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.
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.
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.
- 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.