On human races

human racesThe controversy of the concept of “race” in humans is always a live one, and I have commented on the topic before. We have, for instance, discussed the famous Stephen Jay Gould vs Samuel George Morton controversy, as well as a wonderfully clear headed paper by Jonathan Kaplan and Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther on “Realism, Antirealism, and Conventionalism about Race.”

Here I return to the topic by republishing a short paper I co-wrote with my colleague and long time friend Guido Barbujani (University of Ferrara, Italy), which originally appeared in Current Biology 23:185-187 (2013). I think our thoughts are still valid and may be useful to people interested in the never ending controversy.

The paper is organized as a series of short questions and answers about race, to which a biologist (Guido) and a philosopher-biologist (yours truly) provide some preliminary answers. Here it goes:

What is a race?

Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) distinguishes between species in which biological change is continuous in space, and species in which groups of populations with different character combinations are separated by borders. In the latter species, the entities separated by borders are geographic races or subspecies. Many anthropology textbooks describe human races as discrete (or nearly discrete) clusters of individuals, geographically localized, each of which shares a set of ancestors, and hence can be distinguished from other races by their common gene pool or by different alleles xed in each.

Isn’t that concept elusive?

Somewhat. Ever since Lamarck and Darwin, species are no longer regarded as fixed entities; in time, some of them split and evolve into different species. Accordingly, races are often conceptualized as populations of the same species on their way to speciation, but not quite there yet, a rather difficult category to place individuals in. Also, whether geographic variation is continuous or discontinuous may not be obvious. That said, philosophers of science recognize that concepts without sharp boundaries may still be useful in everyday as much as in scientific practice.

So, maybe the concept is elusive in principle, but it works in practice?

Yes, in some species, such as some snails or the gorilla, not to mention a number of plant species. Conversely, highly mobile species, including many birds and marine shes, do not tend to show geographic clusters of individuals which can be distinguished morphologically or genetically.

What about humans, then?

As you may have guessed, opinions differ among experts. Some believe not only that humans are subdivided in biological races, but also that inherited differences between races result in a range of different abilities (including cognitive abilities). By contrast, others regard human races as entirely cultural constructs unrelated with biological diversity. There are intermediate possibilities too.

Why then is the concept of race so widespread?

The idea that races are a natural feature of human diversity has long been the standard for anthropological research. However, scientists trying to list the human races never reached an agreement, and catalogs proposed since the 18th century contain anything between 2 and 200 races. In time, this led to questioning the meaningfulness of racial classification, so that in 1963 Frank Livingstone (1928–2005) wrote: “There are no races, there are only clines” (i.e., geographical gradients). Others disagreed. While stating that universal human rights do not derive from our being identical, but from being all humans, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975) admitted that human races are poorly defined, but maintained that they exist and predicted they would be better described in the future. The good news is that now Dobzhansky’s future has arrived.

So, what do we know now?

With a population size exceeding seven billion, humans would be expected to display a large amount of genetic variation. This is not the case, however, suggesting that population sizes were small throughout much of human history. Genetic diversity is highest in Africa and decreases as one moves away from there, probably reflecting repeated founder effects that occurred as anatomically modern humans dispersed into other continents. As a result, most human alleles have a cosmopolitan distribution, that is, they are present in all continents, at different frequencies. Combinations of alleles along the same chromosome, or haplotypes, have a clearer geographical distribution, but still only a minority of them is continent-specific. Some regions of the genome show evidence of local adaptation. Studies of ancient DNA suggest that perhaps there may have also been limited admixture with archaic humans, such as Neanderthals.

What does this imply for the existence of human races?

Basically, that people with similar genetic features can be found in distant places, and that each local population contains a vast array of genotypes. Among the first genomes completely typed were those of James Watson and Craig Venter, two U.S. geneticists of European origin; they share more alleles with Seong-Jin Kim, a Korean scientist (1,824,482 and 1,736,340, respectively) than with each other (1,715,851). This does not mean that two random Europeans are expected to be genetically closer to Koreans than to each other, but certainly highlights the coarseness of racial categorizations. On average, nearby populations tend to resemble each other more than distant ones, but individual members of the same population, Watson and Venter in this case, can be very different. In short, if races are defined as subspecies, there is no such thing in humans. The best way to know what is in a person’s DNA is to study that person’s DNA.

So, my dog has a race and I don’t?

Human populations are also less diversified than dog or horse breeds, but the comparison is misleading, because stocks in these species were selected by human breeding programs.

Are we all equal, then?

No, we all differ genetically from one another, with the exception of identical twins. Tens of millions of the 3 billion nucleotides of our (haploid) genome have been shown to vary, and this number is increasing, as more and more genomes are being typed. Still, in comparison with other primates, we are very homogeneous, with two random members of our species differing, on average, in 1 nucleotide out of 1,000.

But isn’t it possible to classify people just based on their skin color?

Hardly. With at least 70 genes involved, skin color is a complex trait and a poor indicator of shared ancestry. Because pigmentation evolved under selective pressure, people of sub-Saharan Africa, Southern India, Australia and Melanesia have all dark skins, despite these populations occurring in distant branches of evolutionary trees based on genetic distances.

What about ‘folk’ or ‘common’ concepts of race?

The level of disagreement is the same as in scientific studies. In U.S. census forms, for instance, the number of races changed almost every decade (12 in 1960, 6 in 2000, 15 in 2010), and people from different cultures classify people in different ways. Just as an example, in apartheid South Africa, Japanese were regarded as white and Chinese as colored, even though both populations include people with light and rather dark skin.

Can we not just say that races are populations between which there are genetic differences?

This definition has actually been proposed, but it has a disadvantage. Any two human populations differ genetically to some extent, and so each of them would be labeled as a race, in contrast with current taxonomic practice. But there is more; any pair of human groups, even when defined socially (say, dentists vs. plumbers), or arbitrarily (say, those who wore black shoes vs. those who wore shoes of other colors on June 8th, 2010) will differ in the average of many biological properties, say body weight, speed in running, ability to digest milk or sensitivity to bitter flavors. However, this does not mean that a person’s weight or ability to digest milk has anything to do with that person choosing plumbing or dentistry. The crucial question is not whether we are identical (we are not) but whether humans are like cell phones, which can be Nokia, Samsung or Motorola, but hardly anything in between, in which case the different human brands could legitimately be called races. The answer is no.

Isn’t all this a problem of terminology and good manners, rather than a scientific one?

No, assuming that humans come in neat racial packages leads to poor scientific inference. Consider pharmacogenomics: genetic differences determine individual tendencies to metabolize various classes of drugs rapidly, normally or slowly. This often results in slow metabolizers suffering from side effects due to the prolonged interaction between the drug and its biological target, and in fast metabolizers having little or no benefit from treatment. Huge amounts of money have been invested to develop drug dosages specific for, say, the Chinese or the Swedish market. However, here, market really means race; these projects might have worked only if most Chinese had the same metabolizing phenotype, and most Swedes a different phenotype. On the contrary, it has been shown that Chinese and Swedes differ in their average metabolizing rate for debrisoquine and codeine, but both populations comprise the full range of fast, normal, and slow metabolizers. Racial pharmacology appears to be a blind scienti c alley, whereas in time we may be able to develop personalized pharmaceutical treatment.

Is it wrong if I use the word race?

Under freedom of speech, anybody is free to use any words. Even if they do not correspond to scientifically identifiable entities, races are a component of our psychological and social world, and as such their importance should not be dismissed. But mutual understanding requires some agreement between speakers and receivers, and so it is better to avoid terms of ambiguous or unclear meaning, especially in science.

Where can I find out more?

Ahn, S.M., Kim, T.H., Lee, S., Kim, D., Ghang, H., Kim, D.S., Kim, B.C., Kim, S.Y., Kim, W.Y., Kim, C., et al. (2009). The rst Korean genome sequence and analysis: full genome sequencing for a socio-ethnic group. Genome Res. 19, 1622–1629.

Barbujani, G., and Colonna, V. (2010). Human genome diversity: Frequently asked questions. Trends Genet. 26, 285–295.

Harpending, H., and Rogers, A. (2000). Genetic perspectives on human origins and differentiation. Annu. Rev. Genomics Hum. Genet. 1, 361–385.

Hunley, K.L., Healy, M.E., and Long, J.C. (2009). The global pattern of gene identity variation reveals a history of long-range migrations, bottlenecks, and local mate exchange: implications for biological race. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 139, 35–46.

Jakobsson, M., Scholz, S.W., Scheet, P., Gibbs, J.R., VanLiere, J.M., Fung, H.C., Szpiech, Z.A., Degnan, J.H., Wang, K., Guerreiro, R., et al. (2008). Genotype, haplotype and copy-number variation in worldwide human populations. Nature 451, 998–1003.

Johansson, I., Yue, Q.Y., Dahl, M.L., Heim, M., Säwe, J., Bertilsson, L., Meyer, U.A., Sjöqvist, F. and Ingelman-Sundberg, M. (1991). Genetic analysis of the interethnic difference between Chinese and Caucasians in the polymorphic metabolism of debrisoquine and codeine. Eur. J. Clin. Pharmacol. 40, 553–556.

Jorde, L.B. (2008). Human genetic diversity. In: Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (ELS). (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons). DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005079.pub2.

Kaessmann, H., Wiebe, V., Weiss, G., and Pääbo, S. (2001). Great ape DNA sequences reveal a reduced diversity and an expansion in humans. Nat. Genet. 27, 155–156.

Krimsky, S. and Sloan, K., editors (2011). Race and the Genetic Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press).

Livingstone, F. B. (1962). On the nonexistence of human races. Curr. Anthropol. 3, 279–281.

Mayr, E. (1947). Systematics and the Origin of Species, 3rd edn. (New York: Columbia University Press).

Pigliucci, M. and Kaplan, J. (2003). On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans. Philosophy Sci. 70, 1161–1172.

Tishkoff S.A. and Kidd, K.K. (2004). Implications of biogeography of human populations for ‘race’ and medicine. Nat. Genet. 36(11 Suppl.), S21–S27.


Categories: Massimo's Technical Stuff, Philosophy of Science

136 replies

  1. Hi Brodix, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.


  2. Aaron,

    If you actually wish to provide references you need to provide full references, not just names and years.

    Also, The Blank Slate is not peer reviewed. Further, Jensen has exactly zero credibility among biologists.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aaron,

    Which goes to the effect of racism being societies fracturing under economic and political pressures and using whatever convenient fissures to release that energy.


  4. Correct me if I am wrong, but Aaron’s examples are populations not “races”, no?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi michaelfugate, yes, they are populations, but they happen to be correlated with “race-perception”. Call them whatever you want.

    Massimo, yes Pinker 2002 isn’t peer reviewed. It does have citations to 1000s of peer reviewed articles. I know Jensen has “zero” credibility among some scholars. I suspect *Massimo* thinks he has all the answers on the issue; however, I caution others reading this post that Massimo is part of a moral community which deplores the notion of race as anything particularly relevant. Read the paper, look at the evidence for yourself, and follow the references to check the claims. There is no substitute, esp. on controversial topics.

    Full references are usually trivial to find with Google Scholar, but here are the ones referenced.

    Turkheimer, Eric. “Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 9.5 (2000): 160-164.

    Cochran, Gregory, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending. “Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence.” Journal of biosocial science 38.05 (2006): 659-693.

    Plomin, Robert, et al. “Top 10 replicated findings from behavioral genetics.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 11.1 (2016): 3-23.

    Rushton, J. Philippe, and Arthur R. Jensen. “Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability.” Psychology, public policy, and law 11.2 (2005): 235.

    Pinker, Steven. “The Blank Slate. Te Modern Denial of Human Nature.” (2002).

    O’Brien, Michael J., and Kevin N. Laland. “Genes, culture, and agriculture.” Current Anthropology 53.4 (2012): 434-470.

    As I said before, there are literally 1000s of follow-on references to check out if you are genuinely interested in the concept of race and evolution. It is a controversial topic because it runs counter to deeply held moral convictions mainly in the political left, which totally dominates sections of academia. Pinker 2002 explains this very well, with excellent examples. Prof. Gad Saad calls it “The Ostrich Brigade”, and I’ve certainly encountered plenty of it in the academy. If you haven’t read this book, then you should.


  6. No Bell Curve? Never mind …


  7. And? I think you just refuted your thesis, but haven’t realized it yet.


  8. Aaron,

    Setting aside your gratuitous warning about my alleged membership in one moral community or other, all your references are to psychology or similar journals, not one to biology or genetics.

    Moreover, as far as I can tell only one is about race. Surely you can do better than that?

    As I said, the overwhelming consensus within the competent epistemically community (which is that of biologists, not psychologists) is that folk races don’t exist. Go ahead, Google Scholarl it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My wife’s ancestors were German and mine are English, so I used to tell my daughter she is intertribal; Anglo and Saxon.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. While we are on folk commentary, a family story; My cousin was a Navy Seal for many years and toward the end of his career, he was head of security at the US embassy in Algeria, when they had one of their periodic meltdowns, late 80’s and he couldn’t get his pregnant wife a flight out to the base in Germany, so she flew to Tunisia and had their second child there. Which meant until 18 she had joint Tunisian-US citizenship. In third grade, for African American month, her class had an assignment to ask their parents what was “African-American.” So her father explained to her that she was an African -American, since she was born there and had joint citizenship and was likely the only one in the class. Apparently it didn’t go over well, as she is blond and blue eyed.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Massimo (from the article)

    “The crucial question is not whether we are identical (we are not) but whether humans are like cell phones, which can be Nokia, Samsung or Motorola, but hardly anything in between, in which case the different human brands could legitimately be called races. The answer is no.”

    versus Massimo (from a comment)

    “There is a partial correlation between a few genetic markers and folk races, most obviously the genes underlying skin color.”

    A red flag for motivated reasoning is avoiding the *strongest* counter-arguments to a held position. Now, the references I have given concern behavioral genetics and race. Play the “these people aren’t from the precise field I’m part of” card all you want: these articles concern race and genetics. Perhaps everyone in all the listed fields are just ignorant. It is always possible.

    All the philosophy in the world will not protect you from motivated reasoning.


  12. Hi Massimo, I think I should write something positive, because I am a fan of some of the things that you do, and the distance between our views is probably quite small — easy to overstate.

    So, if the view is that race doesn’t exist, because race-perception is contingent on sociocultural factors, and there is no obvious way to cluster the data according to genetic markers, then you will have no argument from me.

    If the view is that race doesn’t exist, because race-perception (of a given indivdual or group) isn’t correlated with genetic markers, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    Regarding motivated reasoning, I really don’t mean to be personal. We’ll all human, and that’s just great. Best,

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Aaron,

    There is an interesting discussion buried in here somewhere, that we do cluster/gravitate, based on very deep seated impulses, not all of them genetic and/or cultural, but there is no objective criteria to explain or otherwise pigeonhole every grouping. It is a dichotomy of networks and nodes, playing out across the broad range of human consciousness and instinct. That this conversation happened to polarize around a few points of focus is itself part of this dynamic.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. So Aaron you admit you have no argument, but insist that you are correct, How does that work exactly? Are really implying that all people with dark skin are genetically similar? If so, then biology is not your friend. This goes back to the previous post – novices are not experts.


  15. Let me add – if you have any understanding of evolution at all, then you know that every population could approach a similarly changing environment in a different manner. Herding populations in Europe contain a different genetic change to promote lactase production post-weaning than those in Africa. Same solution different mutations. Skin color changes from dark to light or light to dark are not going to be the same in different populations.


  16. Aaron,

    thanks for the positive contribution. I never denied that a small number of genetic markers (mostly, skin color) correlate with folk races. It says so clearly in at the least two of the papers I published.

    But: i) that is literally “skin deep,” meaning that there is no other consistent way of recovering folk races from genetic data; ii) even the skin markers are ambiguous, because similar skin colors (“black”) have evolved independently more than once during human history, so that there is, for instance, no such thing as the black race.

    At any rate, if you don’t mind, I think we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, so I’d suggest to move on to another thread and topic. Cheers!


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