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6.3: Talking About Human Biological Variation Going Forward

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    To conclude, utilizing 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. However, what constitutes a bounded genetic or geographical grouping is both arbitrary and potentially harmful owing to ethical and historical reasons (see Chapter 3 for more on the issues with commercial ancestry tests, for example). 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 diversity. It is of utmost importance that scientists and non-scientists, in theory, have each of the following clarified:

    1. Today, we refer to different local human groups as “populations.” What constitutes a population is 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.
    2. Humans have significantly less genetic diversity 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.
    3. Many biological characteristics in humans are actually determined non-concordantly and/or polygenically. Therefore, superiority or inferiority in human behavior or body form cannot justifiably be linked to fixed and innate differences between groups.
    4. Genetic distances are correlated with geographic distances among the global human population. This is especially apparent when we consider that genetic diversity 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.
    5. The effects of gene flow, genetic drift, and population bottlenecking are reflected in some phenotypic traits, such as cranial shape.
    6. Other traits, like skin color and lactase persistence, we recognize to be the product of many millennia of natural selective pressures influencing human biology from the external environment.

    When taken altogether, genetic analyses of human diversity do not support 20th-century (or even earlier) concepts of race. In discussions about human diversity, each of these genomic results help clarify for all conversationalists 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 in the modern era.

    Beyond talking about diversity 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 diversity. Race-based classification systems were developed during the colonial era, transatlantic slave trade, and Scientific Revolution by some of the earliest scholars whom we may call the first “anthropologists” and students of humankind’s variation. Unfortunately, some of their ideas put forward 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 in some people’s minds, the treatment different individuals receive due to their perceived “race” can have significant financial, emotional, sociopolitical, and physiological costs. But assuming a “color-blind” position when it comes to the topics of “race” and ethnicity (especially in political discussions) is actually counterproductive since 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.


    image3-5.jpgFigure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Michael B. C. Rivera in Hong Kong.

    My name is Michael, and I am a researcher in biological anthropology (Figure 13.20). What strikes me as most interesting to investigate is human biological diversity today and the study of past human evolution. What I am really curious about is how we can use human skeletons to infer how people adapt to coastal environments. Relying on aquatic foods near rivers, lakes, and the sea is interesting because we have found evidence for positive effects of coastal living on dietary health and many unique adaptations in bones and teeth when living near rivers and beaches. I also really enjoy talking to students and non-scientists about our 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. When I attended international schools in my youth, I saw that kids my age came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. It was not until I left Hong Kong that I realized people with my skin tone were somewhat rarer in British universities I attended.

    Biological anthropology is not taught extensively back home in Hong Kong, but my initial motivation to enter this field was a great TV show called Bones. This TV series was about a brilliant anthropologist who examined human remains for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., identified the individuals they belonged to through scientific analyses of bones and teeth, and told the stories of the deceased who could not tell their own. I went to the United Kingdom to earn my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. During my studies, I was taught about human genetics, apes and monkeys, forensics, human cultural and behavioral diversity, and the story of human evolution that began six million to eight million years ago. It was fascinating to me that we could answer important questions about human variation and history using scientific methods. While I was at university, I did not have many minority academic role models to look up to. Today, I look around and see other academics of color during conferences and perhaps one or two others around the places at which I work. I am 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. The study of anthropology has really highlighted for me that we share a common humanity and history. Being somebody who is “mixed race” and Asian likely played a key role in steering me toward a discipline that studies human diversity. As this chapter hopefully shows, there is a lot about race and ethnicity to discuss in terms of the discipline’s history and current understandings of human biological diversity. Some scientific and technological advancements today are unfortunately misused for reasons to do with money, politics, or the continuation of fairly 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 fellow minority and mentor figure. This is why anthropology needs more diversity and to make room for more personal routes into the discipline. All paths to anthropology are valuable and valid. I would encourage anyone to study anthropology as it really is a field for understanding and celebrating the intricacies of human diversity.

    Review Questions

    • How is the genetic variation of the human species distributed worldwide?
    • What evolutionary processes are responsible for producing genotypic/phenotypic diversity within and between human populations?
    • Should we continue to attribute any value in “race” concepts older than 1950, based on our current understandings of human biological diversity?
    • How should we communicate scientific findings about human biological variation more accurately and responsibly to those outside the anthropological discipline?

    6.3: Talking About Human Biological Variation Going Forward is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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