Race: Is It a Valid Issue?
by Jonathan Morrow
Biological advancements such as Darwinism and Mendelian genetics had a profound impact on the study of race in the scientific community. These new concepts eventually led some scientists to question the validity of traditional notions about race. The resulting debates continue even today. The idea of race, especially in citizens of this country, evokes strong feelings because of the enormous social implications associated with racial identity. The social connotations of racial categories have had a profound influence on the way scientists understand human variation. Early ideas of race were colored by these connotations, and they still play a critical role in the way we understand race today. This paper will explore, with an emphasis on historical context, the current debates over whether to continue to inlude race in scientific, and especially medical, studies.
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:
- The Egyptians, whose contacts with Nubia dated back to the Old Kingdom, did not usually designate Kushites by color terms. Though the monarchs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty had their skin painted dark-brown in reliefs and their Nubian features clearly delineated by the sculptors, they mentioned neither thier own color nor that of the lighter-skinned Egyptians. Piye, for example, in his triumphal stele made no reference to color: he apparently did not regard himself as a champion of black peoples who had overturned their former white masters. Egyptians and Nubians had for centuries been accustomed to the gradations in skin color among the inhabitants of the Nile Valley and hence saw nothing unusual in the differences (73-74).
This absence of color-consciousness persisted in the Greco-Roman tradition, as well:
- nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world. This is the view of most scholars who have examined the evidence and who have come to conclusions such as these: the ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration in society; and ancient society was one that “for all its faults and failures never made color the basis for judging a man.” (Snowden 63)
Even in medieval times, there was no racial component to social structure. As Montagu states: “A study of the cultures and literatures of mankind, both ancient and recent, shows us that the conception of natural or biological races of mankind differing from one another mentally as well as physically, is an idea which was not born until the latter part of the eighteenth century” (10-11). Dante Puzzo, although he disagrees on the exact time of the appearance of race consciousness, agrees that it is a modern phenomenon: “Racism . . . is a modern conception, for prior to the sixteenth century there was virtually nothing in the life and thought of the West that can be described as racist” (579).
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:
- down till the days of the French Revolution there had been very little in any country, or at any time, of self-conscious racial feeling . . . however much men of different races may have striven with one another, it was seldom any sense of racial opposition that caused their strife. They fought for land. They plundered one another . . . But strong as patriotism and national feeling might be, they did not think of themselves in terms of ethnology, and in making war for every other sort of reason never made it for the sake of imposing their own type of civilization . . . In none of such cases did the thought of racial distinctions come to the front (25-26).
The distinction between nationalism and racism is an important one in these types of historical studies. The latter does not appear until relatively recently.
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:
- Wherefore this is a race of savages: I say again a race of utter savages. For not merely are they uncouth of garb, but they also let their hair and beards grow to outrageous length, something like the newfangled fashion which has lately come in with us. In short, all their ways are brutish and unseemly (Barnard’s 1910 translation of a twelfth-century text by Giraldus Cambrensis, quoted in Curtis 124).
This was purely cultural discrimination, but the intense nationalism it created served as a foundation for later racial discrimination.
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:
- The conception of the nation has become meaningless . . . “the nation” is a political expedient of democracy and liberalism. We have to . . . set in its place the conception of race. . . . The new order cannot be conceived in terms of the national boundaries of peoples of the historic past, but in terms of race that transcends those boundaries. . . . I know perfectly well . . . that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race . . . but I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis. . . . And for this purpose the conception of races serves me well. . . . With the conception of race, National Socialism will carry its revolution abroad and recast the world (quoted in Rauschning 231-232).
Modern, scientific racial classification began with Carolus Linnaeus in 1735, who classified humans into four races, based mostly on continental separation and, later, on skin color. His four groups were:
- Americanus: reddish, choleric, and erect; hair black, straight, thick; wide nostrils, scanty beard; obstinate, merry, free; paints himself with fine red lines; regulated by customs.
- Asiaticus: sallow, melancholy, stiff; hair black; dark eyes; severe, haughty, avaricious; covered with loose garments; ruled by opinions.
- Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; hair black, frizzled; skin silky; nose flat; lips tumid; women without shame, they lactate profusely; crafty, indolent, negligent; anoints himself with grease; governed by caprice.
- Europeaeus: white, sanguine, muscular; hair long, flowing; eyes blue; gentle, acute, inventive; covers himself with close vestments; governed by laws (Smedley 164).
He and others both before and after him used features that we would consider purely cultural today to define races. He held that these races were mutable varieties of man, not species, and that they reflected changes due to climate.
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:
- If an unbiased zoologist were to descend upon the earth from Mars and study the races of man with the same impartiality as the races of fishes, birds, and mammals, he would undoubtedly divide the existing races of man into several genera and into a very large number of species and subspecies (Osborn 129).
This man, more than a century after Blumenbach, saw races as being so fundamentally different as to warrant classification into different genera. This, surely, is an extreme example, but it demonstrates basic qualities of immutability and profound distinctiveness in the classical notions of race that persisted well into the twentieth century.
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.
- how, in 1993, can it be that so many of us in our research, writing, and teaching accept in virtually its original form the four-fold scheme invented over 200 years ago. Linnaeus could not have understood the range and complexity of biological variation as it is known today. Not enough was known about the world. Nor could he have been aware of the complex array of mechanisms that affect biological variation. Nothing was known about evolutionary theory or genetics. No, if Linnaeus was correct in his characterization of the varieties of our species, he must have been incredibly lucky (Sauer 80).
All this evidence would suggest that “there is no real way of marking off one population from another” (King 5), which supports “the concept that races do not exist, only clines” (Coon 210). Even defenders of the race concept concede “the fact that geographical races are to a large extent collections of convenience, useful more for pedagogic purposes than as units for empirical investigation” (Garn 15).
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.
- At the very least, on a scientific level, it violates the first law of medicine: Do no harm. For every instance in which knowing race helps an investigator, there is probably another instance in which it leads to a missed diagnosis or the premature closing of a police file. At best, it is a proxy for something else. Why not study that something else? (Goodman 24)
The concept of race was born out of xenophobia. The earliest attempts at objectively describing it were perverted, skewed though they already were, to fit a racist weltanschauung that persists in all too many places even today. This concept was finally challenged with the advent of population genetics, and the debates which ensued eventually led to our modern definitions of race. When placed in proper historical context and examined with the benefit of modern scientific knowledge, even these new definitions lose their veneer of biological import, and it becomes clear that the concept of race has no place in serious medical studies.
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.
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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.
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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.
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Snowden, Frank M., Jr. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1983.
Stepan, Nancy. The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960. Hamden, CT: Archon Books 1982.
Williams, David R., Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, and Rueben C. Warren. “The Concept of Race and Health Status in America.” Public Health Reports. 109, no. 1 (January/February 1994): 26-41.
Jonathan Morrow holds a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Biology from the University of Southern California, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Michigan as part of a combined MD-PhD program.
Copyright © 2000 Jonathan Morrow and The Abolitionist Examiner. All rights reserved.