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13.4: Talking About Human Biological Variation Going Forward

  • Page ID
    • Michael B. C. Rivera

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    To conclude, utilizing the term races to describe human biological variation is not accurate or productive. Using a select few hundred genetic loci, or perhaps a number of phenotypic traits, it may be possible to assign individuals to a geographic ancestry, but what constitutes a bounded genetic or geographical grouping is both arbitrary and potentially harmful owing to ethical and historical reasons. The discipline of biological anthropology has moved past typological frameworks that shoehorn continuously variable human populations into discrete and socially constructed subsets. Improvements in the number of markers, the genetic technologies used to study variation, and the number of worldwide populations sampled have led to more nuanced understandings of human variation. It is of utmost importance that scientists make the following points clear to the public:

    • Today, we refer to different local human groups as “populations.” What constitutes a population should be carefully defined in scientific reports based on some geographical, linguistic, or cultural criteria and some degree of relativity to other closely or distantly related human groups.
    • Humans have significantly less genetic variation than other primates and mammals, and all human beings on Earth share 99.9% of their overall DNA. Some of the remaining 0.1% of human variation varies on a clinal or continuous basis, such as can be seen when looking at ABO blood-type polymorphisms worldwide.
    • Many biological characteristics in humans are actually determined nonconcordantly and/or polygenically. Therefore, superiority or inferiority in human behavior or body form cannot justifiably be linked to fixed and innate differences between groups.
    • Genetic distances are correlated with geographic distances among the global human population. This is especially apparent when we consider that genetic variation is highest in sub-Saharan Africa, and average genetic heterogeneity decreases in populations further away from the African continent in accordance with the migratory history of anatomically modern Homo sapiens.
    • The effects of gene flow, genetic drift, and population bottlenecking are reflected in some phenotypic traits, such as cranial shape.
    • We recognize other traits, like skin color and lactase persistence, to be the products of many millennia of natural selective pressures influencing human biology from the external environment.

    Taken together, genetic analyses of human variation do not support 20th-century (or even-earlier) concepts of race. In discussions about human variation, these genomic results help clarify how biological variation is distributed across the human population today. Taking care to think about and debate the nature of human variation is important, because although the effects and events that produced genetic differences among groups occurred in the ancient past, sociocultural concepts about race and ethnicity continue to have real social, economic, and political consequences.

    Beyond talking about variation in the university setting, it is important that teachers, researchers, and students of anthropology recognize and assume the responsibility of influencing public perspectives of human variation. Race-based classification systems were developed during the colonial era, the transatlantic trafficking of kidnapped Africans and the so-called “Scientific Revolution” by the first “anthropologists” and scholars of humankind’s variation. Unfortunately, some of their early ideas have persisted and evolved into present-day lived realities. Some of today’s politicians and socioeconomic bodies have racially charged agendas that promote racism or certain kinds of economic or racial inequalities. As anthropologists, we must acknowledge that while human “races” are not a biological reality, their status as a (misguided) social construction does have real consequences for many people (Antrosio 2011).

    In other words, while “race” is a sociocultural invention, the treatment different individuals receive due to their perceived “race” can have significant financial, emotional, sociopolitical, and physiological costs. However—and importantly assuming a “color-blind” position when it comes to the topics of “race” and ethnicity (especially in political discussions) is actually counterproductive, because the negative social consequences of modern “race” ideas could be ignored, making it harder to examine and address instances of discrimination properly (Wise 2010). Rather than shy away from these topics, we can use our scientific findings to establish socially relevant and biologically accurate ideas concerning human diversity. Today, research into genetic and phenotypic differentiation among and within various human populations continues to expand in its scope, its technological capabilities, its sample sizes, and its ethical concerns. It is thanks to such scientific work done in the past few decades that we now have a deeper understanding not only of how humans vary but also of how we are biologically a rather homogenous, intermixing world population.

    This page titled 13.4: Talking About Human Biological Variation Going Forward 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.