With the recent focus on the problems of racism, discussing whether races exist has become something of a dangerous game. Because we don’t believe that people should be discriminated against on the basis of race, it has been pushed that races don’t really exist – that it is a social construct. This idea has been reproached by Nevin Sesardic in a peer-reviewed paper titled “Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept“, where he argues that races do exist, but that the biological concept has been usurped by people trying to justify racism. If only we went back to the biological concept, he argues that we would find races are real.
Now I know a fair bit about genetics, and particularly human genetics, so I’m going to chip in with my own opinion, and leave the reader to examine whether it fits with the race concept proposed in the above paper. I’ll start by stating some general facts:
- There is significant genetic variation in people.
- This variation is not “discrete” (i.e. caucasian and negro) but a continuous change between people. For example, skin tone varies continuously across the world with every shade appearing somewhere.
- There are real physical differences in people that are caused by these differences in genetics. As an addendum: mental and emotional abilities are physically determined and so can be strongly influenced by genetics, too.
- All of this variation is carried on genes which can be transferred to children regardless of the parents “race class”.
What all this means is that yes, differences between people exist; and yes, they can be important. But there are no boundaries between people; if a good trait is found, it can and will spread to everyone eventually (and already has several times). Additionally, complex behaviours such as intelligence are determined by so many factors – a good proportion of which are not genetic – that any difference in ability has to be slight, and will be rectified by interbreeding in any case. There is no evidence that such factors exist, because the variation within a “race” is so much greater than the variation between different each “race”. And because of the continuous transfer of genes that has been going on, there is no reason to believe that any difference would exist anyway.
Sesardic argues that although differences between races are small, they are measurable, and they do tell you things about the genetics of a person (in a weak statistical sense). So basically, from knowing someone’s genotype you can guess correctly which race they are. He argues that this makes the “variation between” and “variation within” argument superfluous because the difference is still measurable.
My recent research is relevant here. I have been taking genetic data, and trying to figure out which people are similar to which other people. With current statistical technology based on looking at the proportion of our genomes we share with other people, we can tell the difference between French and Italians, between north Chinese and south, and between people from different Polynesian islands. We can certainly tell an African American from a European American. Interestingly, we can’t tell apart several Indian castes with distinct labels. We can even build a “tree” of how different populations are from each other, with the continents coming out quite clearly, and Africa being the most diverse continent (supporting the “out of Africa” theory).
So this means Sesardic is right that measurable differences exist (we knew this). You can call different “branches of the tree” races, if you want to. But where is the correct place to “chop the branches off”? Is it at “white vs black”? How about the people with moderate pigmentation, e.g. Latinos, Asians, etc? There are only two points on the tree that mean anything: the populations, i.e. people who are genetically equivalent (from a statistical point of view) such as French, Italian, etc. (actually, we can often find multiple groups within a nation; e.g. there are 3 main groups of French people found by our current analysis). The other is to group all people together. Everything else is introducing arbitrary distinctions; you can just choose whether two populations should be grouped or split.
So do races exist? I think it’s a silly question. Populations exist. Differences exist, which just means that our human population is not all the same (a good thing!). What value is there to placing any other distinction between groups of people? It doesn’t tell you anything useful about them; knowing someone is “black” only tells you about their skin colour and some weak (useless) statistical relation in their genetics. We would need a label for every valid combination of people; a single Frenchman would be all of Northern French, French, Northern European, European, North Eastern Eurasian, Second Migration from Africa, etc. Which one is his “race”?
Knowing someone’s culture is a different matter of course. Because we typically associate with people who are similar to us, knowing that someone is white tells lets you guess their culture and hence what opinions and background they might have. But that is no better than knowing they are from Cornwall – it is just that people with similar childhood experiences and friendship groups are similar. It is not race, but the culture that a person feels affinity for that determine the important things about him. A person of Asian descent brought up to be “British” is a lot more similar in attitude and culture to a person of Saxon descent who is “British”, than to someone of Asian descent living in India (even their 3rd cousin).
A biological concept of “race” might or might not be of some scientific use, but it doesn’t have any place outside of academia, so why not use a different word? In the meantime, we know people are influenced by language, so lets continue to remove the race barrier and let people be people. As long as people are allowed to be different.