There Is No Such Thing as Race at the Genetic Level

The part of the human genome that makes our skin and hair look different is tiny compared to what we share. Race is 100% a social construct, though it is still being used as a biological category.

Kristen Hovet
May 1, 2020 · 6 min read
These two individuals share 99.9% of their genomes. There is no such thing as race at the biological level. | Photo by Mosa Moseneke on Unsplash

Those in certain minority groups are being hit harder by COVID-19 than others. In particular, the black population in America accounts for 33% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, while accounting for only 13% of the total population. Economic and social conditions drive these differences, not genetic or biologically-based ones.

Minority groups experience:

  • Higher rates of poverty,
  • More toxic stress with long-term health consequences,
  • Poor living conditions in more densely populated areas,
  • Less career advancement and educational opportunities,
  • Less access to health insurance,
  • Less access to high quality nutrition, and more.

These groups experience these inequalities not because of who they are at the biological level, but because of historical and systemic prejudice. And these inequalities tend to lead to greater likelihood of obesity and chronic health conditions, all of which are leaving these groups prone to developing more serious symptoms related to COVID-19.

Race is an attribute that we tend to take for granted, yet our identity is often strongly rooted in the race or races to which we feel that we belong. Even those who don’t acknowledge their racial allegiance have been shown to carry hefty racial biases that affect their responses to those they perceive as racially unlike themselves.

For these reasons and more, many scholars now urge us to abandon the concept of race entirely, and say that continuing to use the concept of race supports inequality and misunderstanding between individuals and groups alike.

Race Is a Myth

Way back in 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement saying that “race” is a myth, not a biological reality, and highlighted the fact that all humans belong to the same species.

A July–August 1950 article in the UNESCO Courier, titled “The Scientific Basis for Human Unity,” stated that race is a social myth that “has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years it has taken a heavy toll in human lives and caused untold suffering. It still prevents the normal development of millions of human beings and deprives civilization of the effective co-operation of productive minds.”

The traits we share are far more profound than superficial or visible differences like skin colour and different hair textures. | Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Yet here we are, 70 years later, still actively using the concept and even flaunting a deep preoccupation with race. Some argue that racial identity or allegiance has become more important in recent times due to the rise of identity politics and racial awareness. While the intent of identity politics may be to acknowledge and atone for the wrongs done under racist national and social policies, the support of continued racial distinctions may be hampering efforts toward better understanding. Our insistence on racial categorizing may be keeping us from moving past racial prejudice.

The German Darwin’s Folly

August 9, 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Ernst Haeckel, the man dubbed “the German Darwin”, who was best known as the founder of phylogenetics (a way to classify organisms into an evolutionary “family tree”) and the modern-day formulation of human race. Haeckel had divided humans into 10 different races, with the Caucasian “race” positioned at the top of the hierarchy and “the Negro” and other “primitive races” at the bottom — sliding toward extinction.

In an event to mark the anniversary of his death — titled “Jena, Haeckel, and the question of human races, or how racism creates races” — the President of Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Board of the German Zoological Society declared their denunciation of Haeckel’s categorization of humans, or what the scholars termed his “fateful contribution to a form of racism that was seemingly based on science.”

In what has been dubbed the Jena Declaration, the scholars laid out a series of position statements, including the following paraphrased ideas and quotes:

  1. There is no biological basis for races, and there has never been one.” The division of people into races, namely Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, is a social and political classification based on characteristics like hair and skin colour that say very little about underlying genetic commonalities. This classification “has led to the persecution, enslavement, and slaughter of millions of people … [and] is still frequently used in connection with humans groups.”
  2. Genetic differences between groups of people do exist, but they exist along a geographical gradient, meaning there are no clear genetic delineations between groups of people. No grouping of humans into separate races (or subspecies) is based on actual genetic or other biological differences. “Among the 3.2 billion base pairs in the human genome, there is no fixed difference that separates, for example, Africans from non-Africans. To be explicit, not only is there no single gene that underpins ‘racial’ differences, but there is not even a single base pair.”
  3. The largest number of genetic differences exists within so-called “racial” groups, and not between said groups. A randomly-selected American can be more genetically similar to a randomly-selected Korean than to a fellow randomly-selected American. Similarly, a randomly-selected Ethiopian can be more genetically similar to a randomly-selected Norwegian than to a fellow randomly-selected Ethiopian. This kind of occurrence is so common that simply comparing the genomes of two people will not help you classify them into what the world currently recognizes as their “race”.
Image from Harvard’s Science in the News.

While looking at specific genes known to code for skin color can help us discern whether the individual has dark or light skin, the genetic variants linked with light skin, for example, are shared by Europeans and Africans alike. And while a good guess could be made about an individual’s ancestry by looking at their genome and identifying some genetic differences, these differences are few and superficial. “The traits we do share are far more profound,” wrote Vivian Chou for Science in the News.

Earlier in 2019, The American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) made a similar statement on race and racism to the one made by the Jena scholars. In their statement, the AAPA outlined the underlying factors in phenotypic variability, or the physical differences between individuals. Humans, they remind us, share a whopping 99.9% of our DNA, and a relatively small number of variants in key locations in the genome account for our perceivable differences, such as hair colour, skin colour, genetic disease occurrence, and various other heritable traits.

“No group of people is, or ever has been, biologically homogenous or ‘pure’,” the AAPA statement read. “Furthermore, human populations are not — and never have been — biologically discrete, truly isolated, or fixed.”

What Do We Use Instead of ‘Race’?

“Today and in the future, not using the term ‘race’ should be part of scientific decency,” the Jena scholars concluded. They also acknowledged that simply removing “race” from our everyday speech and written language will not prevent racism nor reverse the effects of racism. While race may only be skin deep and based on incorrect, unscientific presumptions, it is still used and understood as a real attribute. We can change the language, but racial prejudice still exists.

In a 2016 article in Scientific American, Michael Yudell, professor of public health at Drexel University, told Megan Gannon that replacing “race” with “ancestry” or “population” may be the best way to talk about groups of individuals who have shared ties to specific geographic locations.

“While we argue phasing out racial terminology in the biological sciences, we also acknowledge that using race as a political or social category to study racism, although filled with lots of challenges, remains necessary given our need to understand how structural inequities and discrimination produce health disparities between groups,” Yudell said.

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Kristen Hovet

Written by

North Dakota-born science writer in British Columbia. Research communications specialist. Founder of The Other Autism:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Kristen Hovet

Written by

North Dakota-born science writer in British Columbia. Research communications specialist. Founder of The Other Autism:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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