various meanings (along with its appearance in various science books). Its fluid nature as used socially in the “New World” is illustrated in a recent article that noted how some Brazilian politicians who had previously won elections as “white” decided to acknowledge their tropical African ancestry and ran for office calling themselves “black” — or some term that acknowledges African ancestry; of course not all Africans in Africa are “black”- and not all “blacks” — meaning having dark skin colour, are Africans — a topic for another time. Some Brazilian whites have more West African ancestry than US blacks.

There is obviously a social use of the term race. There is also a scientific one, but does the latter apply to people? Moreover there was a once an accepted description of humankind as being divided into named races in the science literature, and although it is said that the notion of race is not valid it is well to note those names persist or have euphemisms.

“Race” is often said to be socially constructed, or that race does not have “scientific” basis. But what does this mean? Given that the term race and its derivative racism are constantly in use in daily conversation, the press, and even United States government documents, it is puzzling to many when it is said by some that there are no races.

The idea often undergirding race is that groups so designated consist of uniform or near uniform individuals; this is a kind of thinking called typological, from Plato’s concept of eidos — type — a notion of something having an underlying immutable essence. For the typologist this means that any one individual can be used to represent the whole group. In social life racists aggregate members of other groups into monolithic groups for commentary or interaction, believing that any one individual represents the group, while allowing for variation and individuality in their own group (allowing bad actors be seen as the proverbial “bad apples”). People who could be called racialists, believe that there are races, may not be racists, but do a similar, but less absolute aggregation, which amounts to stereotyping across different dimensions of existence and social life. Racialists (or racio-typologists) who are practicing scientists will use individuals or a particular population as representative of all of the members of a region or group in their work (as was noted in the article entitled The Persistence of Racial Thinking and the Myth of Racial Divergence, American Anthropologist, 1997). Scientists who call themselves populationists as opposed to believers in race acknowledge the variation within groups, but still sometimes seemingly think about, and analyze data or situations in a way that ignores the variation, and hold on to stereotyping traditions in practice. (When we hear that many doctors believe that “blacks” don’t feel pain the way whites do we see examples of this kind of thinking. The same doctors if asked would say that of course people within groups vary — -because they were taught this, but don’t apply it.)

We often think of race in terms of the entities that are called races — the three to six groups (or more) so designated taxa and the entities derived from them. However, there is a concept of race, or perhaps several concepts, from a scientific theoretical perspective. So, there are the groups that are called races, concept(s) of race, and a formal category within taxonomy (subspecies) that corresponds to race. So, do any of the entities to which the term race is applied in humans meet formal criteria to be called races in a biological taxonomic sense?

The term race in science is usually used to refer to a biological phenomenon and, in any case, gains its power from a notion of fundamental or even foundational group difference due to its use in biology. The biological is deemed natural. So how can it be that race and those things called races, something thought of as biological or fundamental be called socially constructed, in other words not natural? We can see biological variation in anatomical characteristics such as skin color, tooth form, hair form, ear wax, facial conformation, eye color, and detect variation in blood characteristics as well as DNA. We are also aware of variations in culture, religion, and language — -things that sometimes get lumped into something called race, or did in the past with persistent traces into the present. It is true that the way observations in nature are ordered is socially constructed such that even the way plants and animals have been understood has been influenced by cultural ideas. The Jena Declaration even suggests that racism preceded the development of ideas about race and racial classification.

One way to get at these things is to ask is there a definition of “race”, or use of the term race, that should probably be seen as taking precedence. Are there scientific and colloquial uses? Has there been a change over time? Is the idea that there are races among humans a remnant of another scientific era, and one whose science migrated into the social realm? Is one of the issues the term “race” itself and how it gets used? It is quite clear that there is human geographical variation, but do geographical units meet the definition of race. Is the problem that identifications can often be made in forensic situations to a population that is called a race — but does that mean that because such an identification is possible that therefore there must be races? The answer is no, and this will be discussed in the next post.

Generally, current anthropologists and most geneticists do not interpret the biological evidence as indicating that modern humans divide into races. What they say is that there are populations but no races, with it being understood that a race would be a special kind of population. And that is what has to be understood. A disclaimer is in order. Not all academicians agree with the idea that humans do not divide into races. They wish to preserve the word race for various reasons which are not necessarily in agreement. To some degree, all of this turns on definitions and paradigms about biological variation. (The disciplines involved include not only biology but the philosophy of science.)

One way to examine the question of whether modern humans divide into units that could accurately be called races is to examine aspects of this same debate about non-humans. This means using race in a way that is consistent with the way zoologists have considered problems with describing variation in other animal species. The term race is generally considered to be the equivalent of subspecies in zoological taxonomy. Another way to examine the question would include examining the concepts underlying classification in general.

The subspecies is a formal category within [Linnaean] taxonomy and designated with the trinomen consisting of the genus, species, and subspecies names. Subspecies is a formal category and once a new one is named can be officially recognized by the scientific community. Names imply a discreteness of a group, and usually some uniformity of individuals within that group — but for the traits used to define the group, with the assumption that study of other traits would lead to the same classification. Darwin, on close reading, basically suggested that in order for a population to be treated or understood or named as a subspecies/race that conceptually it must be nearly an incipient species, i.e, be very differentiated from other such groups. He also thought that taxonomy should reflect evolution in the genealogical sense. So, we see two criteria: a high level of differentiation, and the idea that descriptions should indicate something about evolution. Modern taxonomists would add to the notion of high differentiation the idea that subspecies must have historical continuity, which I prefer to express as a coherence of lineages from the foundation of the entity — which of course raises an interesting question about time: “when” would a subspecies begin?

Darwin was interested in various forms of life, and could be said to have been inconsistent in some of his taxonomic discussions. In the journal Systematic Zoology from 1953 to 1960 (and beyond) there were many articles that argued against the usefulness of the subspecies category. Their authors raised questions about the meaning of the subspecies names in the literature, whether they indicated something useful about divisions in nature. They argued against many of them being subspecies/races largely on evolutionary grounds, but also on grounds related to classification in the philosophical sense. This led to a general debate about the utility of the subspecies and its purpose: was it only a pigeonholing device and/or something more. This debate has been summarized in various places with further commentary over the years. (Linnaeus actually described different human groups using the trinomen and was quite colorful in his descriptions of their traits to be nice. Few followed him in this but it did not catch on. Rather terms and ideas synthesized from Blumenbach and others settled into common use in the 20th century.)

Subspecies were based on observable anatomical variation and geography. The zoological taxonomists’ objections can be summed up in several main points: the non-concordance (lack of concordance) of traits, polytopicity, the existence of distinct breeding groups, called demes, within named subspecies, clinal variation, and the arbitrariness of the criteria to determine subspecies. These problems were observed in recognized subspecies.

The non-concordance of traits refers to the observation that the units within the species (“races”) would change depending on which characters and their variation were used to make a classification. In other words, the traits are not obligatorily associated, even if in a region they usually “travel” together. Wing color and beak shape separately might lead to one classification, and together to another one. Other traits would lead to another classification of the same individuals in a species or fraction of a species. Another way to think about this is the classification and its constituents hold up only for the traits used to establish them.

Polytopicity (not polytypicity) refers to the existence of geographically widely separated groups that were broadly indistinguishable from each other in their observable physical traits.

Demes refers in this instance to distinct local populations that are more circumscribed as breeding units, meaning that there was much more mating within the local population. Such demes were postulated to actually deserve more recognition than the subspecies which in they were found.

Clinal variation refers to gradual changes in a trait over geographical space as opposed to there being distinct gaps. An example would be limb proportions in relationship to latitude and temperature.

The arbitrariness of criteria was observed in taxonomic practice around how much difference there had to be between populations to declare them different subspecies. A rule requiring that 50% of individuals had to be different from 90% or 100% of another would be one example of such a rule, but the point is that there were rules with different criteria.

As noted, new subspecies that were accepted were formally acknowledged with the trinomen. New findings were expressed in terms of the pre-existing groups even if those findings indicated that a new classification would more accurately reflect divisions and it can be added, evolution. One was “stuck” with the previous classification unless a formal revision was undertaken which may have not led to any change.

These observations apply to the best known and commonly used “racial” classification(s) of humans. The bottom line is the boundaries implied by names were found to not be as definitive as thought. Other arguments are made more commonly against the “existence of races” in living humans, and these will be discussed in a another post along with examples. In talking about “race” here we have focused on biological variation and this will continue in the next post but with a different focus. There will also be comments on the various meanings of the idea of the social construction of “race.” Should we be using the word race at all? (This has nothing to do with political correctness, but a better science.) How does describing aspects of human biological variation get turned into the construction of social groups not based on culture or history?

Modern taxonomists and conservationists still recognize some subspecies and some have to be preserved by law. There are also entities called evolutionary significant units (ESUs).


I would like to acknowledge Dr. A. J. Boyce and the late Professor G.A. Harrison, both of the Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Oxford.




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Y. Keita

Y. Keita

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