Academic Writing

Is there any such thing as race? The musings of a 50-something Caucasian science educator

Race—What are we Talking About?

Arguably, race and our preconceived notions of what that term means, and implies for sectors of any given society, are as hotly contested now as ever they were. Certainly, the ignorant and bigoted discuss race as if they were confident of its meaning. Andrew Anglin, editor of a popular, hate-filled, American white supremacist news and commentary website, which manages (in this author’s opinion), to achieve the trifecta of being extremely offensive, ignorant and bigoted, has been quoted in interview stating:

“We support Trump because he is the savior of the White race, sent by God to free us from the shackles of the Jew occupation and establish a 1000 Reich” (Schulberg, 2016, para. 7).

Whilst on a less extreme, but equally ignorant note, media outlets run headlines such as, “Revealed: Scientist who sparked racism row has black genes” (Verkaik, 2007). Verkaik’s article goes on to state:

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist who provoked a public outcry by claiming black Africans were less intelligent than whites has a DNA profile with up to 16 times more genes of black origin than the average white European.

An analysis of the genome of James Watson showed that 16 per cent of his genes were likely to have come from a black ancestor of African descent. By contrast, most people of European descent would have no more than 1 per cent. (Verkaik, 2007, para. 1–2)

This may come as a shock to some people, and for that, I blame headlines like the one above, and whatever basic science education some people may have had, but there is absolutely nothing in the genetic material of any human being that may identify them as any given racial category. There is no such thing as a black gene, or white gene, or any other single gene for so-called racial traits, or combination thereof, which even lends credence to the existence of such classifications. In fact, the term race, is actually pretty hard to define accurately. So, in the words of the late Douglas Adams:

“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all” (Adams, 1988, p. 150).

Let’s Have Some Definitions

If different races do not really exist, yet the term is still widely used in specialist fields throughout the social and biological sciences (Dusso, 2017; Filice & Joynt, 2016; Foster & Sharp, 2002; Poma, 2017; Skubak & Tillyer, 2016; Wagner, Joon-Ho, Ifekwunigwe, Harrell, Bamshad & Royal, 2016), what do we mean when we use the term race? In answer, I would argue that perhaps we should not be using the term at all.

From a scientific point of view, the concept of race has failed to obtain any consensus; none is likely, given the gradual variation in existence. It may be objected that the racial stereotypes have a consistency that allows even the layman to classify individuals. However, the major stereotypes, all based on skin color, hair color and form, and facial traits, reflect superficial differences that are not confirmed by deeper analysis with more reliable genetic traits and whose origin dates from recent evolution mostly under the effect of climate and perhaps sexual selection (Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi, & Piazza, 1994, p. 19).

What we are referring to when we discuss race, is a population that was—at least at one time—geographically limited, which may have a certain frequency of alleles in relation to another group (Rosenberg, Pritchard, Weber, Cann, Kidd, Zhivotovsky & Feldman, 2002). Alleles being a form of gene that typically has two variations, one usually recessive (not expressed in an individual), and one dominant (expressed in some manner). For example, the relative frequency of alleles which express eye-color in Nordic and Asian populations, would be expected to result in more blue-eyed Swedish individuals, and more brown-eyed Asians. This frequency of genetic expression is what imparts a generalized appearance for a population, and will include features such as hair color and texture, freckles, ear-lobe shape, nasal structure, cleft chin, cheekbones and other features. With immigration and emigration, inflated by international travel, populations will blend into each other over time. The sum of all these genetic variations, which go to making one individual unique from all others—the dataset derived from sequencing the genome—is referred to as the genotype. All features conferred by the genotype, plus all learned behaviors, and environmental influences (i.e., nature plus nurture), make up what is known as the phenotype. In addition, the genotype and phenotype may also apply to a single physical trait. Taking eye color as an example once again, an individual’s genotype may include several alleles affecting eye color, whilst their phenotype is the color which is finally expressed.

Natural Selection and Environmental Influences

On average, it can be said that a geographic population may be broadly genetically similar to each other, and that people can be sorted into groups based on this kind of genetic data. But to attribute commonly identified traits, within something as ill-defined as a racial group, to genetics is fundamentally flawed. An example can be seen in traits developed as a result of natural selection, individuals may develop similar hair texture, or skin pigmentation, as a result of exposure to harsh sunlight and localized climate, e.g., Australian Aboriginals, and natives of sub-Saharan Africa; yet these groups are, overall, genetically quite different. Such traits are coded for by only a very few genes, whilst the rest of the genes of two people from the same geographic population can be very different. Alternatively, two individuals from different geographic populations, or races can “share more genetic similarity than two individuals of the same race” (Bamshad and Olson, 2003, p. 80).

So just how different are we?

A considerable body of research exists to suggest that the genetic diversity of humans (Homo sapiens), is low in comparison to that of many other species (Li & Sadler, 1991; Bamshad, Wooding, Salisbury & Stephens, 2004). Based on genotype, H. sapiens are the least diverse of the world’s primates. Central African Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), have been estimated as being “2.4 times more [genetically] diverse as humans worldwide” (Fischer, Wiebe, Pääbo, and Przeworski, 2004, p. 105). And yet we make much of our phenotypical differences. One example can be seen in psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray’s, 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The book has raised a great deal of controversy since its first printing (Brace, 1999; Fischer, Hout, Jankowski, Lucas, Swidler, and Voss, 1996; Gould, 1994; Kincheloe, Steinberg & Gresson III, 1997; McInerney, 1996). Unfortunately, much of the criticism, like the book itself, lacks the academic rigor of peer-review. Nevertheless, The Bell Curve has become somewhat infamous for suggesting that intelligence may differ according to genetics. Even in rebuttal, the authors—neither of whom were geneticists—were less than convincing:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate. (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994, p. 311)

Thus Herrnstein & Murray (1994) argued that differences in intelligence clearly existed based on genotype and phenotype, when available scientific evidence pointed to negligible genetic difference between localized human populations. In other words, if there is a difference in human intelligence based on a mixture of genetics and environment, and available evidence suggests that there is negligible genetic difference, then we are left with environment as the remaining variable. If an individual is born into poverty, receives a poor education, and is subject to the injustices of a society which has developed to favor the wealthy, educated and Caucasian; then it would be understandable if that individual did not excel in the kind of intelligence quotient assessments, designed to be weighted more favorably toward those factors that such an individual had been denied; namely wealth and a privileged education.

Race—What is it Good for?

Historically, referring to certain groups by race has served some purpose in terms of categorization, but even in that context, may have been as harmful as it was helpful. For example, a number of diseases can be highly correlated with what could be conveniently, if not accurately, termed race, since many individuals who appear to belong to the same racial group, have a high probability of sharing many of the same alleles (Bamshad, Wooding, Salisbury & Stephens, 2004). Yudell, Roberts, DeSalle and Tishkoff (2016) have discussed the dangers of the misdiagnosis of inherited single-gene blood disorders, such as sickle-cell disease (SCD), which is ascribed to black populations; thalassemia, which is often seen in Mediterranean populations; and cystic fibrosis as being “underdiagnosed in populations of African ancestry, because it is thought of as a ‘White’ disease” (p. 565). The authors also warn that “popular misinterpretations of the use of race in genetics also continue to fuel racist beliefs” (p. 565), to the extent that some human population geneticists have felt it necessary to “publicly refute claims about the genetic basis of social differences between races” (p. 565).

Other researchers have also warned of the dangers of generalizing by genotype, since commonly defined racial groups lack firm genetic boundaries, and are sufficiently genetically heterogeneous within themselves, as to prove the fallacy of such simplification. Citing Sarah Tishkoff, a contributing author of what has been described as a landmark study in the genetic evolution of race, Gibbons (2017) stated, “you can’t use skin color to classify humans, any more than you can use other complex traits like height… There is so much diversity in Africans that there is no such thing as an African race.”

Gibbons and Tishkoff were referring to a study by a team of 46 biological scientists (Crawford, et al., 2017), which analyzed skin pigmentation and genetic sequencing of 1570 African participants. The study followed the evolution of genes coding for skin pigmentation throughout the world. The team found that one such gene (SLC24A5), responsible for light skin color in Europeans, has its origins in Africa. Many dark-pigmented Africans have this gene today, yet do not have the lighter skin color of European populations. Another two genes, HERC2 and OCA2, which are linked to light skin pigmentation, eye and hair coloring in Europeans, have also been shown to have originated in Africa. The team have suggested that the variation in skin, eye, and hair color between—and within—populations would probably be due to several genes coding for such variables, and a diverse array of combinations of gene activation and pigmentation.

Race—from a Sociological Perspective

I have described, in some detail, that the term race from a biological perspective is not only meaningless, but can be potentially harmful. However, from a sociological perspective, race still has relevance when it forms the basis of an individual’s self-identity, their ancestry, culture and worldview (Grills, Cooke, Douglas, Subica, Villanueva, & Hudson, 2016; Thomas, & Speight, 1999; Thomas, Speight, & Witherspoon, 2010; Tucker-Raymond, & Rosario, 2017). Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article, and possibly—as a 50-year old male, and a lifelong recipient of white privilege in western society—beyond the scope of the author too.

Wagner, Joon-Ho, Ifekwunigwe, Harrell, Bamshad & Royal (2016), discussed anthropologists’ views on race and genetics, and stressed the importance of guarding against racial biases in profession and practice. I would go further, as educators, researchers, or just human beings in a given profession, no matter our field of speciality, a core aim should be to strive to reduce human ignorance, and leave our society at least a little improved for our having been a part of that society. It must therefore be a professional duty, if not, a moral imperative to work toward the elimination of racial bias in society, whether it is found in public opinion, or the highest political office of the land.




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One thought on “Is there any such thing as race? The musings of a 50-something Caucasian science educator

  1. Pingback: It’s Not About Politics, And Yet It Is, And Must Be. – Writing

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