On Race

Is there really such a thing as race? Can we group humans into races based on characteristics determined and supported by scientific evidence? If so, how would such characteristics be determined? Would they be based on biological traits? Or would they be socially determined based on cultural/ ethnical/ historical characteristics? After all, is the question of race a question of biology or is it a question of culture?

The genetic aspect of the question is for me the most interesting one. There is little point arguing the existence of social divisions (ethnic, religious etc) in the real world. Sadly such divisions are both present and strong. The real question is if such divisions can be founded upon and backed by rational / scientific data.

Keeping that in mind and returning to the original question, there seem to be three approaches to answer the question of race from the point of view of human biology. These can be summarised as follows:

Group A. The “common sense” racist: “Yes of course there are human races Just look around you”.

Group B. The race sceptic: “No, definitely not. Race is a social construct which cannot be supported scientifically. Not only we all share a common ancestry that make the whole notion of race absurd but also (and most importantly) the true genetic variations among groups are insignificant when compared to variations encountered among individuals.

Group C. The middle grounder: “Yes, probably there is such a thing as race but I don’t think it means what you think it means. Categorisation of humans into groups using genetic characteristics is possible but the resulting groups are hardly what you would expect them to be” (spoiler alert: they are nothing like the socially perceived races).

Each of the above begs for further analysis, so let’s start with the least interesting which happens to be also the most popular.

A. “Common Sense” racism

Questioning the very existence of human races might initially sound pedantic (and even ideology driven). Race is a reality of everyday social interaction and thus in par with “common sense”. Standing in a multicultural group we are able to easily identify Africans as opposed to Caucasians as opposed to Asians. With a trained eye we might be able to successfully identifying people from Northern Europe as opposed to Southern Europe, Mongolians as opposed to Singaporeans or Nigerians as opposed to Ethiopians etc. Race seems to be a matter of identifying a set of prevailing physical characteristics which are predominant in certain groups within the limits of statistical significance. To put it simply, if a small child can reliably tell the difference between a Nigerian and a Swede, there must be a significant differentiation between the two. Most people choose to call this differentiation “race”. Race realists argue in favour of race based on such undeniable existence of common physical characteristic in racial groups. From this perspective the race question seems clear cut, hardly a question at all.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with such an absolute definition of race. To understand this let’s use a simple example. Let’s assume there are a green and a blue race. Race realists advocate segregation between the two that looks like this:


In reality however, the genetic diversification between populations is vast and multi-parametric. A gradual transition between the populations is a more realistic representation. Therefore a subtly more accurate way to depict the segregation would be the following:


Most race realists will not feel challenged by this image. The middle fusion ground (i.e. the politically-correct way to say “bastard”) is no argument against “pure” race. As long as we can tell green from blue, both green and blue exist irrespective of the middle ground where segregation becomes hazy. Blue and Green supremacists can still live at their extremities of the spectrum, happily advocating their superiority and casually hating each other.

B. Race scepticism

Race sceptics find several problems with this approach and argue that the blue / green race model is a gross oversimplification. The first problem is the very method of selecting racial criteria. Although such criteria might initially seem self evident (e.g. skin colour), upon putting such criteria under the scrutiny of reason it becomes evident that they are more arbitrary / socially acquired rather than purely rational. Thus:

  1. Problem no1: The arbitrary choice of racial segregation criteria

The most obvious example is our tendency to segregate people based on skin colour. Skin-wise a Nigerian is different from a Sicilian and from a Swede, the latter two appearing to be members of the white race while the former being a member of the black race. But if our brain was tuned otherwise we might choose to segregate people differently. For example if we replace skin colour with eye-colour then the Sicilian suddenly belongs on the same “race” as the Nigerian (both being dark eyed) while the blue-eyed Scandinavian belongs to another race.

The obvious counter argument here is that here that race is not determined by a single biological characteristic but a collection of such characteristics which “appear” to be more common among racial groups. E.g. Nigerians differ from Sicilians not only in skin colour but also in hair type, facial characteristics, average height etc.

This is a valid observation but still it is not hard to see that a carefully selected set of valid yet counter-intuitive biological characteristics could create unexpected “races”. What if for example our races were defined by criteria like kindey size, resistance to malaria and pulley tendon tensile strength? That might yield some weird racial segregations…

This leads us to the second argument of race sceptics which is:

2. The monoparametric nature of racial segregation criteria

This can be outlined as follows. What segregates green from blue in our little analogy is a single parameter. This is the wavelength of visible light. Unfortunately real people are a bit more complex than a monoparametric analogy. In order to compare people and classify them to races we have to study thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of parameters. Reality would look more like this:


In the picture above, trait (a) is discernibly different between the left person and the right person (this can be the skin colour of the Nigerian as opposed to the Sicilian). Trait b however shows far less differentiation (e.g. eye color). Trait 3 has also a wide range of variation, and so on. Each person is made by all these characteristics. Which ones would you chose and what borders would you establish between them? Overall how can you define a race when for each one of these diversification parameters exists in a spectrum of intensity instead of at binary level? More importantly if such differentiation difficulties surface when we compare two individuals how can we hope to classify the 7 billion inhabitants of our planet. Essentially, race sceptics argue, we cannot unless other -non biological- considerations come into play.

But race sceptics do not stop there. To make things even more complex -genetically speaking- most human characteristics have expansive middle grounds rather than polarized extremes. What appears to be a prevailing opinion among specialists is that the middle ground is way more expansive than laymen understand. So the color analogy would look more like this:


Race sceptics argue that there is so much genetic variation among human individuals that trying to group them in meaningful races with strict genetic criteria is an almost impossible task.

In other words

  1. we share so much common genetic material (and therefore attributes) due to our common ancestry and
  2. we are so diverse among a spectrum of gradual changes

that we simply cannot know where green ends and where blue begins. We can attempt any sort of arbitrary segregation of race based on social attributes (as we do all the time) but study of genetics of such populations can reveal bigger variation existing among two members of the blue race than among a member of the blue and a member of the green race.

In colour this would look like this


The arbitrary social segregation says that the two left figures belong to the green race while the blue one belongs to the blue race. But in reality there is more genetic variation between the two leftmost figures than between the central and the rightmost one.

C. Middle ground for racial variety

Now, depending on how passionate you are into advocating these positions you might end up as a Group C Race middle grounder instead of a race sceptic.  In effect, the two groups agree on the basis that social/ethic racism can enjoy little if any scientific backing from biology. Where they disagree is on the extent at which race sceptics deny the possibility of classifying humans into groups based on genetic characteristics.

Middle grounders argue that “People can be grouped in accordance to genetic traits but such division does not follow the common racial stereotypes advocated by racists or race realists. Science had always discerned genetic differences and categories populations into groups (i.e groups with common set of genetic characteristics) for purpose of studying distinct populations.

The only argument between Group B and C is how clear-cut our acceptance (or not) of population groupings can be. Sceptics say there can be no grouping whatsoever. AS previously stated their main idea is that variation at individual level is greater than any meaningful group variation. Middle grounders say that we still can group people into meaningful groups that have nothing to do with borders, religion or discrimination.

Thoughts on the implications of the race question

I cannot claim that my understanding of genetics is anywhere near that level that would allow me to stand confidently behind group B or C. So I choose to simply lean towards the expert consensus agreeing that the traditional notion of race (in terms of blacks, whites, Asians etc ) is -genetically speaking- obsolete. The discussion now mainly focuses on the question of whether other types of genetic segregation are possible at all.

Instead of weighting on this difficult task it might be more interesting to ponder about the implications of the answers.  To appreciate this we need to think out of the emotionally supercharged area of colonial racism. Instead of speaking of black and white and Asian people we might instead speak of groups carrying an imaginary genetic trait X as opposed to genetic trait Y. Let’s assume trait X corresponds to increased mental capabilities while trait Y to better physical skills. As already discussed we don’t even know for sure if such traits can be identified. But the real question is: if they could be identified, should science proceed to verify such differentiations?

I wonder if the justifiable anxiety regarding the social implication of racial segregation has an influence on Race Sceptics’s thinking and if yes to what extent. If we accept racial differences then we accept a scientific backing of human segregation. But if we accept humans can be classified in different groups, such groups could potentially have different capabilities. Recognition of different capabilities (i.e. different potential) will almost invariable lead towards discrimination in the long term.

This fear exists in the core of the question of racism. The question here is:  Is racism the act of acknowledging and affirming the differences among groups or is it claiming that different treatment shall rise as the result of such categorisations? If the first (affirmation of the differences) is scientifically acknowledged how can we guarantee that the terrible second (discrimination) won’t eventually follow? Can science exist in a vacuum blind to its social implications? What if science could prove that there is differentiation between human groups in mental or physical capacity? Would our ethics be capable of constraining the upcoming consequences? Can we deal with these questions in purely scientific terms? Can science pretend to be a neutral truth seeker impervious to the implications of its actions? If the world is not morally ready for differentiation, should we actively seek polarizing truths nevertheless? Or should we just let ethics decide such questions?


Essential Reference: The starting point for the above thoughts (as well as the featured image) has been this great article and the massively interesting discussion that followed it in the comments.


2 thoughts on “On Race

  1. Actually (regarding what you mention in point A.), I seem to recall social experiments where children were shown multi-race families and had difficutly telling that anything was different compared to, say, a fully black (or white, or asian) family. That’s not to say that the (physical) differences may not be there but they may be less discernible when devoid of their social implications which children may not be aware of.

    My, hardly scientific and largely anecdotal, contribution.


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