Race and Human Diversity
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Race and Human Diversity

A Biocultural Approach

Robert L. Anemone

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Race and Human Diversity

A Biocultural Approach

Robert L. Anemone

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Race and Human Diversity

is an introduction to the study of human diversity in both its biological and cultural dimensions. Robert L. Anemone examines the biological basis of human difference and how humans have biologically and culturally adapted to life in different environments. The book discusses the history of the race concept, evolutionary theory, human genetics, and the connections between racial classifications and racism. It invites students to question the existence of race as biology, but to recognizerace as a social construction with significant implications for the lived experience of individuals and populations.

This second edition has been thoroughly revised, with new material on human genetic diversity, developmental plasticity and epigenetics. There is additional coverage of the history of eugenics; race in US history, citizenship and migration; affirmative action; and white privilege and the burden of race. Fully accessible for undergraduate students with no prior knowledge of genetics or statistics, this is a key text for any student taking an introductory class on race or human diversity.

Chapter9 of this book is freely available as a downloadable Open Access PDF at http://www.taylorfrancis.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND) 4.0 license.

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Race and biological diversity in humans

Do human races exist?

Since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, anthropology has been concerned – some might say obsessed – with the study of human racial variation. One could also say that race has been an American concern for an even longer period of time, perhaps dating back to August 1619, when the first shipload of 20 African slaves arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, a year before the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock (Figure 1.1).1 Yet in spite of this long-standing interest, there is no consensus among modern anthropologists on some basic questions about race in humans, including whether race even exists. What are human races, and how should they be defined? How many races are there today? Should anthropologists even name races and attempt to classify individuals into racial categories? What is the connection between the existence of racial classifications and the ugly fact of racism? These are still important questions for anthropologists today.
Figure 1.1 A poster advertising a slave auction held May 18, 1829 in the British Atlantic Colony of St. Helena.
Figure 1.1 A poster advertising a slave auction held May 18, 1829 in the British Atlantic Colony of St. Helena.
Source: Public domain.
Over the past century, anthropologists have published hundreds of books and articles, in which they have offered differing definitions of the concept of biological race and proposed a wide variety of racial classifications of humans. These classifications have been based on many different anatomical traits, ranging from skin color to blood group genetics, and as a result, they have varied tremendously in their details. A brief examination of three important anthropological works published shortly after World War II highlights the wide range of opinion concerning the meaning of the race concept that was a hallmark of anthropological inquiry for much of the twentieth century. In two popular texts published in 1950, we find strong support for the validity of biological race but equally strong differences of opinion on the number of races that exist among humans and the specific traits that should be used to define races. Carlton Coon and colleagues focused on the fact that members of a race resemble each other and differ from members of other races in physical features and defined a race as “a somatically unique population or collection of identical populations.” They listed 30 different living races and combined these into six larger units they called “racial stocks”: Negroid, Mongoloid, White, Australoid, American Indian, and Polynesian. The races in this classification were defined on the basis of different sets of physical characteristics. For example, one of the two races of Australian aborigines, the Murrayian, was said to have a “stocky build, brown skin, abundant beard and body hair,” while the Hindu race was defined as “light-brown to dark-skinned Mediterranean, usually skinny in build.”2 By contrast, William Boyd3 defined race as “a population which differs significantly from other human populations in regard to the frequency of one or more of the genes it possesses” and then named five living races (and one “hypothetical” race!) based on the genetics of several common blood groups (e.g., ABO, MN, and Rh). For example, his African or Negroid race is characterized by a “tremendously high frequency of the gene Rh+, a moderate frequency of Rh−
 (and a) rather high incidence of gene B. Probably normal M and N.” In both texts, the authors recognize to some extent the arbitrariness of their race concepts, the existence of intermediate populations existing between their named races, and the fact that their races fade gradually one into another. Coon et al.4 explicitly admit this when they state that “the foregoing list of 30 ‘races’ might have been ten or 50: the line of discrimination in many cases is arbitrary.” Boyd5 states that his classification “corresponds well, omitting the inevitable intermediates, with geography,” but that “it must not be thought that the divisions between our genetic races will be absolutely sharp, any more than is the difference between races characterized by any other method.” By contrast, in a book published eight years earlier, Ashley Montagu6 argued that the notion of race among humans was completely unsupported by the biological facts and that racial classifications are arbitrary social or political instruments that pose a great danger to human existence. Claiming that race is a dangerous myth and a biological fallacy, Montagu asserted that all racial schemes are inherently racist and that the term “race” should be dropped from scientific and public discourse and replaced by “ethnic group.”
Today, the situation is not much different from 1950, with many anthropologists discounting the very existence of biological race among humans, while others continue to use the concept in their research and teaching.7 Among anthropologists who still support racial classifications, there is no agreement concerning the best traits to use in determining racial classifications or the number of races that should be recognized. Society as a whole seems utterly confused by the lack of agreement among biologists and anthropologists concerning race. In particular, people are puzzled when they hear anthropologists state that race does not exist. Aren’t the obvious differences between Nigerians and Swedes self-evident proof of the existence of race? What do anthropologists mean when they say that race is a social construction? Why is it that after all this study, we seem no closer to agreement on the nature and very existence of human races?
While admitting the existence of enormous amounts of biological variation among humans in a wide variety of physical traits (including but not limited to skin color), many anthropologists (among whom the author of this book counts himself) suggest that we should recognize and study human biological variation directly, not through the cloudy lens provided by racial classification. We seek to understand the evolutionary significance of biological variation in different human populations (e.g., in skin color, blood types, and body type) while downplaying or ignoring racial classifications. Other anthropologists continue to support the notion that biological differences between humans from different parts of the globe should be formalized in the naming of different races. They argue that racial variation is self-evident and sometimes accuse the opponents of biological race of being “politically correct” advocates of a social or political agenda while asserting that their own position on the reality of race is purely scientific and completely devoid of any political influences. Furthermore, they suggest that in certain fields, race is an important variable that can yield significant insights into the identification of human remains in criminal investigations or in understanding patterns of health and illness. Forensic anthropologists, who work closely with police to identify victims of crime, claim to be able to identify the racial identity of human skeletal remains with a high degree of confidence based on the existence of skeletal, dental, and especially cranial differences between modern races. Other anthropologists, as well as some biomedical scientists, argue that the study
of genetic differences can aid in understanding patterns of health and illness in different populations.
What are we to make of the inability of anthropologists to agree on something as fundamental as the number or even the existence of human races? In this book, we will explore the historical and present-day controversies concerning human biological diversity and race, using both the biological and the cultural perspectives provided by modern anthropology. This biocultural approach allows us to take a holistic view of human race, one that recognizes the importance of both biological and social or cultural dimensions of the race question. Whether or not race exists as a strongly supported dimension of human biology, we will see that, as a social marker or dividing line between individuals and groups and as a locus of societal inequality, race continues to be of the utmost importance in modern American society. WEB Du Bois8 recognized this fact 100 years ago when he identified the main problem facing the United States in the twentieth century as “the problem of the color line.” Forty years later, Gunnar Myrdal9 proclaimed race “an American dilemma.” Fifty years after Myrdal, Cornell West reaffirmed that even today Race Matters. In the Preface to the 2001 reissue of this powerful indictment of the racial situation in modern America, West admits that racial progress has been made but that “the legacy of white supremacy lingers,” and, echoing Du Bois, he suggests that “the problem of the twenty-first century remains the color line.”10

Race is a social construction

Many modern anthropologists agree in broad outline with the point of view articulated by Montagu 75 years ago, namely that classifying humans into racial groups on the basis of physical traits is bad and potentially dangerous biology. But the situation is complex because, echoing the sentiments of Du Bois, Mrydal, and West, we also recognize that race plays an important role in American societies in the cultural or social realm. Although race may be of little biological significance, being black or Hispanic in America is a significant social fact with respect to the lived experience of people of color, and as a result of this significance, it is a mistake for anthropologists to simply state that race does not exist. Furthermore, an enormous amount of scientific and social scientific research documents severe racial and ethnic disparities in contemporary American society with respect to health, wealth, housing, education, incarceration, and employment. Anthropologists who downplay the biological significance of race while ignoring its social significance in America do a disservice to our discipline.
Historians tell us that race is a creation of the human imagination, a “folk-concept” remaining from a pre-scientific era when Europeans first ventured beyond their shores and discovered a new world of human diversity.11 During the Age of Discovery, fifteenth-and sixteenth-century seafaring Europeans confronted a variety of different peoples who challenged their notions of what it meant to be human and created a racial narrative to explain their own perceived superiority to these dark-skinned peoples. We therefore understand race to be a social construction rather than a biological fact, a set of ideas about the meanings of human biological variation created by European people in the second half of the second millennium. Race as socially constructed in the West describes a particular understanding of the world’s peoples that is thoroughly imbued with longstanding notions of inherent inequality between “races,” notably white superiority and black inferiority. As a result, race continues to be a significant social issue for all Americans, but particularly so for people of color and all those who have been discriminated against in the past or the present. Racism still exists in American society, and issues such as affirmative action continue to divide us. Neighborhoods and schools in our cities and towns continue to be racially segregated, and crime, poverty, imprisonment, and even sickness and health reflect the persistent racial inequalities of life in America. Although the fight against racism has made great progress in America over the course of the twentieth century, the racial problems that remain are serious. It is therefore important for all Americans to seek to understand both the biological and social aspects of race and to form their own opinions based on the best knowledge provided by both natural and social science on this important topic. In this respect, anthropology, and in particular the biocultural approach within anthropology, can play an important role in increasing our understanding of race and our resistance to racism.

Race, ethnicity, and biogeographical ancestry

One difficulty encountered by people attempting to discuss race today is the confusion of different definitions and terminology used by scientists, anthropologists, journalists, and the public. For example, people often refer to the “Jewish race,” the “Hispanic race,” or the “Irish race,” as if somehow these different uses of the term race all refer to the same thing. Among anthropologists and biologists, however, race has historically been an idea about the geographic patterning of human biological variation. Essentially, it reflects the observation made by seafaring Europeans several hundred years ago that the inhabitants of the different continents were different with respect to certain physical traits, notably skin color. The term race is never used by modern anthropologists to refer to religious groups (e.g., the “Jewish race” or “Hindu race”), linguistic groups (e.g., the “Hispanic race”), or nationalities (e.g., the “Irish race” or “English race”). Religion, language, and nationality are important parts of human culture, but they have little to do with human biology and therefore should not be used in connection with the concept of race. Note that I am not minimizing the importance of, for example, being Anglo or Hispanic in Texas, or the importance of being Jewish or Muslim in Jerusalem, or of being Serbian or Bosnian in Sarajevo. These cultural markers play important roles in shaping identities and structuring lives, but culture does not reflect biological differences, and therefore cultural differences are not relevant to discussions of biological race.
In addition to the cultural variations that distinguish individuals and groups, there are also anatomical or morphological differences between people and populations that reflect underlying biological differences. Some morphological differences are visible to the naked eye, including skin, eye, hair, and body size and shape. Some other biological differences are just as real but are not as easily seen; these include blood type, fingerprint patterns, and disease susceptibilities. Considering all of these traits that differ among members of our species, there is no doubt that Homo sapiens is a species with considerable biological variation. Looking a little deeper, we can see that there is a geographic pattern to some aspects of this biological variation. People with dark skin color can be found in high frequencies in certain parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and certain islands in the Pacific, while people with very fair skin are more frequent in other parts of the globe (e.g., Scandinavia and northern Europe and Asia). This kind of geographically patterned biological variation is the traditional raw material of racial classifications. We can define race, then, as t...