Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable.
With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. Furthermore, we believe that scientists can and should study this variation without fear of censure or obloquy. Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals. In fact, pinning a message of tolerance to the claim that all humans are essentially the same underneath the skin is dangerous. It suggests that if there were real differences, racism would be justified. This is bad science and worse morality. Promoting a tolerant, cosmopolitan society doesn’t require denying basic facts about the world. It requires putting in the hard work and effort to support the legal equality and moral dignity of all humans.
Race exists, but variation is complicated
Scholars who have assailed the concept of race have forwarded three general arguments against it. Although the arguments are worth consideration, they do not ultimately show that race is a useless or fictional concept. The first two objections are aimed at a straw man, and the last, we will contend, is entirely wrong.
(Objection 1): Human variation is clinal or gradual, not discrete. Skin pigmentation, for example, does not come in four, five, or seven distinct colors, but varies gradually from very dark near the equator to very light in Northern Eurasia.
This charge against the validity of race is undoubtedly correct: a lot of human variation is gradual, not discrete. However, we are not familiar with any prominent proponent of the usefulness of race who would disagree with this contention (assuming they actually understand the evidence). The famous German intellectual and early theoretician of human variation, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1775), who is often accused of clumsily categorizing humans into discrete racial groups, contended that, “no variety [of human] exists …so singular as not to be connected to others of the same kind by such an imperceptible transition, that it is very clear they are all related, or only differ from each other in degree.”
For a period of time, polygenism, or the belief that the races arose from separate creations, was popular, but it was widely discredited by genetic and archaeological evidence clearly demonstrating that modern humans originated in Africa (a view promoted by Darwin, who also happened to believe that human races existed). Today, most researchers would agree with Blumenbach, including, for example, Nicholas Wade, who recently wrote a book about race that provoked a furious backlash. In that book, Wade asserted that “because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races — that is the nature of variation within a species. Nonetheless, useful distinctions can be made” (p. 92). This is the key point: although the argument that human variation is continuous rather than discrete is correct, it does not vitiate a sophisticated understanding of race. It only refutes a platonic conception that few contemporary scholars take seriously.
(Objection 2): Human genetic variation is much greater within human populations than among human populations; therefore, variation that exists between groups is of little scientific interest.
This claim is true in a circumscribed sense, but is largely irrelevant to the question of whether population group differences are biologically meaningful. As pointed out by Jeffry B. Mitton and A.W.F. Edwards, the original finding that genetic diversity among human races is insubstantial compared to genetic diversity within races was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation. Roughly speaking, the original claim about genetic diversity was based on analyses at single genetic loci (spots on the chromosome where genes are located) and not on analyses that considered the correlated structure of multiple genetic loci (many locations). Failure to consider multiple loci assures that broad, distinct patterns of allele (gene) frequencies get lost in the noise of diversity at single loci. This sounds painfully abstruse, but the basic point is this: patterns that are nearly invisible for individual genes become visible if one examines multiple genes at the same time (i.e., looks at gene 1 + gene 2 + gene 3 + gene 4…et cetera).
Consider a simple but illustrative example.a Imagine that a friend is describing an animal one adjective at a time (e.g., “big,” “furry” et cetera). You are trying to guess the animal. At first, it is difficult to guess because there are many “big” animals, and there are many “big” and “furry” animals. But as her description continues, it gets much easier to guess correctly because each adjective adds to the prior adjectives. The information that allows you to guess correctly does not reside in any one adjective but in the list of adjectives strung together (“big,” “furry,” “antlered,” “white tailed,” “hooved,” “spritely,” “brown,” et cetera). The same holds for population groups. Each genetic locus, like each adjective, is relatively uninformative; but a string of 200 or 300 loci is very informative.
Empirical studies bear this logic out. The geneticist Hua Tang and her colleagues, for instance, found that self-reported ethnicity corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters from 326 microsatellite markers (a microsatellite marker is a piece of repetitive DNA in which a series of DNA base pairs are repeated). Other studies have demonstrated even more power to identify people’s ancestry accurately. These studies illustrate that, whatever the meaning of the claim that there is much more variation within than among races, researchers can, if they use the appropriate procedures, distinguish human ancestral groups from each other with remarkable accuracy. The significance of these genetic differences among groups is entirely an empirical question.
(Objection 3): Human racial classifications are arbitrary. For some purposes, categorizing by skin color is useful; for other purposes, categorizing by, say, antimalarial genes, is useful. These classifications, although equally valid, lead to radically different racial categories. Thus, one particular classification scheme is no better than the other and none are particularly illuminating.
By any reasonable understanding of the word “arbitrary,” this claim is incorrect. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this argument is the gifted and persuasive writer Jared Diamond, who wrote, “There are many different, equally valid procedures for defining races, and those different procedures yield very different classifications” thereby ultimately concluding that we shouldn’t codify human differences into arbitrary racial taxonomies. Diamond is absolutely correct that there isn’t a divinely mandated procedure for correctly classifying human variation. It does not then follow, however, that racial categories are entirely arbitrary, created at the whim of self-interested researchers or racial bigots. Of course, social interests absolutely do affect some racial classifications within a society, but that is a complicated subject we can’t fully explore here (see endnote).
Group categories are constrained by commonly accepted principles such as coherence, parsimony, and predictiveness. Classifications that are incoherent or that have little predictive value are not valid. There will be some flexibility about classification, but not the anarchic freedom Diamond’s arguments seem to suggest. One might, for example, propose classifying Scandinavians with Nilo-Saharan speaking ethnic groups in East Africa because both can digest lactose into adulthood. But, such classifications would violate the principle of parsimony. These groups diverged from each other before developing the ability to digest lactose into adulthood, evolved on separate continents, and do not share other visible traits such as skin pigmentation and hair texture. Therefore, it makes little sense to categorize them in the same ancestral group.
Race, then, is not a platonic essence and racial groups are not discrete categories of humans. Instead, race is a pragmatic construct that picks out real variation in the world (which corresponds to shared ancestry) and allows people and scientists to make useful inferences. In this way, racial categories are like film categories (e.g., drama, horror, comedy). Film categories are certainly real in the sense that they offer predictive power. If one knows that A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film, one can be reasonably certain that it will be dark, scary, and violent. But film categories are not immutable essences that perfectly sort movies into distinct types. A genre-based satire like Scream, for example, does not snugly fit into any of the traditional film categories. It might be horror; it might be comedy; it might be some previously unknown combination of the two. Furthermore, there aren’t a fixed number of film categories. The amount and the granularity of film categories depend upon the interests of the people using them. Your friend might use four (horror, comedy, drama, and science fiction), whereas Netflix might use an apparently limitless and startlingly specific supply. (See Daniel Dennett’s book for a variety of points and related examples centering on the topic of species).
The same principles apply to racial categories. If one knows that Thomas is a Caucasian, one can be reasonably sure that Thomas has relatively light skin, and that he has recent ancestry in Europe. But racial categories, like film categories, aren’t immutable essences that perfectly sort humans into distinct groups. There aren’t a fixed number of racial categories, and the number researchers use is partially a matter of convenience. One might start with five continentally based categories (i.e., Caucasians, East Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines) and then add more categories as one’s analysis becomes more granular (e.g. Ashkenazi Jewish, Mizrahi Jewish, and so on). These categories aren’t real in some metaphysical sense, but they are useful, and they do have predictive value. In this, they are like many other constructs in the social sciences such as self-esteem, intelligence, and agreeableness. They represent traits that cluster together; they predict outcomes; and they can be quantified.
The Ethics of Race
Although the argument that racial categories are fictitious and useless is ostensibly a scientific one, it has been promulgated by progressives to combat racial bigotry. After all, if race is an illusion, then racism is as unreasonable as the fear of ghosts. This would allow researchers and intellectuals not only to denounce racism, but also to mock racists for their basic misunderstanding of biology. But what if meaningful race differences do exist? Should intellectuals continue to promote a false narrative because it serves laudable social ends? This dilemma can be avoided entirely if intellectuals promote a narrative of tolerance that is not attached to an empirical claim. Racism is wrong because it violates the dignity of individual humans. This dignity is not predicated on the biological uniformity of the human species, but rather on the unique worth, esteem, and integrity of all individuals.
Furthermore, high-minded narratives about the similarity of humans and the unreality of race are unlikely to convince the average person. Abstruse analyses of fine-grained genetic differences among populations of Africans, for example, will likely not prevent most people from clumping Africans into one group and Caucasians into another. And, in fact, such folk classifications do correspond to shared ancestry and discernible genetic variation. People see race because race exists, not because they are dupes of an oppressive mythology.
We are not naive about the dangers of candidly discussing human racial variation. It is doubtless true that demagogues and charlatans have used real and imagined data about racial differences to support abhorrent policies and to foment racial strife. And it is also doubtless true that the suggestion that racial groups may vary on socially valued traits contradicts contemporary egalitarian norms. However, studying and discussing racial variation is also potentially rewarding. It might promote the development of better, more personalized medical treatments and public policy interventions; and it would certainly increase our understanding about the evolutionary history of our species. Furthermore, not candidly discussing human racial variation is also potentially dangerous.
Denying the reality of race leaves a vacuum for extremists to exploit. If moderates and progressives refuse to discuss human racial variation, then only the most extreme and often deplorable people will. We can assure you that if we don’t talk about it as research scientists, it will not prevent racial demagogues from using it to support ugly and intolerant social policies. And it will also cede the scientific high ground to those demagogues, compelling moderates and progressives to resort to semantic games or purposeful obfuscation and straw man arguments.
Most people believe that there are human races. They believe this not because they have a sophisticated understanding of genetic variation or human evolution, but because they see and categorize perspicuous phenotypic (and possibly behavioral) differences. Although many intellectuals have contended that these differences are largely superficial and distort underlying genetic realities, most research suggests that there are meaningful genetic differences among racial groups and that these differences are largely consistent with common racial classifications. Race is as real and useful as other constructs in the social sciences such as neuroticism, self-esteem, and intelligence. Therefore, with appropriate care and caution, scientists can and should study racial variation. This argument may appear alarming to people concerned about racial justice. But it doesn’t need to be. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism don’t require the leveling of diversity; they require the celebration of it. Race exists, but racism does not have to.
For a similar, yet more expansive version of the arguments included here (as well as similar examples of concepts) see:
Winegard, B., Winegard, B. & Boutwell, B. (2017), Human Biological and Psychological Diversity. Evolutionary Psychological Science, doi:10.1007/s40806-016-0081-5
*It is important to note that the social constructionist arguments about race are nuanced and are worth considering. We also recognize that much of the concern over race stems not from classifying individual ancestries, rather it stems more from worry over the attempts (both past and present) to “rank” racial groups based on some purportedly “objective” criteria of worth. Ranking groups is a pointless and meaningless exercise, and we concur that it can produce tremendous harm. Yet, describing the biological underpinnings of race, attempting better to understand how natural selection might have sculpted those differences, and ultimately trying better to grasp the evolutionary heritage of our species so that we might have a more complete understanding of our legacy, is a worthy scientific enterprise. Most importantly, despite that we spend very little space to discussing the social construction of race, this should not be interpreted as a failure to recognize the nuance embedded in social constructionist arguments. We were simply limited in the space we could devote to it.
a To our knowledge, we have yet to see a similar example applied specifically to race.
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