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13.1: Human Variation

  • Page ID
    • Michael B. C. Rivera

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    Humans exhibit biological variation. Humans also have a universal desire to categorize other humans in order to make sense of the world around them. Since the birth of the discipline of biological anthropology (or physical anthropology, as referred to back then), we have been interested in studying how humans vary biologically and what the sources of this variation are. Before we tackle these big problems, first consider this question: Why should we study human variation?

    Culturally and biologically diverse humans.
    Figure 13.1: Humans are culturally diverse (in that cultural differences contribute to a great degree of variation between individuals), but those shown are genetically undiverse. (Top left: Hadzabe members in Tanzania; top right: Inuit family; bottom left: Andean man in Peru; bottom right: English woman.) Credit: Humans are diverse (Figure 13.1) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Michael Rivera is a collective work under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. [Includes Tanzania – Hadzabe hunter (14533536392) by A_Peach, CC BY 2.0; Inuit-Kleidung 1 by Ansgar Walk, CC BY-SA 3.0; Andean Man by Cacophony, CC BY-SA 4.0; Jane Goodall GM by Floatjon, CC BY-SA 3.0.

    There are certainly academic reasons for studying human variation. First, it is highly interesting and important to consider the evolution of our species (see Chapters 9–12) and how our biological variation may be similar to (or different from) that of other species (e.g., other primates and apes; see Chapters 5 and 6). Second, anthropologists study modern human variation to understand how different biological traits developed over evolutionary time (see Figure 13.1). Suppose we are able to grasp the evolutionary processes that produce the differences in biology, physiology, body chemistry, behavior, and culture (human variation). In that case, we can make more accurate inferences about evolution and adaptation among our hominin ancestors, complementing our study of fossil evidence and the archaeological record. Third, as will be discussed in more detail later on, it is important to consider that biological variation among humans has biomedical, forensic, and sociopolitical implications. For these reasons, the study of human variation and evolution has formed the basis of anthropological inquiry for centuries and continues to be a major source of intrigue and inspiration for scientific research conducted today.

    An even-more-important role of the biological anthropologist is to improve public understanding of human evolution and variation—outside of academic circles. Terms such as race and ethnicity are used in everyday conversations and in formal settings within and outside academia. The division of humankind into smaller, discrete categories is a regular occurrence in day-to-day life. This can be seen regularly when governments acquire census data with a heading like “geographic origin” or “ethnicity.” Furthermore, such checkboxes and drop-down lists are commonly seen as part of the identifying information required for surveys and job applications.

    According to professors of anthropology, ethnic studies, and sociology, race is often understood as rooted in biological differences, ranging from such familiar traits as skin color or eye shape to variations at the genetic level. However, race can also be studied as an “ideological construct” that goes beyond biological and genetic bases (Fuentes et al. 2019), at different times relating to our ethnicities, languages, religious beliefs, and cultural practices. Sometimes people associate racial identity with the concept of socioeconomic status or position, or they link ideas about race to what passport someone has, how long they have been in a country, or how well they have “integrated” into a population.

    Some of these ideas about ethnicity have huge social and political impacts, and notions of race have been part of the motivation behind various forms of racism and prejudice today, as well as many wars and genocides throughout history. Racism manifests in many ways—from instances of bullying between kids on school playgrounds to underpaid minorities in the workforce, and from verbal abuse hurled at people of color to violent physical behaviors against those of a certain race. Prejudice can be characterized as negative views toward another group based on some perceived characteristic that makes all members of that group worthy of disdain, disrespect, or exclusion (not solely along racial lines but also according to [dis]ability, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background, for example). According to Shay-Akil McLean (2014), “Racism is not something particular to the United States and race is not the same everywhere in the world. Racial categories serve particular contextual purposes depending on the society they are used in, but generally follow the base logic of the supremacy of one type of human body over all others (ordering these human bodies in a hierarchical fashion).” Choosing which biological or nonbiological features to use when discussing race is always a social process (Omi and Winant 2014). Race concepts have no validity to them unless people continue to use them in their daily lives—and, in the worst cases, to use them to justify racist behaviors and problematic ideas about racial difference or superiority/inferiority. Recent work in anthropological genetics has revealed the similarities amongst humans on a molecular level and the relatively few differences that exist between populations (Omi and Winant 2014).

    The role of the biological anthropologist becomes crucial in the public sphere, because we may be able to debunk myths surrounding human variation and shed light, for the nonanthropologists around us, on how human variation is actually distributed worldwide (see Figure 13.1). Rooted in scientific observations, our work can help nonanthropologists recognize how common ideas about “race” often have no biological or genetic basis. Many anthropologists work hard to educate students on the history of where race concepts come from, why and how they last in public consciousness, and how we become more conscious of racial issues and the need to fight against racism in our societies. Throughout this chapter, I will highlight how humans cannot actually be divided into discrete “races,” because most traits vary on a continuous basis and human biology is, in fact, very homogenous compared to the greater genetic variation we observe in closely related species. Molecular anthropology, or anthropological genetics, continues to add new layers to our understanding of human biological variation and the evolutionary processes that gave rise to the contemporary patterns of human variation. The study of human variation has not always been unbiased, and thinkers and scientists have always worked in their particular sociohistorical context. For this reason, this chapter opens with a brief overview of race concepts throughout history, many of which relied on unethical and unscientific notions about different human groups.

    Special Topic: My Experiences as an Asian Academic

    My name is Michael, and I am a biological anthropologist and archaeologist (Figure 13.2). What strikes me as most interesting to investigate is human biological variation today and the study of past human evolution. For instance, some of my research on ancient coastal populations has revealed positive effects of coastal living on dietary health and many unique adaptations in bones and teeth when living near rivers and beaches. I love talking to students and nonscientists about bioanthropologists’ work, through teaching, science communication events, and writing book chapters like this one. I grew up in Hong Kong, a city in southern China. My father is from the Philippines and my mother is from Hong Kong, which makes me a mixed Filipino-Chinese academic. Growing up, I noticed that people came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. My life is very different now in that I have gained the expertise to explain those differences, and I feel a great responsibility to guide those new to anthropology toward their own understandings of diversity.

    Outdoor photo of this chapter’s author.
    Figure 13.2: Michael B. C. Rivera in Hong Kong. Credit: Michael B. C. Rivera in Hong Kong original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology (2nd ed.) is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Biological anthropology is not taught extensively in Hong Kong, so I moved to the United Kingdom to earn my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. It was fascinating to me that we could answer important questions about human variation and history using scientific methods. However, I did not have many minority academic role models to look up to while I was at university. My department was made up almost exclusively of white westerner faculty, and it was hard to imagine I could one day get a job at these western institutions. While pursuing my degrees, I also remember several instances of my research contributions being overlooked or dismissed. Sometimes professors and fellow students would make racist comments toward Asian scholars (including me) and other Black, Indigenous and researchers of color, making us greatly uncomfortable in those spaces. When one of us would work up the courage to tell university leaders our experiences of being stereotyped, dismissed, or insulted, we received little support and were further excluded from research and teaching activities. This is a common experience for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who pursue biological anthropology, and we face the difficult choice between leaving the field or bearing with such unsafe spaces.

    It became important to me at that time to find other academics of color with whom to share experiences and form community. I feel inspired by all my colleagues who advocate for greater representation and diversity in universities (whether they are minority academics or not). I admire many of my fellow researchers who are underrepresented and do a great job of representing minority groups through their cutting-edge research and quality teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Although I no longer work in the West, it has remained my great hope that those in the West and the “Global North” will continue to improve university culture, and I support any efforts there to welcome all scholars.

    My current work is based in Hong Kong, where I am deeply dedicated to helping develop biological anthropology in East and Southeast Asia and promoting research from our home regions on the international scene. The study of anthropology really highlights how we share a common humanity and history. Being somebody who is “mixed race” and Asian likely played a key role in steering me toward the study of human variation. As this chapter hopefully shows, there is a lot to discuss about race and ethnicity regarding the discipline’s history and current understandings of human diversity. Some scientific and technological advancements today are misused for reasons to do with money, politics, or the continuation of antiquated ideas. It is my belief, alongside many of my friends and fellow anthropologists, that science should be more about empathy toward all members of our species and contributing to the intellectual and technological nourishment of society. After speaking to many members of the public, as well as my own undergraduate students, I have received lovely messages from other individuals of color expressing thanks and appreciation for my presence and understanding as a minority scientist and mentor figure. Anthropology needs much more diversity as well as to make room for those who have traveled different routes into the discipline. All paths taken into anthropology are valid and valuable. I would encourage everyone to study anthropology—it is a field for understanding and celebrating the intricacies of human diversity.

    This page titled 13.1: Human Variation is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael B. C. Rivera (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.