Recently, some scientists have advocated the elimination of race from scientific studies altogether. They argue that it is not a useful category for the study of human subjects. Others argue just as strongly that it is. It will be helpful to first examine the historical development of the concept of race before examining the usefulness of race in scientific investigations.
Race is a relatively new concept. Ancient civilizations, though they encountered and included people from many different parts of the world, did not make social distinctions based on physical appearance. They distinguished people according to customs and religion; not race. Acclaimed classicist Frank M. Snowden writes:
Some might argue that the ancient wars were, for the most part, waged over racial differences. They were, however, probably fought for different reasons. After conducting a historical survey of these conflicts, Lord Bryce concludes:
Where did it come from? I will attempt to answer this question as it applies to Blacks and the English in America because great social disparities between these two groups have been created solely on the basis of race. Few other groups could illustrate the point as clearly.
From at least the twelfth century AD, the English have been deeply embroiled in a struggle to dominate Ireland. Even in the modern period, they have unsuccessfully tried to eradicate Irish culture so that Ireland would be completely under their control. This conflict continues even today.The struggle became so embittered and lasted so long that the English came to regard Irishmen as "savages": wild, untamable men who were completely lacking in any sense of social order. The following description of the Irish ordered by Henry II should illustrate the contempt involved:
Another component of racism came from Spanish culture. After the Reconquest, the racially diverse population of Spain instituted an extreme form of religious persecution known as the Inquisition. During the Inquisition, not only were people's habits scrutinized for Jewish or Moorish taint, but also their genealogies were examined. "A major contribution to Western thought was the belief engendered by the Inquisition in the hereditary nature of social status" (Smedley 66). The cultural exchange between England and Spain during the early centuries of colonization and exploration brought this notion to the English people.
When the English encountered the Native Americans, they quickly associated these people and their strange ways of living with the Irish savagery with which they were already familiar. Thus, the English came to regard themselves as superior to a wide variety of other cultures.
When African slaves were imported in the 1630's, the English, most of whom had never encountered dark-skinned people before this period, quickly reduced the status of these people to a sub-human level. Their new-found tendency to associate foreigners with heritable inferiority was used to create a permanent underclass of slaves from Africa to provide an economic base for their labor-intensive colonialism. "The rights of the Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans" (Morgan 24). The idea of the concept of race being invented to serve a certain purpose is not as far-fetched as it may sound, as evidenced by the words of Adolf Hitler:
Buffon classified humanity into six races. It was he who, in 1745, introduced the term "race" into natural history. Montagu says, "Buffon acknowledged the artificiality of his classification, and warned against it being taken too seriously. But the warning went unheeded" (20). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Johann Blumembach divided humankind into the five categories--Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay--that would dominate the educated community thereafter and are still in use today. Though he and others recognized the arbitrariness of such classifications, they still conveyed a sense of permanence and absolute dissimilarity among racial groups that was fostered by the racist attitudes of the time.
Despite the perhaps less rigid views of these early scientists, people began to think in terms of "primary races" (Haller 162) whose ideal forms were immutable and fundamentally different. This conception of racial differences was attractive to racists and continued for quite a long time, as evidenced by an article published in 1926 that reads:
The idea of evolution had little impact on the idea of race. Even Linnaeus had purported that racial differences were due primarily to the effects of the environment on a given population. The original creators of the races did not themselves believe in the fixity of races; only in the fixity of species.
The discovery of Mendelian genetics and the resulting growth in knowledge about population genetics finally led to a reexamination of popular ideas of race. With a few notable exceptions, the popular idea of pure races went unchallenged until about 1936, when articles began to appear expressing the belief that "the ideal types of anthropological classification, if they ever existed at all in any degree of purity, have become a matter of faith rather than of evidence" ("Delusion" 636). These challenges sparked a debate over the very existence of race that continues to this day.
In light of tremendous intra-racial variations that have been observed and the elucidation of population genetics, modern defenders of the race concept have abandoned absolutes in defining races. A modern definition of race would probably be something like "`a population which differs significantly from other human populations in regard to the frequency of one or more of the genes it possesses'" (Boyd 25). This new kind of definition seemingly answered most of the problems raised by the early opponents of conventional conceptions of race, but now scientists are pointing out problems with even this new definition.
Professor Geoffrey A. Harrison of Oxford University says, "It is extraordinarily difficult to identify precisely discrete populations; in most situations they don't exist. Also, any two populations of the human species one defines will differ in gene frequency, so there would be as many races as populations" (Davis 17). Another problem is that "people who are grouped together on the basis of one or two genetic traits would have to be grouped very differently for other traits" (Smedley 288). The genetic frequencies of different genes do not correspond in any definable way, and this fact "fails to confirm the expected large differences between populations that have conventionally been identified as distinct races" (Smedley 288).
Traditional racial categories do not have an origin in science, but in opinion.
Is it appropriate to use such arbitrary distinctions as race in scientific, and especially medical, studies? Many would argue yes, "The collection of race and ethnic information is a critical component of any public health surveillance system used to address differences in health status among population subgroups" (Hahn 7). We should realize, however, that the nature of these differences is almost always social rather than biological. Although widely shared in our society, the belief that races are human populations that differ from each other primarily in terms of genetics is without scientific basis. There is more genetic variation within races than among them, and racial categories do not capture biological distinctiveness (Williams 27). There is no objective reason to break up the human species the way we do. Almost any other division would be just as viable, perhaps more so. "Racial taxonomies are arbitrary, and race is more of a social category than a biological one" (Williams 27).
The way races are divided is not generally helpful in determining risk factors for disease because race is primarily a social construct. We focus on differences in skin color, not because the genes linked to skin color have been shown to be critical determinants of disease patterns, but because in our society skin color (race), is a centrally determining characteristic of social identity and obligations (Williams 28). Using race in medical studies is perfectly justified, but we should remember that the significance of race lies almost entirely in a social context. Any attempt to correlate purely biological characteristics with racial identity could be dangerously misleading and should be avoided, especially in light of the misuses of perceived racial differences in the past and even into the present.
Boyd, William C. "Genetics and the Races of Man." Readings on Race. Ed. Stanley M. Garn. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas 1968. 17-27.
Bryce, Viscount. Race Sentiment as a Factor in History; a Lecture Delivered before the University of London on February 22, 1915.
Coon, Carleton S. The Living Races of Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1970.
Curtis, L. P., Jr. Anglo-Saxons and Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England. Bridgeport, CT: Conference on British Studies at the University of Bridgeport 1968.
Eds. Bernard D. Davis and Patricia Flaherty. Human Diversity: Its Causes and Social Significance. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Co. 1976.
"The Delusion of Race." Nature. April 1936.
Garn, Stanley M. and Carleton S. Coon. "On the Number of Races of Mankind." Readings on Race. Ed. Stanley M. Garn. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas 1968. 9-16.
Goodman, Alan H. "Bred in the Bone?" The Sciences. March/April 1997. 20-25.
Hahn, Robert A. and Donna F. Stroup. "Race and Ethnicity in Public Health Surveillance: Criteria for the Scientific Use of Social Categories." Public Health Reports. 109, no. 1 (January/February 1994): 7-14.
Haller, John S., Jr. Outcasts From Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859-1900. Chicago: U of Illinois P 1971.
King, James C. The Biology of Race. Los Angeles: U of California P 1981.
Montagu, M. F. Ashley. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. New York: Columbia UP 1942.
Morgan, Edmund S. "Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox." The Journal of American History. 59, no. 1 (1979): 5-29.
Osborn, Henry Fairfield. "The Evolution of Human Races." Natural History. January/February 1926.
Puzzo, Dante. "Racism and the Western Tradition." Journal of the History of Ideas. 25, no. 4 (1964): 579-586.
Rauschning, Hermann. The Voice of Destruction. New York: G. P. Putnam's 1940.
Sauer, Norman J. "Applied Anthropology and the Concept of Race: A Legacy of Linnaeus" Race, Ethnicity, and Applied Bioanthropology. Ed. Claire C. Gordon. Arlington, VA: National Association for the Practice of Anthropology 1993.
Shanklin, Eugenia. Anthropology and Race. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company 1994.
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