On the Concept of Biological Race and Its Applicability to Humans

On the Concept of Biological Race and Its Applicability to Humans
Kaplan, Jonathan and Pigliucci, Massimo (2002)

Abstract
Biological research on race has often been seen as motivated by or lending credence to underlying racist attitudes; in part for this reason, recently philosophers and biologists have gone through great pains to essentially deny the existence of biological human races. We argue that human races, in the biological sense of local populations adapted to particular environments, do in fact exist; such races are best understood through the common ecological concept of ecotypes. However, human ecotypic races do not in general correspond with `folk` racial categories, largely because many similar ecotypes have multiple independent origins. Consequently, while human natural races exist, they have little or nothing in common with `folk` races.

A paper from 2002 that I hadn’t read until today. Yet another nail in the coffin of  ‘genetics has proved there’s no such thing as race’.  I kind of skimmed it (ashamed), but these sections leapt out at me:

Lewontin and Gould have made much of the fact that there is relatively little genetic variation in Homo sapiens (compared at least to other mammals; see Templeton 1999) and that most of what genetic diversity is known to exist within Homo sapiens exists within (rather than between) local populations (see, for example, Gould 1996; Lewontin et al. 1984), and these facts are cited repeatedly in arguments concluding that there are no biologically significant human races. But the idea that this data might imply something about the existence of biologically significant human races emerges from a focus on the wrong sort of biological races.

The question is not whether there are significant levels of between-population genetic variation overall, but whether there is variation in genes associated with significant adaptive  differences between populations (see our discussion in Kaplan and Pigliucci 2001).

But while skin color is not well correlated with other phenotypic traits of interest in humans, there is, despite Gould’s claims (Gould 1996) to the contrary, no guarantee that particular populations of humans will not, due to particular features of their environment, share particular distributions of adaptive behavioral (including intellectual) traits, as opposed to simple physical traits. To the best of our knowledge, there is no evidence that such populations exist, nor are there reasons to suppose that such populations must exist.

I’ve notice that on the no-race side of the fence, they constantly focus on genotypic variation, which is a bit of a red herring as it is phenotypic variation that really defines a race or sub species. Which is more or less what this essay points out.

12 responses to “On the Concept of Biological Race and Its Applicability to Humans

  1. “they constantly focus on genotypic variation, which is a bit of a red herring as it is phenotypic variation that really defines a race or sub species”.

    But phenotypic variation is at least partly the result of genotypic variation. The only conclusion we can come to is that researchers have not yet identified the genes that lead to this phenotypic variation. Until they do we are all p…..g into the wind.

  2. “We argue that human races, in the biological sense of local populations adapted to particular environments, do in fact exist; such races are best understood through the common ecological concept of ecotypes.”

    But under this definition wouldn’t the term “ethnicity” be more appropriate than “race.” How is the author’s concept of “race” different from “ethnicity” — Isn’t it idiosyncratic to use the term “race” to describe anything other than “folk-race”?

    • ethnicity” be more appropriate than “race.”

      Not really. Ethnicity is your cultural backgound- Hispanics can be mainly of European or African ancestry, for example.

  3. The way the Census Bureau uses “race” is congruent with the definition that a racial group is a partly inbred extended family.

  4. Gilbert De Bruycker

    Regarding the twofold meaning of the term “race”, Sir Arthur Keith argues that the term was originally given to a lineage group; later it was restricted to distinctive varieties of mankind. The term “Nation” designates the lineal descendants of a local group. Nations, although not physically differentiated from one another, remain apart: a nation is in reality an incipient race.

    Any group, tribe, or nation which represents the progeny of a common ancestry is a race in the strict meaning of that term. We may, then, legitimately apply the term “race” to each local group; each group is a potential race maker. This is one use of the term “race”; now for its other use. All these local groups, working collectively, produced a population with a certain assortment of physical characters which distinguished it from the populations of surrounding countries. Now, a people which can be distinguished by its physical features is also called a race, but this is a late use of the term. Thus the term “race” came to be applied in two senses: first, to a local or race making group – being as it were the loom on which the genetic threads were woven – and secondly, to the product of evolution, the differentiated people, the woven web. In one sense the term refers to an evolutionary process; in the other to an evolutionary product. Some use the term “race” to mean a people differentiated in a physical sense: the finished product, while Sir Arthur Keith used it to designate a group or a people involved in the process of differentiation. A race, as he seaw it, is a thing which is consciously and vitally alive; race as viewed by physical anthropologists is inert, unconscious, and passive.

    As we trace the evolution of mankind towards the present, the evolutionary unit grows in size; the local group is replaced by the tribe, and then the tribe by the nation. The tribal stage was preserved in the continent of Australia up to the latter part of the eighteenth century. The native population was divided into more than a thousand separate territorial units or tribes. Each tribe was a self reproducing, inbreeding lineage a “race” in the original meaning of that term. Each tribe was a race making unit, but the physical type or types produced by one tribe differed in only a slight degree from those of neighbouring tribes. Yet the collective action of all the tribes was to fill the continent with a population which was physically distinguishable from all other peoples of the world. The collective result of the evolutionary process has given the Australian natives a distinctive appearance and won for them the name of “Australoid race.” Of the existence of such a race the native was ignorant; his living interests were centred on his local clan or tribe; for him his tribe was his “race.”

    Sir Arthur Keith, A NEW THEORY OF HUMAN EVOLUTION, ESSAY XXXII: THE MAKING OF HUMAN RACES

    • I take the strict biologists definition of race; which is a populaiton sharing common traits that generally reproduces within itself. It applies equally to other species.

  5. The real probem with race is that no one has ever been able to actually define what it means in terms that could actually be tested. If there is no way to falsify it, then it can’t be science.

    So what IS it, exactly? It’s usually defined in terms of some sort of classification system that can be used to place each one of us “racially,” but what would such a system actually consist of? Am I 60% Jewish and 20% Irish and 20% Negro if those ratios turn up on the sort of standard genetic tests people now take?

    Does your lineage equal your “race”? Not really, because I could be 90% European and look 100% “African American” to everyone around me.

    And by the way, in most of the old racial categories, “Irish” doesn’t turn up as a race. Neither does French, or Malay, etc. So the place of ancestral origin certainly can’t be equated with race.

    The sort of thing that interests you is called “population genetics,” NOT racial science, which does not exist and cannot exist.

    This is not rocket science, folks and I often wonder why so many people are so attached to “race” as a concept.

    • The real probem with race is that no one has ever been able to actually define what it means in terms that could actually be tested.

      Yes they have, check through the blog.

      And unless you come from a thorughly mixed hybrid population like Brazil, if you have 90% European ancestry you’ll look European. Your argument makes about as much sense as saying that because there is grey, there’s no such thing as black or white.

      the place of ancestral origin certainly can’t be equated with race.

      Yes it can. Take a look at some genetic clustering studies of Europe.

      The reason I use the term race is that I read the current anthropology and geentics papers in which race is used as a valid descriptive term all the time. And when asked to vote, biologists and forensic/physical anthropologists show strong support of the term. As the posted item shows.

  6. Mathilda: “Yes they have, check through the blog.”

    I’ve looked through many such efforts from various sources and I’ve never seen anything approaching real science. Many people are confusing population genetics with racial science, but there are huge differences. If you like, you can choose which one you believe to be most convincing and I promise to read it carefully and respond.

    “. . . if you have 90% European ancestry you’ll look European.”

    First of all, there is no way of determining whether anyone has 90% of European ancestry or any percent of any ancestry. This in itself reveals an extraordinarily naive understanding of what genetics can determine. Population genetics is essentially a statistical methodology that is most meaningful when applied to populations and not individuals.

    Second of all, even if it could be determined that you have 90% European ancestry that does not mean you couldn’t also be “negroid” OK? I have no doubt that many “African Americans” are mostly of European ancestry. And by the same token, many “whites” have African born ancestors. And if you want to say this happens only in “mixed” populations, then I have news for you. The great majority of humans living today have mixed ancestry of one kind or another. I am Jewish but I “look European” to most people (not most Jews), so what does that make me “racially”?

    Thirdly, what does it mean to “look European”? Through whose eyes? And under what circumstances? Almost anyone can be made to look “European” with the appropriate clothing, the appropriate haircut, etc. It didn’t take much makeup for Alec Guinness to look like an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia. Or Omar Sharif to look Russian in Dr. Zhivago.

    “I read the current anthropology and geentics papers in which race is used as a valid descriptive term all the time.”

    Racial terminology is a convenient tool when describing morphology, so many anthropologists use it. I’ve done that myself, but I always try to make clear that I am referring to morphology and not “race.” It is also often used loosely and thoughtlessly by people who should know better.

    Also it’s important to understand that not only is race a social construct but AS a social construct it is very real and also, in that sense and that sense only, valid. If someone is perceived as “African American” then that perception can’t simply be ignored, it’s something that person has to live with. He or she could be 90% “European” (whatever that means) but that won’t matter, because he can’t carry his pedigree on his forehead and even if he could it wouldn’t matter. So in that sense “race” is all too real. But there is no way of determining ones race in purely objective, scientific terms — because, scientifically speaking there is no such thing.

    What is especially disturbing to me is not simply that so many intelligent people can’t tell the difference between science and a social construct, but the fact that defending the scientific reputation of “race” is of such overwhelming importance to certain people — and I often wonder why that is.

    • Technically colour is a social construct too Docg, as are units of measurement like centimetres, and left and right; it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have real descriptive ability.

      First of all, there is no way of determining whether anyone has 90% of European ancestry or any percent of any ancestry

      I think this would probably surprise the hell out a lot of geneticists, whose work often descibes the percentage of ancestry in population DNA studies. But then, judging from what you’ve written you haven’t read any of them.

      And the who ‘who is black ect’- is essentially like saying there is no such thing as red and yellow because there is a colour orange. And technically, Jewish is an ethnic identity not a racial classification. I’d also like to point out that racially there’s very little biological difference between West Asians and Europeans (we are all Caucasoid) so that was essentailly incorrect too.

      I think your comment is an excellent example of ‘not approaching real science’. One of the reasons I take a pro race stance, after about ten years of study now and after blithely tweeting out the ‘no such thing as race’ line for about ten years prior, is I’ve actually taken the trouble to read hundreds of scientific papers, incluing the polls of physcial anthropologists and geneticists, who are largely very supportive of the race construct. You’ve assumed I’ve started of from this stance in ignorance. Quite the contrary; this is an opinion based on quite a few years of study. This is the reason I’m replying with such irritation- you’ve assumed that only your (apparently pretty ill informed) view point is valid, and that mine is made in ignorance (it wasn’t) or from bigotry (i’m a reformed no-racer, so that pops that theory too). If you want to take an informed ‘clinal variation’ stance, that would be fine, but as an uninformed Joe, don’t asume that published professionals are incorrect simply/bigoted because you don’t like what they print.

  7. Pigliucci and Kaplan point out an important point. Biologists do not agree with the concepts of subspecies and race, and that causes confusions among anthropologists and human geneticists. However, we should ask ourselves why we are still debating about existence or non-existence of biological race among human. Why can social scientists, human geneticists, biologists, and policy makers all collaborate and agree about what is race and what is not? Then, how can general public understand about genetic and biological variation among us, if social scientists and geneticists cannot agree with what race is? We have to remember that race is a social construct, not much to do with genotype and little with phenotype. Maybe, we should avoid use of race and categorization of people, but focus more on human genetic and biological variation.

  8. “Why can social scientists, human geneticists, biologists, and policy makers all collaborate and agree about what is race and what is not?”

    I presume you meant ‘can’t’, not ‘can’. But the answer is contained in something Mathilda wrote, ‘If you want to take an informed “clinal variation” stance, that would be fine’. The fact we’re dealing with clines means that the boundaries are difficult, if not impossible, to define. The same problem arises in many other species too, but they haven’t become suddenly more mobile, as humans have recently become. This has obscured what had previously been more defined boundaries between different human phenotypes.

    As a result we see the most clearly defined ‘human races’ at the extremities of the human geographic distribution. As we do, incidently, for most other species. In the middle of the geographic distribution we find populations with various levels of admixture of people (or races) from the margins. The Jewish race would be an example of this phenomenon. They’re a mixture.

    Hence we can recognise the Australian Aborigines and Europeans as distinct races, but the Irish are indistinguishable from other Europeans, so cannot be considered a ‘race’. The same observation applies to the various Australian Aborigine tribes. Incidently, each Aborigine tribe was not ‘a self reproducing, inbreeding lineage’. A great deal of mixing actually occurred, although usually on a regional basis of course.

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