There is no such thing as race
We are all remarkably similar. But some of us have history.
History teaches us that past explorers — white men — had a habit of landing on foreign shores, setting up camp and taking control. But when it comes to England’s green and pleasant land, the first modern man to arrive and settle was black. Very black.
Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, discovered over a hundred years ago and about 10,000 years old, recently underwent DNA analysis and facial reconstruction. You may recall the headlines: the ancient male fossil was given the name Cheddar Man, because he was discovered in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, southwest England.
The DNA analysis revealed that Cheddar Man was black. Black! Our man wasn’t even a light shade of dark. He also had black curly hair and striking blue eyes.
Despite the shock headlines, Cheddar Man was nothing unusual. He was just a regular Brit, his features characteristic of the western European population at the time. Indeed, British people today share approximately 10% of their genetic ancestry with the same population that gave us Cheddar Man.
DNA analysis revealed that after leaving Africa, Cheddar Man’s ancestors moved into the Middle East, before migrating to Europe. From there, getting to Britain was easy. The island was once joined to mainland Europe via a strip of land called Doggerland (no kidding), so was accessible to anyone prepared to walk.
Until around 11,000 years ago, Britain was uninhabited by humans. Like much of the world, Britain was a kingdom ruled by huge beasts. It was also in the grip of an ice age. So when the last glacial period ended, the environment became more a more hospitable terrain for migrating humans looking for somewhere to settle.
The fact that Cheddar Man was black should come as no surprise. We are all black — or were, originally. We are all members of the species Homo sapiens, and can trace our origins back to Africa. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, and began to move out of this ancestral home and into Asia something like 50,000-80,000 years ago.
I’m currently researching and writing a book about the human brain and its dietary requirements. When I began this project, I thought it would be a straightforward matter of highlighting the most important nutrients required by the brain, and detailing the best ways of sourcing those nutrients.
I soon realised that if I was to truly understand what feeds the brain, I had to understand how it was that this once unremarkable organ was to triple in size over a period of 2.6 million years. It is this phenomenon that makes us human, and sets us apart from other animals.
I needed to understand how humans evolved from tree-dwelling primates, with simple little brains, happy to munch on fruit all day and with no particular ambitions to travel, to mighty hominins who conquered the globe with their freakishly overblown cerebral matter and unparalleled survival skills.
What I discovered is that every person on this planet is related to everyone else. When you go back, Africa is everyone’s starting point.
Race is an illusion.
As the title of an article in Newsweek proclaimed, in August 2014, “There is no such thing as race”. Written by Robert Wald Sussman, author of the book The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, this article describes how, in 1950, an international panel of experts at UNESCO issued a statement confirming that “race” is not a biological reality; it is a myth.
When they looked for the differences separating us, all they found were similarities.
“Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans.” (Newsweek)
We Homo sapiens are the last remaining species belonging to the Homo genus. This genus emerged 2.6 million years ago, with Homo habilis being the first species we know of. Over 20 different human species have now been identified. However, our evolution was not a simple, linear progression: coexistence was the norm.
If we sapiens struggle to get along, and frequently fight over our perceived differences, how on earth did those different species of human manage to rub along together? It’s impossible to tell, but it’s probably a good job that they had limited weapons capacity at the time, and hadn’t discovered nuclear fission. If you think someone with a different skin colour poses a threat, you should have met Homo erectus. These people could have knocked ten bells out of all of us, just with their bare hands.
According to geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer, author of the book Out of Eden, Homo erectus was “the line-defining human — the Model T Ford of the new genus.”
Their faces were a bit different, and their brains a bit smaller, but from the neck down they bore a striking resemblance to we sapiens. Homo erectus lived 1.9–0.07 million years ago and dominated the planet for at least 1.5 million years. They were strong, highly skilled hunters. They are also believed to be the first humans to walk out of African and start populating the globe.
So what determines our colour, if it isn’t race?
It all comes down to something rather simple: vitamin D.
“Our colour may have more to say about where our ancestors lived over the past 10,000–20,000 years than about their genetic divergence over the previous 60,000 years.” (Stephen Oppenheimer, Out of Eden)
Vitamin D is a key brain nutrient, and is made in the skin in the presence of sunlight. Or, more specifically, on exposure to solar ultraviolet B (UVB). You may associate this vitamin with bone health, but its role in brain health cannot be overstated. It is a neuroprotective agent, and deficiency is associated with a range of neurological disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, dementia (including Alzheimer’s) and Parkinson’s disease.
Once, all humans enjoyed wall-to-wall sunshine and ran about naked as new-borns. That was when we lived in equatorial Africa and didn’t know the meaning of cold, or coats. Dark skin in Africa is essential, as the pigment melanin protects from the harsher effects of sunlight by blocking excessive absorption of UVB.
Then, we took it upon ourselves to migrate to colder climes, going north and south of the equator. Our ancestors made some baffling choices about where to settle, and ended up in some places that required the application of more than just a strategically positioned fig leaf, if they were to survive.
Exposure to sunlight was therefore much reduced. We didn’t know it at the time, but lack of sunlight put us at serious risk of declining health. It still does, and we still fail to grasp how serious the situation is. The association between mental ill-health and vitamin D deficiency is well established, and I wrote about this in a separate article. See below if this is something that interests you. I hope it is, because it is something that affects everyone, whatever your skin colour.
Vitamin D deficiency is a problem for higher latitude dwellers (we northern folk), and for dark-skinned people, who need about five times as long to produce vitamin D as the fair-skinned.
As part of our biological response to this threat to the survival of our species, we began to lose skin pigmentation, in order to absorb more UVB to make vitamin D.
As Stephen Oppeinheimer explains, skin colour depends on the pigment melanin and how close you live to tropical and subtropical regions. The further away from the equator you move, the paler your skin becomes.
Genetic changes are normally slow to occur, and indeed we are little changed since the end of the Paleolithic era. Our ancient genome has an average mutation rate of 0.5% per million years, meaning it “still resides for the greater part in the Paleolithic era.”
However, some genetic variations occur much more quickly, out of necessity. These variations are called alleles. Changes in skin colour were expedited by the need to maximise exposure to the sun. Even so, it still takes several thousand years for variations to occur. So, thousand years from now, white people living in places such as Australia and South Africa will eventually become darker. Black people living in cold climes will become paler. Plenty of scope there for more hate crime, if we survive that long.
The multi species human
It gets curiouser. Not only did different species of humans jostle for survival together, it is clear that there was plenty of sexual fraternizing going on among them. Imagine.
Because not only are all living humans related to one another, we also carry the genes of other species of humans. This means that we are not even pure sapiens. The exception to this is African people whose ancestors never left the continent. Work that one out, neo-Nazis.
In 2003, the mapping of the human genome was completed. It turned out that those of us whose ancestors left Africa way back carry a little Neanderthal DNA. (Some of us are also a bit Denisovan, but let’s keep it simple.)
What’s wrong with a little Neanderthal heritage anyway? It seems that unfounded prejudice even extends to a type of human who became extinct just 30,000–40,000 years ago. It is often assumed that the Neanderthals were grunting, knuckle-headed brutes. On what evidence is this biased thinking based? On the observation that they had large, heavy brows. In other words, their physical appearance.
How easy it is to make facile assumptions that satisfy our need to feel superior. The truth is that these humans were artistic, sensitive souls, living in cooperative family units. Modern humans — sapiens — arrived in Europe 40–45,000 years ago. But at least 20,000 years before our arrival, Neanderthals were decorating the walls of their Spanish caves with fine art. There are three sites in Spain that have been identified as containing Neanderthal artwork. So advanced were these creative sophisticates that they had moved on from realistic portrayal of wild animals (so last Ice Age) to creating abstract art, using ladder-like shapes, dots and handprints.
“It wasn’t simply decorating your living space….. People were making journeys into the darkness.” Alistair Pike, archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK.
They were ahead of us in many ways. They were also bigger brained. True, they also had bigger bodies, but their brains were well developed, along with their artistic and social skills. They also had the skills to survive the East European plains, where the climate was extremely cold, with low plant growth. They consumed significant quantities of meat from large mammals, in particular mammoths. It takes a lot of skill to bring down a massive, armed and charging beast, something few of us would be capable of today.
Race is not the only myth that humans have created out of their big, foolish noggins. The only thing that exists is the natural world, and the physical things we create. Borders, states, social classes and politics exist only in our minds, from where they arose.
In his bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explains how we invent stories, and why. Society depends on them, to hold us all together and maintain control. Creating common enemies is one such strategy. Quite simply, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” Harari describes, by way of example, how in 1789 the French population switched almost overnight “from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people.”
People will always look for differences to divide us, and create new ones if the old ones crumble. Even the terms “racist” and “racism” perpetuate the myth that race is a thing. How cruelly ironic it is that racism is real, when race is not. We need a new vocabulary that expresses this awful absurdity.
All species become extinct, in the end. Sapiens has been around for a relatively short period of time, compared to other humans, and being the last remaining species puts us in a very precarious position. It’s not even the natural world, or the course of evolution, that threaten our future; it is ourselves. While we are busy building walls and filling our bodies with trash, we are hastening our own demise. The human brain is shrinking, and at an alarming rate. (But that’s another article for the future.)
It is often said that we should celebrate our differences. Perhaps that’s true, but more importantly I think we should celebrate our similarities.
And make sure we all get enough vitamin D.