The Return of Race

March 15, 2005

For years I have heard people declare that there is "no such thing as race" and been uncomfortable with that bold declaration. While the intentions are pure — by removing race, one ostensibly removes the reasons for discrimination — and science has by and large agreed, I've always asked myself: "if there is no such thing as race, how come I can tell with 99% certainty what continent, and often what region, almost anyone's ancestors come from?" In the op-ed A Family Tree in Every Gene, evolutionary biologist Armand Marie Leroi takes on this notion by demonstrating the biological evidence for race and the modern medical and sociological implications thereof.

Leroi writes,

But if many — a few hundred — variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so [see races]. Indeed, a 2002 study by scientists at the University of Southern California and Stanford showed that if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia — more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.

There have long been biological indications of race — how else does one explain the prevalence of Tay-Sachs disease in Africans? And biologists have been quite comfortable in recognizing race (though they might call it by other words) in animal populations that are disparate enough to have recognizable differences but not enough to establish separate species .

Morphological differences tied to geographic ancestry — race — seem to be undeniable. It is what we do with this knowledge that defines our moral character. Saying that one is North/Western European versus Southern European changes nothing — is in fact no different to me than saying "she has a New York accent and his speech patterns are clearly based in Texas."

Leroi goes on to say that "[r]ace is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences." He also details how medical advances could be made by understanding the components of race (particularly through looking at "mixed-race" individuals) and race-related diseases, and makes a strong case for protecting individual groups of people in order to preserve racial & cultural diversity.


ummm, race exists among animals?!?!

A trusted by Internet-publishing-shy source sent me the following (w/permission to post):

The History of Race in Science addresses the thorny issue of race; and, yes, science still recognises this thing we call race (as witnessed by all the ongoing medical studies addressing racial differences in health-care, etc), but the recognition is turning to the fact that science is informed by culture and by the history of science. And therefore, race, as a cultural construct, is very deeply imbedded in science. The challenge now is to recognise how we think of race and how our cultural biases and norms influence our perception of race.

I couldn't find mention of race in my texts because the most recent terms to replace "race" as the concept of phenotypic differentiation in animal groups are "cline" and "population." And, yes, science recognises this as a very real phenomenon in animals, at least. There is an issue of particular concern in conservation called "local adaptation," which means that a particular population may be of the same species as another population, but it may have evolved adaptations that led it to be highly specialized to a very specific area (this issues with re-introductions of other populations not from that region). Good further reading:

You bring up an interesting point. I am one of those who has been an advocate of stating, "there is only one race, that is the human race."

Though i accept the requirement for scientists and medical people to have an understanding of the different physical aspects of humanity, the problem for me is the term "race" and all the cultural (or dare i say anti-cultural) baggage associated with that term. My marriage in today's vocabulary would be termed "interracial." My wife and i don't think that way of course. The term "interracial" for most i would speculate of course brings about some sort of value judgement (many times positive yet still a value judgement). We view our selves as just people who are married. From a scientific perspective i'm not even sure how you would label our children. Their ancestral genes are from many different places in the world.

I guess i'm trying to say that as human kind continues to come together, archaic notions of racial barriers are torn down concurrent and paradoxical with continued "racial" or ethnic animosity that exists, despite the values free terminology of science and medicine, due to the fact that the presence of value judgement is still so strongly extant in day to day life where-ever one goes, i'll continue operate under the dictum, "there is only one race, that is the human race." (i did speak to an anthropologist once and he commented that scientifically there is only one race...he did not elaborate overly much of course as it was a casual conversation...Abdu'l-Baha talks about differences in humans is a function of place and time where that particular branch of humanity was for multitudes of generations )

you know, i kind of think that "the return of race" is a little bit too esoteric... for you, maybe, although it sounds like you never really signed off on race's departure... for the rest of the world, unfortunately, race hasn't gone anywhere... you can't take a standardized test, apply for a grant, get a driver's license or listen to the news - especially the most wanted/crime reports section - without being confronted with it... i know for some folks it makes for some annoying situations too, if their "mixed" their still expected to pigeon-hole themselves... i don't know if you ever listened to Public Enemy but there is this great track on their first album just satirizing the whole "your black up to one-sixteenth black" legal definition thing where flavor-flav is in the background yelling "black man, white woman, black baby... white man, black woman, black baby..." and so forth, it was great... i think the tendency to resist the concept of race is not only a justified reaction to the way race has been used and abused throughout history, but also a visionary truism, in terms of the eventual outcome of "mixed" marriages... for example, your "99%" certainty would fail miserably and beat the odds three times in a row with the sepulveda kids, you'd guess kendra was native, anlo was irish, and corey was from eastern or southern europe... and one day i imagine the "mixed" folks will outnumber the easy picks... the sepulveda kids, for the uninitiated here, have a tejano father & an okie/irish mom... anyhow, that's me, the canadian aboriginal, out on race...
your g,

Ulysses — good of you to bring the Baha’i perspective back in, thank you. On Naseem’s blog I recently commented "the symbolism behind these words is often too potent to accept" [referring specifically to "cotton-picking, gypped, jewed"]. I think you’re saying the same thing about race. Contextually, the term cannot now be divorced from all the negative connotations and implications. You’re probably right. So while science may be starting to get a grip on real biological differentiation, to blithely speak of "racial differences" is to assume that the world is really ready for that. And we’re so clearly not.

Brian — if I didn’t exaggerate (99% issue), would you have posted? I wanted to provoke a response =). You are probably correct in saying this is esoteric. Remembering that one's own subjective experiences are not always equivalent to the rest of the world (and some times far from average) is important in talking about an issue like this. In serious science and social science, "race" has been considered a dead issue for 30 years or more (as Leroi makes clear, as my own education has made clear). I was referring solely to this, and not assuming that the non-ivory-tower world thought of race as a dead issue. But I didn’t say it, did I? Thus anyone stopping by could get the wrong idea. About 'Lo — the article actually talks about how important "mixed-race" individuals can be for medical research. And he is the 1% (hyperbole) that to which I was referring.

I'm glad you both added to the thoughts here. Monologues are boring, and I'm here to learn and explore — not tell.