Biology 103
2000 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Race: Social Concept, Biological Idea

Gloria Ramon

Race, in the common understanding, draws upon differences not only of skin color and physical attributes but also of language, nationality, and religion. Race categories are often used as ethnic intensifiers, with the aim of justifying the exploitation of one group by another. Race is an idea that has become so fixed in American society that there is no room for open-mindedness when challenging the idea of racial categories. Over the years there has been a drastic change with the way the term "race" is used by scientists. Essentially, there is a major difference between the biological and sociological views of race.

In 1758 a Swedish botanist named Carolus Linnaeus established the classification system still in use for various forms of life. He listed four categories that he labeled as "varieties" of the human species. To each he attributed inherited biological as well as learned cultural characteristics. He described Homo European as light-skinned, blond, and governed by laws; Homo American was copper-colored and was regulated by customs; Homo Asiatic was sooty and dark-eyed and governed by opinions; Homo African was black and indolent and governed by impulse. We can in retrospect recognize the ethnocentric assumptions involved in these descriptions, which imply a descending order of prestige. Most striking is the labeling of the four varieties as governed by laws, customs, opinions, and impulse, with Europeans on the top and Africans at the bottom. In fact, different populations within all four varieties would have had all four forms of behavior. (8).

In later years, many European scientists defined race by separating Homo Sapiens into three to six different groups. * Australoid: those from Australia, Melanesian islands * Caucasoid: Europe, North Africa, South west Asia * Mongoloid: East Asia, Siberia, the Americas * Negroid: Central and Southern Africa * Native Americans * Polynesians The scientific justification for these six groups was that members of these groups shared similar physical characteristics and originated in a particular region of the world. During the nineteenth century theories of race were advanced both by the scientific community and in the popular daily and periodical press. One idea that was taken into belief was racial standing based on skull size and features. The human skull was used as a way to justify the idea of races. The structure of the skull, especially the jaw formation and facial angles, revealed the position of various races on the evolutionary scale, and a debate raged on whether there had been one creation for all mankind or several. (1).

Biological anthropologists have intensively studied and described the biological variations that exist in the human species. Anthropologists agree that there are three major types of explanations for the variations within and between animal species. Natural selection, proposed by Charles Darwin, is the first explanation. It refers to how, in a particular habitat, variations in hereditary traits enable some members of a population to survive and have more offspring that inherit the favorable traits of the parents. (6).

A second explanation is called gene flow. The flow of genes occurs because people from one population mate with those in another. In the colonial history of the United States persons who had emigrated from Europe mated with enslaved Africans. After the Civil War people from these two populations were able to marry in some states, and informal mating continued in all states. Geneticists in the 1950s compared hemoglobin traits in African Americans, Europeans, and West Africans and concluded that as much as 30 percent of the measured traits in African Americans came from European mating. Today in the United States those people who identify themselves as black or African American range in skin color and other traits from light-skinned to dark-skinned. Various patterns of gene flow are to be found between peoples all around the world, adding to the complexities of race in world. . (5).

The third process "genetic drift" a phenomenon that occurs from one generation to another or when people move from one geographic area to another. By chance the next generation, or those who move, may differ from the parental population in some genetic characteristics. It has no connection with natural selection or mating preferences. It has already been demonstrated how adaptive traits such as skin color and sickle cell vary in a pattern that do not support identification of distinct races. (5).

Beginning in the 1940's, scientists began to realize that the racial map of human beings did not match what they were learning of human genes. Scientists due agree with the idea that people look different, mainly because of the varied environments in which they and their ancestors live. They have physically changed as environmental conditions warranted. Take skin color, as an example. It is essentially an adaptation to the amount of sun received. People from regions with lots of direct overhead sunlight (the tropics) tend to have darker skin than people from cloudy or oblique sunlight regions (northern temperate zones). Since melanin protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet radiation, people with more melanin in tropical areas tended to live longer, and produce more children, than people who were melanin deficient. Sunlight also stimulates vitamin D production. People from northern Europe and Asia who had little or no melanin were able to absorb more of the little sunlight there was, which enabled them to produce more vitamin D. (7)

Vast new data in human biology have completely revamped the traditional notions of race. Race is a biological term that describes the DNA structure of an individual as a fixed attribute that cannot be changed. This idea is used in biology to discuss how different peoples adapt to environments and hence, making the term "race" have no scientific basis. Today most scientists reject the concept of race as a valid way of defining human beings. Researchers no longer believe that races are distinct biological categories created by differences in genes that people inherit from their ancestors. Genes vary, but not in the popular notion of black, white, yellow, red and brown races. Many biologist and anthropologists have concluded that race is a social, cultural and political concept based largely on superficial appearances. (4)

In the past, races were identified by the imposition of discrete boundaries upon continuous and often discordant biological variation. The concept of race is therefore a historical construct and not one that provides either valid classification or an explanatory process. Popular everyday awareness of race is transmitted from generation to generation through cultural learning. Attributing race to an individual or a population amounts to applying a social and cultural label that lacks scientific consensus and supporting data. While anthropologists continue to study how and why humans vary biologically, it is apparent that human populations differ from one another much less than do populations in other species because we use our cultural, rather than our physical differences to aid us in adapting to various environments.

WWW Sources

1)One Drop of Blood

2)Scientific Racism

3)Social Biology Today

4)The Medicalization of Race: Scientific Legitimization of a Flawed Social Construct

5)Race, Evolutionary Biology and the Kingdom of Heaven

6)Race: Is It a Valid Issue?

7)When Racial Categories Make No Sense


[an error occurred while processing this directive]