Is Race Real?

Two books; two smart, well-educated writers; two entirely different opinions on race.

Nicholas Wade is a former science writer for the New York Times. He released his latest book last year called A Troublesome Inheritance, and it deals with genetics, evolution, and how humans and societies have been shaped by these factors.

He thinks race is a measurable and a legitimate distinction.

Then we have Robert Sussman, Anthropologist at Washington University, St. Louis, whose book The Myth of Race: The Troublesome Persistence of An Unscientific Idea was also released last year. Sussman argues against the idea of race, stating it as purely an invented construct.

(And there are many such books one could choose to exemplify this rift in academic thought. I simply selected these two.)

So how can two academics come to such opposing views on an issue? Well, the idea of race is complicated, and the perspective from which one examines the topic will determine whether they find the idea valid.

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On one hand, aren’t there obvious differences between groups of people?

Congolese
Swede
Chinese

No one argues this, but on the other hand–where do we draw the lines? While the men above all appear quite different, there are populations living in places that straddle major geographic zones, and thus, such people appear not uniquely Caucasian, Black, or East Asian. Where do they belong in this categorization?

Uighur man, far western China

One analogy is color. All colors are on the same continuum, as are all humans. We recognize punctuations along the gradient as “red” and “blue” and so forth, but where does red end and orange begin? And are groups of humans as punctuated as colors?

Up to the turn of the millennium, and dismissing the opinions of those with bigotry as their motivation, this has been a debate in academic and scientific circles. And it has been as much a matter of a person’s categorical preference as it has been a matter of fact. (How many colors are there really?) Psychological tests and other secondhand results had offered implied distinctions between groups, but there was no hard science on which to rely. So there was a lot of room for debate.

Today, we have genetic testing. Hard science. Today, one would think, then, that we could solve the mystery. Indeed, both sides of the argument claim that genetic testing has done so in their favor.

How can this be? We can see the amount of any actual genetic divisions between people and groups of people. So how can there still be a debate?

There can because there are differences, but they are so small that people with the propensity to dismiss race can maintain their argument. And those who say race is measurable can point to those tiny differences. It yet comes down to how/if you deem it important to categorize the species.

Specifically, there are subtle differences that cluster the major human groups–notably Black, Caucasian, and East Asian. Of course there are other groups as well–Native Americans, Australian Aborigines–and depending on how fine you tune the measurements will determine how many categories you come up with. For instance, Indians become identified as the sixth “race” if you care to continue homing in on the data.

This lack of preciseness is what detractors of the idea of race point to as evidence that race doesn’t really exist–along with the truth that the differences between the supposed races are tiny. And they’re right. But does that mean such differences are meaningless?

A common misconception is that because humans are over 99.9% genetically identical, that to argue for distinction is silly. But humans and chimps are 96% identical, and the differences there are vast. Humans are also 88% identical to mice.

It doesn’t take much. But is there enough to categorize, and what’s the point anyway?

Where/how/whether you decide to draw lines isn’t going to change the genetic reality. But it is important, because the race debate tends to be a proxy for the argument of whether biologically-significant distinctions between populations exist–whether we call these groups “races” or not. And such distinctions can reveal useful information about a people’s medical needs, behavior, development; and can offer insight into a slew of questions regarding history, societies, and evolution.

Additionally, at stake with either side of the debate lay important moral and scientific aspects. Those who favor a distinction of race run the risk of putting walls between groups of people where none belong, and they risk perpetuating a mentality that can lead to stereotypes and a limited outlook of that which humans are capable. Those who don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of race tend to dismiss biological differences between populations for fear of dividing humans. This dismissal can prevent progress in the pursuit of knowing what makes a human, human. And this can lead to stunted efforts to understand, and thus, benefit all the peoples of the world.

The race/biological differences debate continues strong because of compelling data on either side. Look at the world and one can see obvious differences between populations in all manner of ways. But these differences lie both between supposed races, which supports the idea; but also between groups and individuals within a race, which undercuts the idea. Environment and biology interact in complicated and varied fashions, which allow any population to rise or fall–sometimes in sharp contrast to even their genetic and geographic neighbors. What’s probably happening with the authors above is that both men see the same data but acknowledge the elements (or even see the same elements in such a way) that supports their position.

I think the important thing to remember is to not get caught up in the semantics. Getting attached or resenting a particular term can sway the reality of what the numbers show. Humans are who they are–a result of individual and group choice dependent on genetic and environmental influence, regardless of whether/how science categorizes them. We ought not let our particular leanings blind us from the data and the truth for what it is.

What say you?