Races, as natural divisions of the human species, are
rather like angles. Many people believe in them, devoutly.
They can even tell you what properties they have.
But the closer you try to examine them to discover their
real nature, the more elusive they become.
—Jonathan Marks, 2006
by Paul George
The issue of race* cannot be ignored, even though it is a term that only exists because society demands it. Many Americans were irritated when the 2010 United States census asked questions about race. Public school districts are required to collect data about the racial makeup of their student body. Employers report race-related data to the government to show compliance with Affirmative Action. Americans are constantly told they must identify themselves with a race.
Stereotypes abound when people discuss race. Some races are considered inherently lazy, dishonest, or greedy because the stereotypes continue to flourish. The concept that races are different genetically appears to be supported when diseases like sickle-cell anemia are labeled as a “black” disease**. Without defining what race is or is not, biologists have been quick to label diseases such as sickle-cell anemia as inherent in a race. In the past, they have been ready to define and label human beings as distinct biological races (Kaszycka 44).
A group of researches demonstrated that this view is still prevalent in Europe. They questioned members of the European Anthropological Association about the issue of race. Out of 125 respondents, 50 percent agreed that human races exist. Of those that agreed, 62 percent support the classification of race as a subset of Homo sapiens (Kaszycka 45).
The American Anthropological Association, however, issued an official statement in 1998 stating that race is not a biologically meaningful concept. According to their statement, race is simply a human cultural behavior and is learned, not inherited. Other research has shown that adopted children, whose adoptive parents are of another race, demonstrate intelligence similar to that of the adoptive parents (Sternberg).
According to anthropologist Audrey Smedley, race is “a recent concept in human history” and it “emerged as a dominant form of identity in those societies where it functions to stratify the social system” (Smedley 691).
Smedley argues that the modern concept of race is not found in most of human history. Race generally referred to where a person was from, not their skin color. Human history is full of tales of trading, travel, war, peace treaties, and inter-marriages between people of different nationalities. Yet the skin color of these people is never talked about. Alexander of Macedonia conquered from Afghanistan to India. He adopted many customs of these locations and told his men to marry Indian women (Smedley 690).
The Bible account of Moses*** states that he married a Cushite, or Ethiopian woman (New Rev. Stand. Ver., Nu 12:1). During the earliest days of Christianity, Philip converted the first non-Jew to Christianity. The convert was an Ethiopian who was a court official for the queen of Ethiopia (New Rev. Stand. Ver., Acts 8:26-39). In neither account is the modern concept of race an issue. Multi-ethnicity is not a new concept. In ages past, it was a normal part of life as travelers from different lands intermingled. People were judged, not by skin color, but by genealogical identity and the work they performed (Smedley 691).
That viewpoint changed, however, in Europe in the 17th century. England began to view the Irish as savages and maintained the same view when they dealt with the indigenous people of the New World. Very quickly the modern concept of race emerged. English law protected white servants, but African servants had no rights. By viewing blacks as inferior and, therefore, unworthy of legal protection, the concept of race became a part of Anglo-American society. Within a century, citizens of the emerged United States of America were conditioned to this “arbitrary ranking” (Smedley 694,695). The general public in the United States were conditioned to accept race and racial superiority as natural part of human life.
Modern science, however, has developed a much different view of race: it does not exist. Characteristics like skin color, hair color, and eye shape are all influenced by several alleles in the human genotype. If races were truly discrete species or subspecies of genus Homo, then many different genes should be similar among populations within a race than those of different races (Belk and Maier 298). Data collected, however, falsifies this concept. Various alleles are found throughout the gene pool of humankind and it would appear H. sapiens has never been truly isolated.
Sickle-cell anemia, the so-called “black” disease is a good example of an allele being found throughout the species. About 10 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Africans carry one copy of the sickle-cell alleles. However, many parts of northern and southern Africa have little or no sickle-cell alleles. Furthermore, the allele is found in populations of the Middle East (white) and Indian (Asian) (Belk and Maier 297). While the disease is more common in middle African populations, it is clearly misguided to call it a “black disease.” This represents a cline variation in the species. A cline is “a gradual change in the frequency of genotypes and phenotypes from one geographical region to another” (Jurmain 431). Natural selection is working with H. sapiens in various areas on a micro evolutionary level. Humans in different regions adapted over time to their environment. However, none have made a genetic adaptation unique only to an isolated population. According to biology professors Belk and Maier, “scientists have not identified a single allele that is found in all (or even most) populations of a commonly described race but not found in other races” (Belk and Maier 297).
“Race” is a concept that humanity needs to evolve out of in order to progress. However, government and society are reluctant to accept the fact that “race” is simply a cultural myth that allows one class to lord over another. Too many interests are involved. On one side, there are those who believe that one race is superior and should, therefore, be considered privileged. On the other side, well-meaning advocates have encouraged the government to regulate hiring, making sure that all races are being treated fairly. While this may help some, it ignores the underlying problem, a three-hundred-year-old concept of race that is archaic and inhumane. Society needs to understand that skin color is simply the way light reflects off an individual and reveals nothing about the person. The concept of race is ignorant at best and, at worst, criminal.
This essay was originally titled: Cline Variation and the Myth of Race in Modern Homo sapiens and written in 2010.
* The term “race,” unless noted otherwise in this essay, refers to skin color.
** This essay will use the commonly used terms “black” and “white” for people with dark skin (usually of African descent) and Caucasians (usually people of European descent).
*** The writer is using the Bible for its historic value (whether the stories are true or not, they do say a lot about social attitudes of the time) and references to the Bible are not intended to encourage or promote any theological views.
American Anthropological Association
“American Anthropological Association Statement on ‘Race’”, 17 May 1998. http://www.aaanet.org.
Kaszycka, Katarzyna A., Strkalj, Goran, Strezalko, Jan.
“Current Views of European Anthropologists on Race: Influence of Educational and Ideological Background”, American Anthropologist, March 2009, Vol 111, Issue 1, pp. 43-56.
New Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1989.
“’Race’ and the Construction of Human Identity,” American Anthropologist, Sept 1998, Vol. 100, Issue 3, pp. 690-702.
Sternberg, Robert J., Grigorenko, Elena L., Kidd, Kenneth K.
“Intelligence, race, and genetics”, in AccessScience@McGraw-Hill, http://www.accessscience.com, DOI 10.1036/1097-8542.YB071440.
Belk, Colleen and Maier, Virginia
Biology: Science for Life, Third Edition. 2010. Pearson: San Francisco.
Jurmain, Robert, Kilgore, Lynn, Trevathan, Wenda, Ciochon, Russell L.
Introduction to Physical Anthropology, 2009 – 2010 Edition. 2010. Wadsworth: Belmont.