Why Race as a Biological Phenomena Does Not Exist
MSNBC reported that last year was the first year in United States history where more than half of all births were minorities. What do these changing demographics mean for race issues in the United States? According to physical anthropologists, not a thing, because race as a biological concept does not even exist.
According to physical anthropologists, current perceptions about race are based on data from the 19th and 20th centuries. These data were biased and based on misunderstandings about human variation. Only visible traits like skin color and facial and skeletal features were used to make classifications.
Sources of Variation
Human beings all belong to one species. They share a common ancestor and have evolved over the same amount of time. Most biological variation is modest. Most genetic variation that is found among humans is found within different populations, not between them. Biological differences that are observed are the result of natural and social influences in the environment and the interaction between the two. These influences vary based on the specific trait. There are observable differences between people living in different geographic regions. Some features are based more on inheritance, and others are impacted more environmental factors like nutrition and lifestyle.
For example, skin color variation is based on evolutionary adaptations to vitamin D. Vitamin D synthesis has a direct relationship with skin pigmentation since the synthesis of vitamin D in the epidermis is one of the primary ways humans obtain vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for proper bone mineralization. Skin pigmentation affects how much vitamin D the skin can synthesize (Frisancho, 1993: 155-167). Skin color has evolved in response to the need for humans to be able to synthesize vitamin D.
Another example is the impact altitude has on stature. High altitudes provide unique challenges for individuals because of the lack of oxygen. Adaptations to this condition, known as hypoxia, have developed among individuals living in high altitudes so they can maintain normal metabolic functioning. Children who are raised in high altitudes have a developmental acclimatization to hypoxia. They have increased lung volumes that lead to a barrel-shaped chest. This allows for increased oxygen intake. This type of barrel-shaped chest can be found in populations that live in the high altitudes of the Andes Mountains.
Temperature also has an impact on stature. Maintaining internal body temperature is essential for basic metabolic processes so these adaptations are necessary for survival (Molnar, 2006:246).Bergmann’s rule states that latitude is related to body mass in animals. Allen’s rule states that endotherms from colder climates have shorter limbs. Both of these rules demonstrate that squat, short body shapes retain heat better (Molnar, 2006:249). This is evident in the short, squat body shape of Arctic inhabitants like the Inuit.
External features like skin color and stature are not useful for classifications because of their dependence on physical environment. Human variation is shaped by environmental factors and evolutionary forces. This shows that while there is a great deal of diversity among humans, this diversity is based on genetic and environment and nothing else.
Frisancho AR. 1993. Human adaptation and accommodation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Molnar S. 2006. Human variation: races, types, and ethnic groups. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
What do you think?
Most of this hub was originally written for an essay in an exam I recently took. The professor wanted us to explain biological human variation to the general public excluding outdated racial concepts. What do you think?
Other Anthropology Hubs
- A Shot at Understanding Language Origins
The origin of language is a puzzle that is still confounding researchers. Frame/Content theory is one attempt to understand how and why humans first started producing language.
- Evolutionary Forces that Impact Variation Within Species
There are several different scientific processes that lead to differences or variation within the same species. Both microevolutionary and non-evolutionary forces combined to affect allele frequencies. Evolutionary mechanisms, include genetic drift,
- Physiological Adaptations to Cold Stress in Humans
Humans have developed several short and long term adaptations to cold stress. The adaptations allows humans to survive areas with extremely cold temperatures.
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