On the Reality of Race

Essay: Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable.

With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. Furthermore, we believe that scientists can and should study this variation without fear of censure or obloquy. Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals. In fact, pinning a message of tolerance to the claim that all humans are essentially the same underneath the skin is dangerous. It suggests that if there were real differences, racism would be justified. This is bad science and worse morality. Promoting a tolerant, cosmopolitan society doesn’t require denying basic facts about the world. It requires putting in the hard work and effort to support the legal equality and moral dignity of all humans.

Race exists, but variation is complicated

Scholars who have assailed the concept of race have forwarded three general arguments against it. Although the arguments are worth consideration, they do not ultimately show that race is a useless or fictional concept. The first two objections are aimed at a straw man, and the last, we will contend, is entirely wrong.

(Objection 1): Human variation is clinal or gradual, not discrete. Skin pigmentation, for example, does not come in four, five, or seven distinct colors, but varies gradually from very dark near the equator to very light in Northern Eurasia.

This charge against the validity of race is undoubtedly correct: a lot of human variation is gradual, not discrete. However, we are not familiar with any prominent proponent of the usefulness of race who would disagree with this contention (assuming they actually understand the evidence). The famous German intellectual and early theoretician of human variation, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1775), who is often accused of clumsily categorizing humans into discrete racial groups, contended that, “no variety [of human] exists …so singular as not to be connected to others of the same kind by such an imperceptible transition, that it is very clear they are all related, or only differ from each other in degree.”

For a period of time, polygenism, or the belief that the races arose from separate creations, was popular, but it was widely discredited by genetic and archaeological evidence clearly demonstrating that modern humans originated in Africa (a view promoted by Darwin, who also happened to believe that human races existed). Today, most researchers would agree with Blumenbach, including, for example, Nicholas Wade, who recently wrote a book about race that provoked a furious backlash. In that book, Wade asserted that “because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races — that is the nature of variation within a species. Nonetheless, useful distinctions can be made” (p. 92). This is the key point: although the argument that human variation is continuous rather than discrete is correct, it does not vitiate a sophisticated understanding of race. It only refutes a platonic conception that few contemporary scholars take seriously.

(Objection 2): Human genetic variation is much greater within human populations than among human populations; therefore, variation that exists between groups is of little scientific interest.

This claim is true in a circumscribed sense, but is largely irrelevant to the question of whether population group differences are biologically meaningful. As pointed out by Jeffry B. Mitton and A.W.F. Edwards, the original finding that genetic diversity among human races is insubstantial compared to genetic diversity within races was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation. Roughly speaking, the original claim about genetic diversity was based on analyses at single genetic loci (spots on the chromosome where genes are located) and not on analyses that considered the correlated structure of multiple genetic loci (many locations). Failure to consider multiple loci assures that broad, distinct patterns of allele (gene) frequencies get lost in the noise of diversity at single loci. This sounds painfully abstruse, but the basic point is this: patterns that are nearly invisible for individual genes become visible if one examines multiple genes at the same time (i.e., looks at gene 1 + gene 2 + gene 3 + gene 4…et cetera).

Consider a simple but illustrative example.a Imagine that a friend is describing an animal one adjective at a time (e.g., “big,” “furry” et cetera). You are trying to guess the animal. At first, it is difficult to guess because there are many “big” animals, and there are many “big” and “furry” animals. But as her description continues, it gets much easier to guess correctly because each adjective adds to the prior adjectives. The information that allows you to guess correctly does not reside in any one adjective but in the list of adjectives strung together (“big,” “furry,” “antlers,” “white tail,” “ hooves,” “spritely,” “brown,” et cetera). The same holds for population groups. Each genetic locus, like each adjective, is relatively uninformative; but a string of 200 or 300 loci is very informative.

Empirical studies bear this logic out. Read on.

About Luke Ford

I’ve written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).

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