Human Variation
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Human Variation

Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups

Stephen Molnar

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eBook - ePub

Human Variation

Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups

Stephen Molnar

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Basic text for the sophomore/junior level course in Human Variation or Human Diversity taught anthropology or biology departments.
This classic introduction to human variation, has been thoroughly updated to include the issues and controversies facing the contemporary study of diversity.

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Biological Diversity
and the Race Concept:
An Introduction

The concept that humans can be divided into neat categories labeled races, differing in physical form or by language and color, is a very old idea and has been used again and again throughout history to discriminate between peoples. With the wealth of new genetic information and the expanding record of biological diversity, it has become harder to maintain the older boundaries around the “classical” races or to establish new ones. One would suppose that a newer worldview would have emerged allowing us a different, scientifically based perspective. Such is not always the case, however. We still frequently revert to old stereotypic views and use racial labels as kind of a shorthand code or proxy for explaining biological as well as behavioral differences. A simple visual appraisal of appearances related to size, form, and color of individuals is used to place them into one of several races or ethnic groups.
Skin color is one characteristic that seems to be most significant, and it is frequently used to identify people. We read again and again about black and white peoples, “people of color,” and the “dark skinned races” as if such divisions of humans can define a range of biological or behavioral differences. Color has been and is still used for political purposes; the population census continues to use black and white classifications. The health sciences rely on racial categories to guide treatment choice for individuals despite the fallacy of the concept of primary races. The Food and Drug Administration, encouraging studies of individualized medicine (pharmacogenetics), urges researchers to identify their patients’ race by one of five categories: two are by color (black or white), two by geographic region (American Indian/Alaskan Native or Asia/Pacific Islander), and one by ethnicity (Hispanic). Such labeling may work for political or social purposes, but it ignores the historical and biological diversity within each group. Racial classification of people based on a few anthropometric traits may offer an illusion of scientific objectivity, but simple visual perception of these traits or self-reporting of one’s race is not enough.
The development of twentieth-century biomedical technology with all its sophisticated laboratory methods has revealed a greater biochemical diversity among humans than previously recorded. Such traits are not easily determined but require special techniques for their detection. The blood types, enzymes, and numerous other inherited biochemical factors differ in a range of frequencies among the various human groups studied. The list of these traits is increasing rapidly as newer and more efficient methods are employed. The most important addition has been techniques that permit a precise record of DNA. Certain regions of our DNA show so much variability that distinictions may be made between populations, families, or even at an individual level, as in the use of DNA “fingerprinting.” With a combination of the newer methods of biochemical and DNA analysis, a whole new dimension of study has been opened up.
This newly acquired ability to study human biology forces us to reject perceptions of superficial differences, many of which may be due to factors of nutrition, child growth, and climate. But even simple appraisal suggests that Homo sapiens consists of many diverse population groups whose range of variability is enormous. Such variety causes one to ponder the composition of our species and casts doubt on any scheme that attempts to divide humanity into a few definite categories we call race. Just why is Homo sapiens such a polymorphic, polytypic species? That is, how can we explain the individual variability within a population (polymorphic) or the many distinctions among the human groups (polytypic)? Why are characteristics of skin, hair, body size, blood factors, or DNA fragment types distributed among the world’s peoples in the way they are?
Biological variability appears to result from the combined influences of human behavior and natural forces that have been at work throughout evolution. The size of populations, their isolation, and their adaptation to environmental stresses contribute to, or detract from, the survival of individuals or of an entire group. Each population also reflects, to some degree, the experiences of its ancestors and gives evidence of elements in its environment that have been shaping it through time. This modification over the course of generations is still proceeding and will contribute to future population diversity. No matter how we may define or classify races today, their composition will undoubtedly change over future generations as a result of alterations in evolutionary forces through human adaptation and because of continuing migrations and interbreeding. These and other factors cause changes in population sizes and boundaries and require new definitions and identity labels.
Immigration has accelerated over the last few decades in the Western world, causing us all to become students of human variation to some degree. National population composition—that is, the percentages of minorities—is quite different from that of previous generations and is continuing to change, both here in the United States as well as throughout Europe. This change has frequently been noted in the popular press under news headlines heralding “The Changing Face of America” or “The Browning of America.” Such articles, with or without implied value judgments about socioeconomic or cultural differences, outline some of the sources of this change. All too often, traditional racial classification is revived along with a version of nineteenth-entury racism, the false notion of “inherited inequality of races.” Concepts of national inequality based on race/ethnic difference have also resurfaced with recent and ongoing armed conflicts and terrorism. For example, an international news magazine commented that to reach a peaceful conclusion, we must be willing to “bear the white man’s burden.” Such a comment recalls an old colonial racial bias out of the past.1
Such racism, together with simplistic race labels held over from centuries past, have no place in the twenty-first century. Our forebears’ ignorance of the causes and meanings of human differences may be excused because of their lack of knowledge of biology, but today we can claim no such excuse. Many discussions of race, races, and ethnic groups today, however, reveal an appalling ignorance of basic biology and are guided by an ancient folk taxonomy.
Reliance on folk taxonomy as a guide prevents an understanding of the range and degree of human biological variability though much of this variability is readily apparent. For example, skin pigmentation extends from a very pale color among northern Europeans to an extremely dark brown among the peoples of central Africa or New Guinea. Such a distribution is easily identified by casual traveler and scientist alike. In addition, human body size varies widely from a thin and linear build to a shorter and heavier one, but these features of the human anatomy may change readily with dietary habits and child growth rates. Face form and head shape are other distinguishing characteristics that differentiate between populations; compare European with Asian, for example. Hair form, another trait that has attracted a great deal of attention, varies from straight and long to short and spiral shaped. All these obvious features have led, or I should say, misled writers to draw conclusions about the relationships between groups. Look-alikes have been considered to be closely related by common descent, while dissimilar appearances have been taken as evidence of racial distinctions. All other biological traits are assumed to be equally divided, but such is not the case. Race classifications do not work. Look-alikes can have, and often do have, different blood types, hemoglobins, DNA, and physiological traits. In this book I describe these major components of the biological diversity of our species and their distributions and examine the various causes.


How have we become conscious of the varieties of Homo sapiens and their place among the living organisms in the world? This awareness developed gradually as a result of extensive explorations of the world by Europeans during recent centuries. Explorers brought back specimens of plants and animals unknown in Europe, and these, together with encounters with peoples of the new lands, demonstrated the diversity in the living world—and challenged many of the Europeans’ long-established beliefs. The idea that humans descended from an original pair was especially hard to cling to after the discovery of populations differing as much as Africans, Malaysians, and Native Americans. A revival of Aristotle’s worldview of idealized living forms scaled to fit within eleven grades of development became the most useful scheme to reconcile such diversity. As expressed by Lamarck (1744–1829), the famous French naturalist whose ideas on the evolution of life forms predated Darwin’s, “man represents the type of highest perfection of nature and the more an animal organization approaches that of man the more perfect it is” (quoted in Mayr, 1982:353). With such graded categories, natural scientists were able to reconcile the discoveries of these new peoples with current religious dogma through an arrangement of all living creatures in a scale from lower to higher categories, from inanimate to animate, with humans at the top. This “Great Chain of Being” concept greatly simplified the study of human variability. Europeans were placed at the top of an ascending order, with newly discovered peoples arranged below—an idea that remained popular throughout the nineteenth century.
The “chain” concept fostered the belief that no two varieties of humans could occupy the same developmental level. Later, in the latter half of the nineteenth century as Darwin’s evolutionary theories were gaining acceptance, the human varieties were thought to represent several past stages of development. But even before Darwin, there was a firmly held belief that many ancestral human pairs had been created, each differing externally and internally in a way that suited them for a particular environment. These arrangements of our species into varieties were frequently complicated by the scientists’ personal biases. Many believed that certain groups had been retarded in their progress toward civilization by environmental conditions. Naturally, these schemes placed Europeans as the superior group and as being thousands of years ahead of other races. This idea of the superiority of one race over another persisted well into the twentieth century, as illustrated in Carleton Coon’s Origin of Races: “As far as we know now, the Congoid (Negroid) line started on the same evolutionary level as the Eurasiatic ones in the Early Middle Pleistocene and then stood still for a half a million years, after which Negroes and Pygmies appear as if out of nowhere” (1962:659). It is, perhaps, ironic, that forty years later a reverse order is generally accepted.
These issues of racial origins and rates of development were secondary to the major problem confronting scientists two hundred years ago: what to do with the overwhelming quantities of data accumulating from the discoveries in the recently explored world. Their problem was not whether humans varied in their biological makeup; they could see that with their own eyes, although the variation was not always what they supposed it to be because of the impressionistic means used to perceive human differences. But what were the boundaries of these differences, and how might these boundaries relate to humans’ past and to human survival?
The modern systematic study of human diversity begins with an attempt to place all living organisms in a classification system established by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Linnaeus based his classification system on the assumption, current in his day, that species had been of a fixed type and number since creation. Species were regarded as units of organisms that could interbreed only among themselves; an earlier description noted that “a species could not spring from the seed of another, different species.” This sharp distinction between species would assist the process of classification. Furthermore, Linnaeus and other natural scientists believed that the number of species was limited, fixed, and unchanging. All one had to do was to collect and classify samples of the various life forms. As his collections increased, Linnaeus was confronted with increasing numbers and variety of organisms, however. The categories had to be expanded and modified with each new edition of his Systema Naturae, first published in 1735.
Encounters with humans on other continents presented special problems because of belief in special creation and the fixity of species. Explorers, including Columbus, brought back a few of these exotic people discovered during their travels to display before curious European audiences. The differences in appearance, language, and customs of these strange people increased the questions about the classification of humankind.
The discovery of monkeys and apes in Africa and Southeast Asia presented a special challenge. Where should these humanlike animals be placed? After much consideration, apes, monkeys, and humans were given a shared classification in an order of mammals, the primates. Monkeys and apes were separated into different divisions (superfamilies); apes and humans shared Hominoidea, while monkeys were placed in the superfamily Cercopithecoidea (Figure 1-1). Though recognizing similarities between humans and apes, Linnaeus ignored the evolutionary implications of his classifications throughout several editions of his work and continued to maintain that species were fixed in number. However, overwhelmed by the increasing evidence of nature’s diversity, he gradually altered his position and allowed that certain varieties were unstable—a conclusion that suggested change over time. Today, of course, biologists no longer consider special creation or the fixity of species but instead consider the fossil record and the natural diversity of biological organisms as evidence of evolutionary change that contributes to the formation of new species or to species extinction. Not onl...