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1.2 Questioning the Biological Definition of Race

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    From a biological perspective, race refers to a category of people who share certain inherited physical characteristics, such as skin color, facial features, and stature. Most people think of race in biological terms, and for more than 300 years, or ever since White Europeans began colonizing populations of color elsewhere in the world, race has indeed served as the “premier source of human identity” (A. Smedley, 1998, p. 690).

    Phenotype and Genotype

    Phenotype refers to the observable physical traits of an individual, whereas genotype refers to a person’s genetic makeup. Phenotype is thus the physical manifestation of genotype.

    The most noticeable phenotype difference may be skin tone though other differences exist such as hair type and texture, lip, nose, and eye shape, stature, and so on; all of which are incorporated into the conventional definition of race today.  Some groups of people have very dark skin, while others have light skin, olive, or brown skin. Some people have very curly hair, while others have very straight hair. People who have ancestral roots of groups who lived near the equator are more likely to have textured hair--an aspect of evolution. Some individuals have thin lips, while others have thick lips. Nose shapes vary, as well.  Some people have wide noses, while others' are narrow.  Some people's noses are prominent, and some are more flat. Some people's eyes are round or oval, while others' are hooded.  Some people tend to be relatively tall, while others tend to be relatively short. 

    In the past, theorists have posited categories of race based on the phenotypical characteristics addressed above in combination with geographic region, and ethnicity. Skin tone has historically played a salient role in defining racial groups as well as geographic location (e.g. labels for racial groups have connoted regions such as Mongolia and the Caucus Mountains, for instance.

    Meyers's ethnographic map from the late 19th century

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Meyers's ethnographic map, late 19th-Century. (CC PDM 1.0; Wikimedia)

    An example of an early modern attempt (late 1800s) at racial categorization is depicted above. A major German encyclopedia titled Meyers Konversations-Lexikon featured the map above depicting the "three great races". The subtypes of the "Mongoloid" race are shown in yellow and orange tones, those of the "Europid/Caucasoid" race in light and medium grayish green-cyan tones, and those of the "Negroid" race in brown tones. Dravidians and Sinhalese are in olive green, and their classification is described as uncertain. The Mongoloid race sees the widest geographic distribution, including all of the Americas, North Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the entire inhabited Arctic.  Notice how skin tone and geographic location are primary factors in categorizing racial groups.

    This section licensed CC BY-SA. Attribution: Sociology (Boundless) (CC BY-SA 4.0

    It is certainly easy to see that people in the United States and around the world differ physically in some obvious ways. Using the physical differences discussed earlier, scientists at one point identified as many as nine races: African, American Indian or Native American, Asian, Australian Aborigine, European (more commonly called White), Indian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian (A. Smedley, 1998). While people certainly do differ in the many physical features that led to the development of such racial categories, anthropologists, sociologists, and many biologists question the value of these categories and thus the value of the biological concept of race (A. Smedley, 2007).

    First, establishing groups by physical characteristics is impossible.  For example, in reference to how race is conventionally defined, some people we call White (such as those with Scandinavian backgrounds) have very light skin, while others (such as those from some Eastern European or Middle Eastern backgrounds) have much darker skin. In fact, some White people have darker skin people who ar labeled as Black. Some Whites have very straight hair, while others have very curly hair; some have blonde hair and blue eyes, while others have dark hair and brown eyes. Because of interracial reproduction going back to the days of slavery, African Americans also differ in the darkness of their skin and in other physical characteristics. In fact it is estimated that about 80% of African Americans have some White (i.e., European) ancestry; 50% of Mexican Americans have European or Native American ancestry; and 20% of Whites have African or Native American ancestry. Even if clear racial differences existed thousands of years ago (and many scientists doubt such differences ever existed), these differences have become increasingly blurred in today's society.

    Another reason the conventional definition of race should be questioned is that the way groups have been assigned to a racial group has changed over time, is inconsistent, and has arbitrary characteristics.  

    A century ago, for example, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews who left their homelands for a better life in the United States were not regarded as White once they reached the United States but rather as a different, inferior (if unnamed) race (Painter, 2010). The belief in their inferiority helped justify the harsh treatment they suffered in their new country. Today, of course, we call people from all three backgrounds White. Many individuals under the umbrella labels of Latinx or MENA (Middle East and North Africa) may also be classified as White, but do not see themselves as White or identify with dominant White culture. Due to this, many individuals in these groups do not feel represented in discussions of race. As quoted by Jad Elharake, a former University of Michigan student, "A MENA category would represent a diverse set of dismissed identities with specific needs," yet the 2020 Census failed to include such a category (Alshammari, 2020).

    Now, consider someone in the United States who has a White parent and a Black parent. What race is this person? American society usually calls this person Black or African American, and the person may adopt the same identity (as does Barack Obama, who had a White mother and African father). But where is the logic for doing so? This person, including President Obama, is as much White as Black in terms of parental ancestry. Or consider someone with one White parent and another parent that is the child of one Black parent and White parent. This person thus has three White grandparents and one Black grandparent. Even though this person’s ancestry is thus 75% White and 25% Black, this person is likely to be considered Black in the United States and may well adopt this racial identity. This practice reflects the one-drop rule that defines someone as Black if the person has at least one drop of “Black blood” that was used in the antebellum South to keep the enslaved African population as large as possible (Wright, 1993). Yet in many Latin American nations, this person would be considered White. In Brazil, the term Black is reserved for someone with no European (White) ancestry at all. If we followed this practice in the United States, about 80% of the people we call Black would now be called White.

    Perhaps the most important reason to question the biological concept of race comes from the field of biology itself and more specifically from the study of genetics and human evolution. Starting with genetics, people from different races are more than 99.9% the same in their DNA (Begley, 2008). To turn that around, less than 0.1% of all the DNA in our bodies accounts for the physical differences among people that we associate with racial differences. In terms of DNA or genotype, then, people with different racial backgrounds are much more similar than dissimilar. In a December, 2003, Scientific American article, Bamshad and Olson, two geneticists working on mapping the human genome, concluded that “race” does not exist genetically.

    According to evolutionary theory, the human race began thousands and thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa. As people migrated around the world over the millennia, natural selection took over. It favored dark skin for people living in hot, sunny climates (i.e., near the equator), because the heavy amounts of melanin that produce dark skin protect against severe sunburn, cancer, and other problems. By the same token, natural selection favored light skin for people who migrated farther from the equator to cooler, less sunny climates, because dark skin there would have interfered with the production of vitamin D (Stone & Lurquin, 2007). Evidence shows physical differences in human appearance including skin color are a result of human migration patterns and adaptations to the environment (Jablonski, 2012). Evolutionary evidence thus reinforces the common humanity of people who differ in the rather superficial ways associated with their appearances: we are one human species, homo sapiens sapiens, composed of people who happen to look different.


    Works Cited

    • Alshammari, Y. (2020, April 1). Why is there no MENA category on the 2020 US census? Aljazeera.
    • Bamshad, M. & Olson, S. (2003). Does race exist? Scientific American. 289 (6), 78-85.
    • Begley, S. (2008, February 29). Race and DNA. Newsweek.
    • Jablonski, N. (2012). Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
    • Smedley, A. (1998). “Race” and the construction of human identity. American Anthropologist, 100, 690–702.
    • Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: Evolution of a worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
    • Stone, L. & Lurquin, P.F. (2007). Genes, Culture, and Human Evolution: A Synthesis. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
    • Wright, L. (1993, July 12). One drop of blood. The New Yorker, pp. 46–54.