The meaninglessness of “race”

It occurs to me, that if one were to grant ‘race’ status to all the genetic differences that pass down through generations within given populations, expressing themselves in physical differences, we would have a multitude of ‘races,’ maybe hundreds; maybe even thousands. Pygmies, Bush People, Zulus, Swahili – these are all so phenotypically different, that we must reject any notion that there is a ‘race’ we can call “Negroid.” Similarly with the Irish, the Swedish, Hungarians, Southern and Northern Italians – etc., and the out-dated classification “Caucasian.” (And I admit I have enough Irish in me – part Pict, part Celt, part Moor, part Norse – that I would hate to be classified with the British! Up the Republic!)

The effort to define ‘races’ biologically is really an effort to find some meaningful way to categorize according to skin color. And you can’t get there from here.

I also wonder about the willingness to argue for what is neither scientifically supported nor anymore ethically acceptable. If we’re talking about a political ‘mess,’ well, politics is messy, especially given long established traditions and biases. But if we’re talking about a possible scientific “mess,” the whole notion of biological-realism ‘race’ seems to be about as messy – and as a-historical – as one could get.

If the word “race,” applied to those of differing genetic and ethnic backgrounds, is in anyway ambiguous and open to differing interpretations (if it is in anyway vague and unspecific) as is obvious, as really anyone with a decent education must admit – then of course the supposed categorization “race” can have no scientific value whatsoever.

Noteably, it appears that the only scientists continuing to use it in a meaningful way are those with open social agendas, such as ‘bio-criminologists,’ who hope that certain behaviors can be tagged to certain populations for better monitoring and therapeutic interventions. The problem is, these social agendas engender as many political problems as they seek to resolve. (‘So, ok, what do we do with these black people, anyway’ – I dunno; maybe treat them like human beings, providing education and jobs, perhaps? And it might help to keep white cops shooting them outright because they look different.)
Let’s face it:  ‘Race’ is an anachronism, a word and an understanding entirely social, with no scientific basis whatsoever. Mere excuse for political, economic, social and cultural biases – used to control the population drift in voting blocks, labor, intermarriage, and cultural enjoyment. Scientifically speaking, it is pure fiction – the remnant of fairy tales that we should have stop telling at least a century ago.

There is nothing scientific about it; it is pure pablum for immature minds unwilling to live in the present of our multi-cultural post-modern world.

Let’s view this matter in an historical perspective.

Historically, the term ‘stars’ once referred to any object seen in the night sky.

The term ‘star’ was made scientifically useful only by re-definition, exclusively encompassing those objects that could be interpreted as suns within given planetary systems.

The question then is whether ‘race’ can also be salvaged by redefinition. The answer would appear, no; because it carries far too much weight politically, socially, culturally, historically, none which can be adequately stripped from it.

One reason I mentioned tribal and ‘national’ phenotype differences, is because in the past, and in some regions still today, these have been taken as establishing “racial” identities – which has led (and still leads, in some places) to useless wars and genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Why hold on to a term that has been used for highly questionable purposes, when it lacks the precision needed to be useful in biologic categorization?

Those desperate to cling to ‘racial’ differences between us will seek out the slightest nuance, in genetics, in biological texts – in reports in popular media. Anything that will re-affirm their own preposterous sense of superiority.

I’m reminded here of the earnest young person, studying a billboard seen for the first time, insisting, ‘there must be some reason that things go better with Coke.’ Yeah, it’s called a sales pitch.

But here’s the biological fact of the matter: If I have a (non-contraceptively-inhibited) sexual encounter with a a member of the opposite sex of any supposed ‘race’ – black, yellow, ‘Chinese,’ Australian Aboriginal – a child will be produced. That’s because our genes are fundamentally the same, the differences being superficially phenotypically different. Because we belong to the same species.

Some will here interject discussion of ‘breeds’ as we see in other animals, but here’s the problem – ‘breeds’ are the result of externally controlled reproduction. But humans procreate uncontrollably – really, if he/she has two legs, we’ll copulate. And that difference makes all the difference. There is no external, internal, or genetic means of tracking the reproductive history of any particular human lineage. Thus, while the phenotypical differences are obvious, there is no grounding genotypical difference between the ‘races’ – the ethnically different from different locales.*

The phenotypical differences generate the beautiful kaleidoscope of human experience. But they don’t make us fundamentally different – on the contrary, they assure us that we are fundamentally the same. They could not have arisen were we in any way genetically different as racists want of us.
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* Just by the way, it should be note that mixed heritage off-spring (so-called ‘mongrels’) of controlled breeding produce young hardier and more likely to survive than their pure bred parents – almost inevitably (apparently inheriting the most adaptive genes from both parental lineages). Can we not learn from this? Genetic purity is a fundamental flaw in the scheme of evolution. The greater the difference, the greater chance for survival.

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3 thoughts on “The meaninglessness of “race”

  1. Hi EJ. If you look at papers such as:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20733501
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26566401
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23726366
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24016508
    you’ll see that self-reported or observer-reported race predicts risk of numerous health conditions, is correlated strongly with continental level genetic ancestry, and that in some cases disease association is due to genetic ancestry, and in other cases to social/cultural factors. Even where the same gene is involved in aetiology in different ethnic groups, the alleles differ. Which is to say, not completely meaningless.

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    • No one denies the usefulness of certain genetic groupings, especially in tracking dispositions to certain health conditions. That doesn’t justify blocking off the species into well-defined ‘races,’ that more get ever more difficult to define as the process of population intermingling and inter-mating goes on.

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  2. Except that the races in this case are the “usual” races, and are well defined genetically. In an admixture mapping, we actually estimate the proportions of racial ancestry for each person. Measuring such ethnic differences is an essential step in gene mapping studies because we need to remove the confounding of cultural differences between ethnicities with genetic differences. Obviously, the next step in the argument is to ask how health conditions differ from other phenotypes human geneticists study.

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