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The Biology of Race

OrganizedKhaos's picture

Race has been a controversial issue for many years. It is defined as a group of people related by common descent or heredity. All over the country people have been categorized into specific groups (1). What these groups are based off is what leads to the two views about race. On one hand, that race is a social idea created to classify individuals and on the other, that race has some sort of biological reasoning behind it. The concept of race first surfaced during the Eugenicists Movements (2). The Eugenics strived for a healthier and more intelligent people by using intervention to improve human hereditary traits. Such interventions included sterilization. Although they may have seen a small amount of biological evidence to back up their reasoning these philosophies were taken by the Nazi Regime and used as a pretext for racial discrimination and a social classification system.

When race is looked at on the biological side the evidence suggests that race be approached as being synonymous with the term subspecies. Subspecies is considered to be a group that is a division of a species which usually occurs because of geographical isolation. Because of isolation certain scientists believe that the human species has acquired a variety of populations of humans that bear unlike genetic traits. These traits are different because of the geographic isolation throughout natural history. Certain scientists adopt the idea of geographical isolation because different races originated in separate isolated regions of the earth. And the blends of these races originate within the junction. One piece of evidence used to support this idea is that of melanin.

Melanin is what creates the different skin colors (3). Skin pigmentation is determined by the amount of melanin present in one’s skin. Simply stated, the more melanin the darker the skin. All races of the human species have this characteristic, excluding albinos. The scientists compared the people living in sub-tropic regions to those living in European regions. The first group examined had darker skin because the people were exposed to the sun for longer periods of time and tree cover was scarce. Thus, these people living in sub-tropic regions develop extremely dark pigmentation. This is a story they use to explain the biology behind race. That through natural selection and evolution different subspecies or races developed a variation which allows them to be broken up into different groups with similar traits.

What makes the idea of race not biological and much more social is that there are no genetic variations within the human species to justify the division of “races.” Skin color only addresses outward appearance and does not focus on the DNA of an individual. Their belief implies that all these subspecies have different genetic codes when in fact the genetic makeup between individuals in different racial categories varies by only 6%, meanwhile, individuals within the same categories may have even more dissimilarities. An experiment was done by a group of High School students where their mitochondrial DNA was taken and compared to a large database of mitochondrial DNA worldwide. The students classified themselves based on previous misconceptions on race. An African-American girl believed that she would have less variation when compared to another African-American. Also, a boy who knew his heritage believed that he would be linked as a descendant of a European region. When the results appeared the African American girl and boy had more variations in their mitochondrial DNA than did the self-proclaimed European descendant and the African-American girl. The young gentleman who believed he would be linked to a European had less variation when compared to a native tribe in Africa.

The fact that after comparing the DNA of these students there seemed to be no genetic connection between those who would have been placed into the same racial group supports the story that race is not a biological subspecies and realistically more of a social concept created to classify certain groups of peoples based on outward appearance. Skin color is associated with an outward appearance and is simply too small of a piece of evidence to be provided as a support for such an idea. It is a less wrong story to draw a conclusion from. Since the genetic makeup between individuals in different racial groups only varies by 6% and often times more variations are found within the same group it is safe to assume that race has no biology behind it and is a made up concept which society created for social reasons.








Paul Grobstein's picture

race, biology, and culture

There is no question but that "race" has a cultural component to it, nor that it is a concept that has been used in the past to oppress groups of people. And a good summary of observations includes as well that there is relatively little genetic variation among humans (relative to ?) and that groups of people with partiular "racial" characteristics may have greater genetic variation among themselves than there is in comparing them to other "racial" groups. At the same time, observations also say pretty clearly that some "racial" characteristics (eg skin color) have a genetic component, that human groups that are relatively isolated from one another acquire differences in the frequencies of genes, and that variations in the frequency of at least some genes are related to ancestral origins. Given all the observations, can we come up with a story alternative to both to that of the eugenicists and the one that says "race has no biology behind it ... a made up concept which society created for social reasons"? Are there reasons why one might one to try?
Serendip Visitor's picture

I found your reply vague and

I found your reply vague and your writing style over complicated. Are there some words missing? I conclude I have no idea what you just wrote. Do you think you could write that again in layman's terms?