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Race, what is it?

Updated on December 22, 2012

Race is really a very complex subject. More so than I had thought when I started to write this. I was just planning to write about how race does not exist and give proof of that hypothesis. But as I was researching it I was surprised by the many contexts the word itself is used in.

Scientifically, genetically, we are one species. I always thought it was particularly strange that the religious could be racist since they espouse the idea that all people come from Adam and Eve, and then from one family, that of Noah and his sons which all went on to build their own nations.

But here is where the idea of race really starts because each nation the sons create turn out to be not only very culturally different, but they also have color differences as well as behavioral differences according to the narrators of the bible.

American racism was fueled by the idea that the Africans were sons of Canaan, the son of Ham, who was cursed by god to create a nation that was to serve the nations of the other two sons and the nations their sons would produce.

In fact, race is and always has been a way to split populations and probably originally primitive tribes in to us and them. Any difference showed clearly that they were not part of us; whoever they might have been.

This is the basis of popular cultural ideas of race. They did not have to be cursed by god, any difference made them undesirable and not trust worthy. Different cultural behavior also underscored the idea.

So race really came down to parentage. In China, for instance, in the time of Marco Polo, to be Chinese was to be the descendant of the great yellow emperor of the Chin clan. Marco polo and other explorers saw many different peoples and cultures, and used the equivalent term to race in their own language to describe the inhabitants of different regions of the world.

But it wasn’t really until the 1700s that classifications of race started to appear in earnest. Maps were made showing where the Caucasians were, where the Mongolian races such as the Chinese, Japanese and North American Indians were, and where the African black populations were. Later there were 5 races categorized. The Nazis had their own categorizations of race.

In science one thinks of race as one would think of species. Humans are not all different species because we can all still mate successfully. The cutoff point between two species is when the child group can no longer successfully mate with the parent group.

This has never happened to humans and never will because as isolated as we have been from each other, there has always been interbreeding between people from different geographical regions due to trade and travel.

The recent discovery of genes has proven we are not very different from each other at all. All our differences are cosmetic. The fact is that there is a statistical autosomal genetic distance of no more than 6 to 8 percent between what some call races.

There can be as much as 5 percent difference within any given so called race. So if we go by the idea that any difference, no matter how small above that, denotes a different race, there would end up being hundreds of different races. Obviously that's crazy.

To be a subspecies or 'race' in the non-human category, biologists set the standard at between 25 and 30 percent autosomal genetic distance and consider that number to be very accurate. There is no reason to treat the human category in any other manner.

Other markers show that you can have more differences within a general population of all supposedly the same race, then there is difference between races. You may have more in common with an other so called race genetically than you do your own. That’s a bit counter intuitive but it makes since when you consider that the African population has 100 percent of all the genetic variations found in the world within it, and as you go north and fan out, that percentage drops to 80 percent, showing clearly that genetic diversity started in Africa.

Humans all share common ancestry. We have never been isolated from eachother long enough for us to have developed into different subspecies. With more and more multicultural societies being developed and with the current amount of travel, along with relaxed social stigma toward "racial mixing" we are not likely to drift farther apart to the point that we will ever be separate subspecies unless we travel and settle in space and become isolated for long enough.

Of course there is genetic engineering to consider in the future as well.

So we know there are various methods used to determine race. There are many definitions of it and many current usages that have nothing to do with scientific terminology. But the most accurate answer is found in genetics.

However, another science, that of anthropological forensics uses differences in bone structure to fairly accurately determine what it considers race. There is controversy raging over this fact, and whether it is accurate for them to classify people in to racial profiles based on those differences. But they are the only scientists which when surveyed overwhelmingly said there is such thing as race.

Governments and police departments race profile as well, but for many different reasons. Most reasons have historically been motivated by prejudice.

Another marker used has often been IQ. Even though testing shows a gap between the so called races, all races score all over the map. Blacks in America may on average score lower than whites but that doesn't mean some Blacks don't also score very high. They do. IQ is a game of statistics.

If you were to take IQ tests as gospel in this matter then Orientals would be the smartest people on the planet. They consistently score higher on IQ tests than whites or anyone else.

But so far it seems IQ is mainly to do with environment, not genetic differences. While we can show the impact of environmental conditioning on intelligence we have no reliable way of showing genetic impact on it. That doesn't mean there isn't any, but before we can pinpoint what such differences actually are within the small margin of differences that exist, it is pure speculation to say that intelligence is genetically based in a different way for different so called races.

Because some blacks do score as high as any white, and whites do score as high as any oriental, it is unlikely they are genetically different in their “genetic intellectual potential.”

As for this view being politically motivated, one could say the same about the opposite view just as easily, and probably with more truth to it. It was expected that there would far more genetic difference between so called races than was found.

Personally it would not have mattered to me one way or the other if there was a wider distance between races than there is. But there isn't. In the face of the factual findings that suggest we are a relatively young species and have not had the time to significantly drift apart in to subspecies, and that the great majority of our physical differences are cosmetic and environmental, I would say denying the facts probably does denote a personal stake in the matter.

The bottom line is that we are one species. Other apes even have a higher degree of difference genetically between them then any human so called race has.

So race classification is not scientifically based or valid. It is usually motivated by fear of difference, and the “us against them” mentality that causes war and conflict and oppression. It started probably as early as the first tribes were formed and met in the wilderness. There is no room for it in a modern society which more and more is becoming multicultural and united.

There are no superior or inferior races of people. There are only people.


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    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Agree with your findings & thoughts here Slarty. There are some cosmetic differences as you pointed out; take this interesting one: Theres a group of people in the Appalachians mostly, who call themselves Melogeons[?] Supposedly a mixture of Portuguese, Native American and Blacks. They say some of their characteristics are shovel-shaped front teeth, a bump on the back of the head and of course darker skin. Well, alot of non-Melogeans have the occipital protuberance for example so there you go. Some groups are proud of their uniqueness it would appear. Good subject and write Slarty, voted up.

    • Slarty O'Brian profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Hooft 

      6 years ago from Ottawa

      Thanks, guys. Glad you enjoyed it. ;)

    • kathryn1000 profile image


      6 years ago from London

      Well written and thoughtful.Thank you

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great article. Thank you. Up and very interesting


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