“Race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation”

Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race

Spread the word as Race Reconciled debunks race & skin color. Please consider contributing to Living Anthropologically in order to bring anthropology to this public debate. Not tax-deductible. For more information, see Support Living Anthropologically.

Race Reconciled is a special issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology with cutting-edge work by biological anthropologists. These researchers do not agree on everything, and they have pointed debates. They are from the number-crunching and bone-measuring side of anthropology. Some of the articles are dense and difficult reading, with enough numbers, statistical tables, and computer simulations to make it hardly like reading at all. These researchers have read the critique of Richard Lewontin, and some have been in the forefront of re-examining Lewontin’s work (see previous section Attacking Anthropology and the Race Revival and see also the post on Teaching Race Anthropologically as well as the edited volume Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture for some of the latest research, featuring many of the authors discussed here).

Still, it is important to plow through the findings, because it is what our best bone measurers and number crunchers can accomplish. They very clearly recognize human biological variation. They see variation and measure it every day, examining things people cannot even visibly discern, like tiny bone markers and genetic material. And with all the disagreements, number-crunching, and consideration of how much humans vary, they agree

Race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation (Heather Edgar & Keith Hunley, Race Reconciled, 2009:2)Click To Tweet

Wait, What?

Race is a categorization at the sub-species level. Everyone has long agreed that human beings are a single inter-breeding species, and have been for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years. To sort a species into sub-species, it is necessary to have biological variation AND a way to group that variation. We have biological variation. The problem comes in establishing the ways variation clumps, groups, or sorts into subsets. We can try this in terms of skin color or skull characteristics, bone measurements, and genetic variation.

Does Skin Color Cluster?

Most people in the U.S. think they use skin color to classify races. U.S. categories relate to skin color, but not exactly. If it was actually about skin color, racial classifications would look more like Brazil, with lots of different terms and gradations. If it were about skin color, then people might change race classification over the years, or children from the same parents could be classified as different races.

In contrast, the traditional U.S. system is known anthropologically as hypo-descent: children get the racial classification of the parent with the least socially desirable classification. Barack Obama, Halle Berry, and some of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants are considered black. The most extreme example is the “one drop rule,” that any black ancestry meant being classified as black. There have been recent shifts in these attitudes, and there have been regional and historical variations, but this system remains dominant.

Any racial terminology related to skin color, even in Brazil, must have some categories, or ways of marking off groups. However, what do these categories look like when compared to skin color around the world? In a discussion of Race and global patterns of phenotypic variation, John Relethford plots human skin color variation:

The result is a continuous straight line ranging from the darkest extremes to the lightest extremes in skin color. There are no identifiable clusters. . . . Researchers are of course free to subdivide this continuum into different groups, but such clustering would be arbitrary and subjective in terms of the number of groups and the cutoff points used to distinguish them. The lack of apparent clusters is a reflection of the fact that skin color shows a classic pattern of clinal variation. (2009:17)

There are no clusters or clumps of black skin color or white skin color. Like many traits used to measure race, skin color exhibits clinal variation, along a cline or smooth gradient between the extremes. A walk from the African tropics to northern Europe reveals this gradual variation in skin color. Some people postulate one reason for extreme racial classifications is because Europeans were traveling by sea, and so would meet an extreme example at each stop. The simple categories used in the United States may in part be a result of a small initial sample, drawn from the extremes of skin color variation.

For an interesting 2017 example, see On the Evolution of Skin Tones In Africa in Anthropology.net. As noted, there is lots of skin tone variation within Africa. But perhaps surprisingly: “The latest findings suggest that some particularly dark skin tones evolved relatively recently from paler genetic variants, and these people migrated out of Africa. SNPs in OCA2 and HERC2 that are associated with lighter skin are ancient, over 1 million years old and come from Africa.”

Do Skulls Cluster?

Unlike some textbooks and pronouncements which use this information to declare all physical variation is clinal, Relethford proceeds to consider craniometric or skull variation. Here the picture is different, as Relethford finds that crania are “geographically structured” (2009:18). The differences cluster according to geographic region and reflect genetic relationships: “Global patterns of craniometric variation reflect largely underlying patterns of genetic relationship, which in turn reflect geographic structure” (2009:19). However, even though there are recognizable clusters, “there are no abrupt breaks in the relationship between phenotypic and geographic distance . . . indicating that decisions for subdivision into clusters (or races) are going to be subjective” (2009:19). Relethford explains that although it is possible to discern geographic ancestry by continent, the number of groups which could be classified and the geographic cutoffs would be “subjective decisions” (2009:20).

Relethford considers racial labels as “a culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (2009:20). Variation is real, exists, and has been structured by geography and migration, but the labels we use are a “crude first-order approximation” (2009:21). Relethford uses the example of how we see height as short, medium, and tall: “We tend to use crude labels in everyday life with the realization that they are fuzzy and subjective. I doubt anyone thinks that terms such as ‘short,’ ‘medium,’ and ‘tall’ refer to discrete groups, or that humanity only comes in three values of height!” (2009:21). (See also Relethford’s textbook section in The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology and the discussion in the blog-post Race is a Social Construction).

Current scientific consensus is that craniometrics yields clustered geographic groupings, but those groupings are subjective and arbitrary. However, this could be changing, as 2010 research calls into question the relationship between craniometrics and genetics, particularly these clustered groups:

Classificatory analyses achieve high levels of success because they depend on the a priori definition of group centroids. As a consequence, when a large number of variables is considered, the probability that this kind of analysis will find a dimension in the original data that differentiates among the a priori defined groups is high. Yet the precise biological significance of this kind of difference is hard to establish, especially when the high values of dissimilarity fractions reported here are considered. High rates of correct discrimination of groups can thus be misleading in understanding the structure of human biological diversity. . . .

Our results also have implications for the discussion about the existence of races in the human species from the phenotypic point of view because they support the notion of an absence of discrete biological groups. . . . The results presented here demonstrate that roughly one-third of the pairs of individuals within a population are more different than pairs of individuals between populations. This indicates that cranial morphology is less able to identify nonclinal variations among populations (which would be in accordance with the existence of biological races in the human species) than molecular data . . . (Strauss and Hubbe 2010:326)

I quote at length to highlight the challenge to scientific consensus. The idea that craniometrics exhibits geographic and genetic clustering could be due for revision, further undermining what has sometimes been used as evidence for racial groupings. Moreover, as discussed in the section Human Skulls: Boas Head Shape Studies Revalidated, it would also be interesting to see more work on the possibility that infant head molding influences craniometric markers. Infant head molding may also be geographically structured by cultural area.

Race Reconciled & Measuring Bones

Skin color, like many other racial measures, is continuously variable. Crania may be structured geographically, but classifications based on geographic clusters would be arbitrary. But what about measuring all the bones? Television shows feature forensic anthropologists easily identifying race from skeletal remains. Does that mean race is real?

Forensic anthropologist Norman Sauer answered this question in a classic article titled Forensic Anthropology and the Concept of Race: If races don’t exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them? (1992). Sauer explains “the successful assignment of race to a skeletal specimen is not a vindication of the race concept, but rather a prediction that an individual, while alive was assigned to a particular socially constructed ‘racial’ category” (1992:107). Forensic anthropologists have samples of bones from many geographic areas, and can classify bones according to what race society has assigned to people with ancestry in those geographic areas. However, examining the bones provides a probability estimate of likely race assignment: “In ascribing a race name to a set of skeletonized remains, the anthropologist is actually translating information about biological traits to a culturally constructed labeling system that was likely to have been applied to a missing person” (1992:109).

Despite the provocative and sometimes misunderstood title, Sauer pleads for forensic anthropologists to better explain what it means to make racial classifications from skeletal remains. He begs forensic anthropologists not to “sail on” without making an effort to expose people “to the notion that perceived races are not reflections of biological reality” (1992:110). We should “not fall into the trap of accepting races as valid biologically discrete categories because we use them so often” (1992:110).

Ah, Sauer writing in 1992 seems so quaint. Since then, popular media has trumpeted the notion of forensic anthropologists perform identification miracles (see Kristina Kilgrove on The Forensics of Temperance Brennan). Sauer’s plea does not seem to have resulted in an institutionalized move by forensic anthropologists to expose people to the difference between perceived race and biology. I have not systematically surveyed forensic anthropology syllabi, but my informal conversations lead me to believe Sauer’s article is not an explicit part of many forensic anthropology courses.

A different question is whether Sauer’s stance remains valid, given the increased sophistication of measurement and quantification in forensic anthropology. Here two articles in the Race Reconciled volume are especially insightful–the increasing sophistication of measurement and quantification only reinforces Sauer’s claim that forensic anthropology does not confirm traditional race classifications, even when race-identification probabilities are reported from skeletal remains.

The first article, Understanding race and human variation: Why forensic anthropologists are good at identifying race, obviously takes its title in reference to Sauer. The authors specifically tackle physical differences between U.S. blacks and whites, noting that there have been historically low rates of interracial marriage, given legal restrictions persisting in some states until the 1960s, and that “unofficial social penalties for interracial relationships and marriage included violence and murder” (Ousley et al. 2009:69). Different continental ancestry combined with institutional racism makes it possible to discern a “clear craniometric separation of American blacks and whites” (Ousley et al. 2009:72).

However, the authors support Sauer’s contention that craniometric separation does not confirm traditional racial categories. “Sauer’s additional suggestion that differences in American blacks and whites did not validate the traditional biological race concept is likewise supported by our results” (Ousley et al. 2009:73).

Why? The authors highlight just how many social differences could be discerned by forensic anthropologists. Given an original sample of bones classified into social groups, a forensic anthropologist can with high probability predict to which group another case of bones belong. They can separate Japanese from Chinese from Vietnamese, or northern Japanese from southern Japanese. Or, and perhaps most incredibly, “white males born between 1840 and 1890 can be separated from white males born 1930 to 1980 very well, and they are distinguished by time, and would appear to qualify as different races” (2009:74). Group bones by birth-year, run the statistics, and then introduce a new sample: the sample can be accurately classified, and a new race born every fifty years!

Forensic anthropologists sort real physical variation into categories we have made socially relevant. “There are so many possible distinctive biological races that the concept is virtually meaningless. We can only concur with Howells’ modification of Livingstone’s 1962 quote: ‘There are no races, only populations’” (Ousley et al. 2009:74). (Livingstone’s original quote [1962:279] was “There are no races, there are only clines”.)

The second article, Estimation and evidence in forensic anthropology: Sex and race does not have a provocative title, but is perhaps an even more incredible piece. The authors begin with sex identification, showing how sex is reliably estimated from a few craniometric variables, and how a prior identification of a roughly 1:1 sex ratio is unimportant for making the call.

Things change when it comes to racial identification. Here, they take a set of bones from “Mr. Johnson” and compare them to a world database: “The results from these analyses fairly unambiguously estimate Mr. Johnson’s origin as an Easter Islander” (Konigsberg et al. 2009:81). However, since Mr. Johnson’s bones were found in Iowa, plugging in the Iowa probabilities allows Mr. Johnson to be reliably predicted as white. Forensic anthropologists base their estimates on the known prior composition of the population. If the same bones from Mr. Johnson had been found in Hawaii, they would have estimated “Easter Islander” or if found in Gary, Indiana, they would have estimated “American Black”:

Using the Iowa priors, the highest posterior probability is for “American White” at 0.6976. The identification of “Easter Islander,” which had the highest posterior when we used an uninformative prior, now has a relatively low posterior probability (0.0449). In contrast, using the Hawaii priors the posterior probability that “Mr. Johnson” was an “Easter Islander” is 0.9068, whereas the posterior probability that he was an “American White” was 0.0188. Using the Gary, Indiana prior the highest posterior probability (0.5342) was for “American Black” with “American White” having the second highest posterior probability (0.2728). (Konigsberg et al. 2009:82)

Wow. Forensic anthropologists do not determine race from bones.

What actually happens is forensic anthropologists match bones probabilistic frequencies against known existing assortments. Those assortments can be anything socially relevant. Changing the context of bone discovery could lead to different predictive classification–of the same bones: “The use of different priors also shows the importance of prior information, as ‘Mr. Johnson’ would have been classified as a Pacific Islander had his remains been found on Hawaii and as an ‘American Black’ had his remains been found in Gary, Indiana” (Konigsberg et al. 2009:83).

Forensic anthropologists “often do bring prior information to their cases, though this information is typically implicit, unstated, and not quantified” (Konigsberg et al. 2009:84). Estimates are always probabilities, and probabilities rely on pre-existing information, such as a self-reporting census. Rather incredibly, the authors conclude that “forensic anthropologists are not particularly adept at identifying races when they must deal with a very heterogeneous population at large, and this is the one setting in which a definitive racial identification would be useful” (Konigsberg et al. 2009:86). Guessing Mr. Johnson’s bones, when found in Iowa, were “probably white” is a guess anyone could make based on the Iowa census.

Race Reconciled on Genetic Variation

Even after proving the continuous variation of skin color, and even after showing how bones and skulls do not confirm traditional race classifications, there is still the sense that genetics offers real proof of race. Genetic testing companies amplify this misconception in a rush to market ancestry, while pharmaceutical companies sell race-targeted medications.

On the issue of genetic ancestry testing, there seems to be greater recognition that the recreational activity does not say that much about real ancestors. The 2007 New York Times article DNA Tests Find Branches but Few Roots, included in the 3rd edition of Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human? discusses exactly how many possible branches there may be in these kinds of tests. Even more recently, the wonderfully-titled To claim someone has ‘Viking ancestors’ is no better than astrology may be helpful:

You don’t have to look very far back before you have more ancestors than sections of DNA, and that means you have ancestors from whom you have inherited no DNA. Added to this, humans have an undeniable fondness for moving and mating–in spite of ethnic, religious or national boundaries–so looking back through time your many ancestors will be spread out over an increasingly wide area. This means we don’t have to look back much more than around 3,500 years before somebody lived who is the common ancestor of everybody alive today.

And perhaps most surprisingly, it has been reasonably estimated that around 5,000 years ago everybody who was alive was either the common ancestor of everybody alive today, or of nobody alive today; at this point in history we all share exactly the same set of ancestors.

For a more detailed look at actual DNA sequences, the Race Reconciled article Human DNA sequences: More variation and less race, is difficult reading but extremely helpful. The authors use sophisticated techniques to show how human genetic variation occurs in sets and subsets. Sub-Saharan Africa has the greatest genetic diversity. This is not a surprise, since Sub-Saharan Africa is where almost all human evolution occurred. For most of human history, it was also the region with the largest human population. What may be more surprising is “that the diversity in non-Sub-Saharan African populations is essentially a subset of the diversity found in Sub-Saharan African populations” (Long et al. 2009:23).

Genetic classifications of races outside of Sub-Saharan Africa are simply subsets of Sub-Saharan African diversity. Moreover, and perhaps most strangely, “a classification that takes into account evolutionary relationships and the nested pattern of diversity would require that Sub-Saharan Africans are not a race because the most exclusive group that includes all Sub-Saharan African populations also includes every non-Sub-Saharan African population” (Long et al. 2009:32). In the end, the authors “agree entirely with Lewontin that classical race taxonomy is a poor reflection of human diversity” (Long et al. 2009:32). They disagree with Lewontin over whether this is intrinsic to human genetics–rather, it is a product of evolutionary history and migration.

This evolutionary history is explained in the article The global pattern of gene identity variation reveals a history of long-range migrations, bottlenecks, and local mate exchange: Implications for biological race. Once again, sophisticated techniques reveal a “nested pattern of genetic structure that is inconsistent with the existence of independently evolving biological races” (Hunley et al. 2009:35). The authors confirm greater genetic variation within Sub-Saharan Africa, and all other humans are a sub-set of this variation. Taxonomic classifications of race cannot account for observed genetic diversity. The authors take this further, challenging medical research that uses visible race-markers as a proxy for genetic structure:

Our findings confirm that broad ethnic categories employed in medical genetic research might not adequately take into account the complex geographic pattern of genetic structure in the species, but for the same reason, neither may continental ancestry. This is because our results also indicate that substantial, potentially medically important genetic differences may exist between populations within regions. (Hunley et al. 2009:45)

Drug companies desiring to find treatments targeted at black patients probably underestimate the true degree of genetic diversity present within Africa and for people of African descent living in the U.S. But these stories get simplistically bantered about for profit, patents, and political correctness allegations. For more on this tale, see Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a Post-Genomic Age.

This is a superb collection of articles, deserving of thorough reading and reflection. Race is simply much more biologically complicated than classifiers imagine. These are all researchers who have taken the critique of Lewontin seriously, know how to crunch their numbers and measure bones. They re-debunk race.

Still, the authors of Race Reconciled could do better on three fronts:

1) They Need Bigger Megaphones

At the end of their introduction to the Race Reconciled volume, Edgar and Hunley write that the best way to communicate with the public is in the classroom: “Biological anthropologists teach thousands of students every year and have a real opportunity to influence public views of human variation” (2009:2-3). Their final sentence is about communicating “to our students” (2009:3). But as important as classrooms are, how many students actually take a course devoted to biological anthropology? Will these articles get used in biological anthropology textbooks? If this applies to biological anthropology courses, the prospects are worse for Anthropology 101. The authors need to be on television, on YouTube, in the newspapers, in the blogosphere. With 10 million undergraduate students in the United States, teaching thousands is not enough.

The need for greater public exposure grows more and more obvious. One signal was December 2010, when New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade covered a so-called debate within anthropology. Wade wrote that people in physical anthropology, studying things like skulls, were “evidence-based researchers” and separated from “more interpretive subjects, like research on race and sex” (2010). Ridiculous! But this is very convenient for Wade, who has long been claiming that genetic research validates traditional race-thinking. By classifying anthropologists who study race as “interpretive,” he gets to ignore the evidence-based researchers who have invalidated race as an accurate way to describe human variation. Maybe if the Race Reconciled scientists had already been on television, Wade would not be able to get away with it.

Since then, evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and David Barash have revealed they have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to the scientific literature on race and human variation. But while these big platform science bloggers precipitated extensive blogosphere back-and-forths and a flurry of comments–see Race Redux–the authors of Race Reconciled seemed to have nary a word.

2. They Need to Understand Politics

The editors of the Race Reconciled volume did step out of the arena of academic peer-reviewed journals to record a podcast about their research. This is definitely a welcome step toward television and the blogosphere. However, they here seem to misunderstand the politics of their research:

It seems to me like people expect a single answer: “Yes, there’s race,” “No, there’s not,” “Yes it means something important,” “No it doesn’t.” This is a complex issue that involves all of human history and all of human variation and I think it’s not possible to provide a single answer like that and I also don’t think it’s necessary. I think that we can develop a teaching perspective that will allow us to explain: “Well some people think this; some people think that; here are some ideas that they share; here are some parts that aren’t quite worked out yet.” And students are able to take that in. We teach them that about all kinds of scientific debates. We teach them about the debate about whether or not Neandertals are part of our human ancestry and we expect them to understand that there are multiple viewpoints on that. Why don’t we expect them to do the same thing when it comes to contemporary human races? (Formerly on UNMLive as “Does Race Exist?” My transcription)

It is not the same thing! See section on Biological Anthropology and Racism. Race remains a highly charged issue, with political and economic consequences. Although the way we represent Neandertals or classify species can and does interact with this contemporary politics, it certainly does not have the same political potential.

It is important to make sure everyone understands the headline message from Race Reconciled: “race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation” (Edgar and Hunley 2009:2). Then we can work on the details of why it is not accurate or productive. After that, outline the areas of scientific debate. The model is the same as teaching evolution. Evolution is the scientifically correct and factual account. There are debates within the community as to particular evolutionary processes, but that does not change the overall message.

Similarly, Relethford’s analogy to how people make crude classifications of short-medium-tall potentially misrepresents the politics and history of racial classification in the U.S. People may make crude guesses based on skin color, but hypodescent has been dominant. It would be similar to a situation in which there really was no “medium” category. Anyone born to one short parent and one tall parent would be considered short. Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Colin Powell. Relethford obviously knows that people categorized as black have a “highly variable” level of African ancestry (2009:21). Still, he could be clearer on how these classifications are politically, economically, and socially enforced, making the short-medium-tall comparison potentially misleading (see also the blog-post Race Remixed?).

In general, the authors of Race Reconciled seem to believe in what Michel-Rolph Trouillot termed the “Liberal Space of Enlightenment”:

The desire to occupy a privileged space of enlightenment is a frequent feature of both philosophical and political liberalism. . . . Liberalism wishes into existence a world of free willing individual subjects barely encumbered by the structural trappings of power. The dubious proposition follows that if enlightened individuals could indeed get together within their enlightened space, they could recast “culture” or “race” and, in turn, discharge other free willing individuals of their collective delusions. But is racism a delusion about race? Or is race made salient by racism? That is the crux of the matter. (Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises, 111)

3. They Need to Protect Turf

After I assigned the Race Reconciled articles in my anthropological theory course, one student wanted to do further research on race and forensic anthropology. The problem, I suggested, is whenever a forensic anthropologist uses the term race–in any context–people assume this must mean race exists. It goes back to Sauer’s article: Forensic anthropologists need to explicitly state they are estimating ancestry probabilities to best-guess what racial group a person would have been socially assigned.

As I searched relevant articles, I was shocked and disgusted to discover the materials from forensic anthropologists were not only suffering popular misinterpretation, but were also being misused in peer-reviewed academic journals. One of the only 2010 articles citing the forensic anthropology pieces from Race Reconciled is a diatribe by philosopher Neven Sesardic titled Race: A social destruction of a biological concept. Sesardic claims fuzzy-headed social scientists and philosophers have misunderstood the proper biological underpinnings of the race concept. Sesardic then uses the forensic anthropology articles to make his case. Sesardic calls Sauer a “bewildered and exasperated scientist” (2010:156) and goes on to approvingly quote Sauer’s 1992 article as supporting the idea of racial assignment. He similarly cherry-picks quotes from the 2009 articles to portray forensic anthropology as confirming traditional biological races.

I contacted the authors of these Race Reconciled articles, alerting them to this misuse of their research. I received two replies, eventually leading to a productive e-mail exchange. However, no one felt it was worth writing a rebuttal. A journal titled Biology and Philosophy was not part of their academic engagement. They questioned the journal’s standards and peer-review process, since it published an article with such blatant misuse of data. Still, it would seem that if it is impossible to track and respond to what is published in academic journals, there is limited chance of wider public intervention. So, while I can understand not wanting to get muddy in the internet blogosphere, Race Reconciled could do better at protecting the scientific turf.

In the meantime, as I’ve discovered by writing about these issues, mocking the idea of race as a social construction yields huge political dividends, or as I’ve put it Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.

Next: 1.7 – Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied
Previous: 1.5 – Attacking Anthropology and the Race Revival

To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Race Reconciled: Race isn’t skin color, biology, or genetics.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/biological-anthropology/race-reconciled-debunks-race/. First posted 5 June 2011. Last updated 26 October 2017.

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  • stevesailer

    Dear Professor:

    You should acquaint yourself with more sophisticated 21st Century theories of race: e.g.,


    • Dear Steve,
      Thank you for visiting. You seem to specialize in one-line dismissals of articles you either have not read or want to deliberately misrepresent. This seems to be no exception. Anyone who wants to take a look at Steve Sailer’s take on the Race Reconciled articles is free to search on it, so I’ve removed your link.

      I assure you that I am quite familiar with 21st century ideas–the whole point of this piece is that all of these papers are post-2005.

      Besides, shouldn’t you have your hands full dealing with Ron Unz on Race and IQ: Response to Lynn and Nyborg?

  • eggsbenediction

    “In ascribing a race name to a set of skeletonized remains, the anthropologist is actually translating information about biological traits to a culturally constructed labelling system that was likely to have been applied to a missing person” — what dreadful, obvious and wilfull Obfuscation is this? If I decide a pencil is a ‘social construct’, then when shown evidence of a pencil merely claim it is ‘the traits of a culturally constructed labelling system applied to a piece of wood’ – then I am working backwards from a fantasy-land proposition where certain things do not exist because they suggest something I don’t like. The ‘labels’ can be changed if you really want, but it doesn’t alter their description, so why change them? Should a visibly white-skinned man be called a black man – if so what is the point? should up be down? I do not see that racial variation in humans should be viewed any differently than breeds of dogs – and why would it? unless you have some religious claim that we are not ourselves animals – why the PC fuss? It seems rather ominously unscientific

    • There’s no obfuscation or unscientific fuss here. Just describing the process to get from the fact of real human biological variation to understand that the traditional race categories are a poor descriptor of that variation. However, in this case those categories have very real and important social effects, as seen in Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied.

      • Bones and Behaviours

        And yet a look at holistic patterns in atDNA or dental trait frequencies nonetheless does support the traditional racial categories used in physical anthropology. If one is allowed to cherry pick traits such as blood groups then there is no difference between humans, chimps and gorillas either. Deconstructing taxa by looking at the distribution of single character states is therefore absurd, and not regarded as a valid reality check upon biotaxonomic concepts. Of course it is dissatisfaction with the total evidence that leaves people cherry picking traits so as to cloud public understanding of the wider pattern.

        • No, there’s no cherry-picking of traits here–see the article above for all the forensic anthropological measurements you could ever wish for.

      • Martin Eden

        So what you are suggesting is that man ignore truths and biological realities because they upset social aspirations which themselves are artificial. Do you realize how absurd that is? If society as it is, collapses due to natural truths, then man will be infinitely better off than trying to retain a false system through dishonest application of science and politics.

      • Ana Marija

        Okay. But it only offers attacks to previous methods of scientific description. Nobody is giving us a solution. I don’t want to be a “partial” professional and not be able to say anything about the skeletal remains, so that I would not be judged when describing a black male as a black male. I wish somebody would give us a solution on what is the right thing to say in this sort of situations. The same goes for the sex of the remains. These days, some scientists say it’s wrong to say that the remains are of a female you should apparently say “biologically female”. It’s all this fuss about gender and skin color, but no answers and no solutions about what is the right thing to do or say. Only judgement.

        • Hi Ana, please seemy answer below to your similar question. Let’s go with sex and gender on this one. Indeed, a forensic anthropologist might say about a set of remains: definitely the remains can be identified as biological female. However, that does not tell us about what kind of gender identity the person might have held. So, I’m not sure what kind of solution you are looking for–we’re simply trying to be careful about what scientific description can and cannot do.

    • Helga Vierich

      I am usually a bit loath to even bother to reply to people who cannot even admit their real names, but in this case I make exception. “breeds” of dogs are a very recent invention, most of the types of dogs that existed before the creation of industrial-age kennel club competitions were in fact shaped more by natural selection in the niche these animals occupied in relation to their human commensals. Human efforts at selection have not really done much to improve the health of most dogs, unfortunately, as any really honest and dedicated breeder of any “purebred” animal will attest. Humans were rarely isolated throughout their evolution. Genetic isolation is not a good fit with the wide networking, multi-cultural and multilingual nature of most forager economies.

      • Thank you, Helga, cannot agree more!

        • Vanitas

          This is utter PC propaganda.

          • Yay, nothing like utter PC propaganda to win the argument! Good thing calling someone “PC” is enough to settle the score. No need to say, engage, or anything.

      • 54321Truth

        Helga is funny! Humans have CONSTANTLY been isolated through geography (there are still isolated groups of people today!). Only recently have humans been thrown together and been brainwashed to sickeningly race-mix with each other (thus destroying races/cultures/peoples). Race and Gender are biologically real in nature, no matter what laughable Liberal Marxists attempt to lie about through words.

        • Sorry, the empirical evidence is that mixing and mating are a deep and enduring feature of human life, across the species and throughout our history. See Denisovans, Neandertals, Archaics as Human Races. Take your sickening racist baloney elsewhere.

          • The existence of -some- mixing in no way contradicts the general tendency of most groups of people to sticking to their own kinds throughout history. Exceptions do not invalidate the “rule” – the normal.

          • Hi Frank, thank you for stopping by. There is no debate that people have grouped geographically and those groupings have biological effects. Of course they have also often crossed over those groups, which is why most people say the human lineage is characterized by lots and lots of admixture. What is at issue here is whether Livingstone was correct to say “there are no races, only clines,” or “only populations” as it is rephrased above. The science suggest that the groupings, regroupings, and admixture do not validate traditional race ideas.

      • Wolf

        Somehow not posting under one’s real name disqualifies one’s arguments? You are a joke.

        • I agree with Helga. There’s a lot of racism lurking under troll pseudonyms, as I found out while writing Race IQ Game Over. Moreover, Helga goes on to dispute the content of the post. Gratuitous insults are prohibited here.

    • brian

      Huh? I think the article is about biology and political constructs being totally two different things. Hispanic is the best example of this since it has nothing what-so-ever to do with biology. It is easy for people to keep track of several things in their (small) minds. This is why race is used as a social/political construct. However, biologically there is tremendiously more variation both within and between peoples. Thus race is an invalid taxonomic construct. It is scientifically useless to use race when discussing biology. Only socialoligist and politicians would be (foolish enough) to (resort) use such constructs.
      For an example take the Epicanthic fold common to some populations of Asians. Biologically it is an adaptation protecting the eye from dust and sunlight. Eye color may be as well. There is some indication that blue eyes may do better in night vision. Recent studies have discovered that reindeer’s eyes change color throughout the year. They go from yellow-brown in the summer to blue in the winter.
      This may explain why blue and grey eye colors are found the closer on travels in to the
      Arctic Circle. It is a biological adaptation.

  • a cynical person

    I am not a fan of racial profiling, or of taking race terribly seriously, but your denial gets awfully close to denying that groups of related, environmental shaped peoples, carry a commonality. If this was said of non humans, you’d look twice.

    IE: “breed is not an accurate or productive way to describe dog biological variation”

    One might even suspect that political correctness plays a role in this debate.

    (your implication, that imprecise measurements have no meaning, is so self evidently wrong, that I will not address it)

    • Hm, I am “a cynical person” too, so thanks! As I put it in Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine, when Frank Livingstone in 1962 wrote There are no races, there are only clines (279), he never said there weren’t any clines. In that sense, your import of “breed” may actually be more like what we would talk about as a cline or as some of the authors above put it, as “populations.” Or in other words, while there are commonalities among related peoples in geographic continuity, our inherited social categories of race are not accurate or productive ways to describe these variations and commonalities.

      • Bones and Behaviours

        Livingstone was influenced by the New Synthesis and yet presented fringe positions that mainstream advocates of the New Synthesis such as Mayr would never have presented about races. Nor do their heirs today such as Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins, both of whom have affirmed racial groupings as valid concepts for biologists the resent. Actually Livingstone’s own position might actually be considered as misunderstanding the implications of the biological revolution that was ongoing at the time.

        In any case Livingstone presented a false syllogism by presenting clines as contradicting the possibility of recognising valid categories at either end. Applied consistently, this would lead to all kinds of absurdities regarding things such as aging and the colour spectrum, and yet such ‘fuzzy’ categories are not only useful in everyday life but are used productively in the sciences. There is something unscientific about any statement that involves a logical fallacy.

        • Interesting that you are turning to so-called authorities like Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins, neither of whom have a clue when it comes to the century of work anthropologists have done on human biological variation. See Race is a Social Construction for a bit more on them. The fuzzy-headed thinking of Coyne and Dawkins on these matters has already been well-exposed, and I don’t even have patience to go through it again here.

    • I would also recommend The Mismeasure of Dog by Holly Dunsworth: “That’s because, for one, people often like to compare human races to dog
      breeds. Conversations rooted in eugenics or racism often involve
      judgments of blood purity, much as American Kennel Club members and
      Westminster Dog Show contestants owe their worthiness to their pure bred
      ancestors. This isn’t a perspective that many anthropologists abide.”

  • Oliver

    This is one of the best webpages i’ve seen on race. For an alternative view to adopting Livingstone’s clinalist position, you can check my essays here:


    The CRC (Climatic Race Concept) I developed since last year.

  • Reader Question: “Hi, by looking at pictures of Papuans and Sub-Saharans, I see great similarities, almost to the point that I cannot tell them apart. Now, I wonder if, forensically, they also have similarities. Do they have similar skull and bones’ shape? I ask, because I’ve been thinking about what you wrote regarding forensic anthropologists and race. Let’s say a forensic anthropologist finds a skeleton, and he determines it’s a black person. Well, I ask, is it Papuan or Sub-Saharan? I guess that, just as you say, his decision will have to rely on additional socio-cultural variables. Can you enlighten me a bit more on this?”

    My take: I’m not a biological or forensic anthropologist, and would defer to their expertise and the analyses in the papers cited above. There is going to be a lot of biological variation within any given population, even within Papua New Guinea and Sub-Saharan Africa. Given the genetic variation present in Sub-Saharan Africa, it seems quite possible that two Sub-Saharan populations could be by some measures more different from each other than either is from a population in Papua New Guinea.

    With regard to the hypothetical forensic anthropologist finding a skeleton, the first task is going to be to deduce probable geographic ancestry, from which she can make a probable race-call. In the United States, someone with significant ancestry from PNG or Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be labeled “black,” but the first step (often missing from the TV shows) is not directly to a probable race identification but to probable geographic ancestry.

  • Hi Oliver, thank you for the comment and the links. Somehow this ended up in my spam folder, so apologies for the delay in posting.

    Climatic race may be useful for some purposes, but I’m not sure if it really is that different from a clinal or isolation-by-distance explanation. It also seems to have become pretty topsy-turvy in the last five centuries, and even before there was quite a bit of long-distance human movement and migration.

  • Abby

    For Intro to Anthropology class:

    I have heard the terms Mutation and Natural Selection before as well as seeing the term Gene Flow in some previous biology class (I believe from high school). However, I was not fully acquainted with the term Genetic Drift. The LS book defines this as a large population becoming isolated and because of this isolation they are not able to contribute to the world’s larger gene pool, which reduces genetic variation. I’m not entirely sure if this is accurate, but the first thought that popped into my head in correlation with this is the population of pure or semi-pure Native American population today. Historically this people group has been isolated (mostly forcibly) from the rest of the population with their numbers greatly dwindling. I’m not sure if this is that accurate of an example of this term because (to my knowledge) there is quite a lot of people in today’s society that have some percentage of Native American in them so they still have been able to contribute genetically to the larger masses to some extent. (L.S. 71)

  • Noelani Browne

    When discussing the idea of human variation and race separation, one must keep in mind the cultural construct of race and racism. The evolution of the human contributes to certain phenotypes that aided them to live and survive in a certain area or terrain. The social promotion and argument of racial separation holds no water.

    • Hi Noelani, this is indeed true on a meta-level, but it is important to keep drilling into the details.

  • Jacob Blaustein

    Let me see if I understand, as there is a great deal of variation within any population of a given species, and the size of a population is variable….umm..well it’s like the different variations of common canines…subspecies. the white subspecies and the black sub species.

    • No, not really. You seem to be saying that it’s just a matter of changing the terms around. Rather, it’s that subspecies do not map onto human populations. We’ve already been through the dog stuff in an earlier comment thread. Those are not comparable situations.

  • Sal

    Since you seem content just referring people to other sources, then allow me to do the same:
    Your claim that dogs aren’t comparable is patantly false, as this video will explain. I urge everyone to watch this because it utterly debunks the author’s garbage. Your stance is quite frankly embarrassing and unscientific. Social sciences like anthropology are an absolute fraud marred by political correctness and the fear it creates in those who dare go against its dogma, and I say that as a B.A.! Long ago, these people came up with the conclusion that all peoples are equal and have since been working BACKWARDS to prove it. Please, educate yourselves in actual biology and genetics.

  • John W

    The fact that Race is a salient factor in explaining all sorts of life outcomes is so obviously true that only a member of the white race could be crazy enough to deny it.

    • Hi John, there is no doubt that race is a salient factor in the United States in terms of life outcomes: see the next post on Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied. But the question is whether some kind of immutable biological substrate grouped as race is what explains those outcomes. On that issue, the evidence is that it is structured racism which leads to those outcomes, not biological race.

  • MM

    Seriously? Gee, maybe humans developed language to communicate on a complex level, including the identification of things in their environment – with specificity. As useful as language has proven to be to the human race – this article well demonstrates that one can use thousands of words to say absolutely nothing – zilch.

    • Seriously? Well, the thousands of words in this post are simply a summary of an excellent set of articles in the Race Reconciled special issue from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Of course, indeed these words would not have been necessary had there not been so many words spent on justifying racialized inequalities.

  • Alec Theora

    A whole lot of wasted words here. It reads more like philosophy than science. What is this? Is it politics? Pretty hard to slog through this mess. Let’s sum it up shall we. We are ALL the human race, homo sapiens, period.
    I find it pretty disappointing that the author imagines that populations of sub-Saharan Africa have more genetic diversity, when in fact they have the least diversity in the human genome. They lack any Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA as a whole. The diversity of additive DNA from these and other archaic humans is what makes some distinctions in our current and only surviving hominid species. I’m not making any political statement here, it’s just the facts and it means no more than stated.
    This article went on and on about skin color or bone length and other non sequiturs, quoting from old and out of date authors or studies, as if that all matters at all. I can’t help but see that it is a long diatribe, basically taking a long way around to saying that we are all part of the same “race”, the same species. Fine, we are!
    We do have populations that have different mixes of archaic human DNA as I’ve stated and this might be significant to explain some variables in distinctive human populations to this day.
    Is this whole article some attempt at political correctness? It could be in some way, it’s hard to tell, if it is, it’s masked.
    All we need are facts, not politics. If these facts aren’t good enough then twisting them this way or that won’t make them better or worse, just makes them political.

    • Not exactly sure what you are trying to do with this comment, but let me attempt to clear up your confusion regarding archaic DNA. There has been some confusion, as everyone knew that the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa had the most genetic diversity. This has been true and remained true even with the discovery of Neandertal & Denisovan introgression. It’s finally become clearer as to why, as this recent study shows: “We can thank Neanderthals for giving back thousands of ancient African gene variants that were lost to Eurasians as their ancestors swept out of Africa in small bands, perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 years ago.”

      Your accusations of political correctness are completely unfounded. These “out of date authors” I’m citing had the correct facts back in 2009 that are proven true today: the populations of sub-Saharan Africa have the most genetic diversity, and all other humans can be considered a subset of that diversity.

      • Alec Theora

        “Sub-Saharan Africans are rich in only one kind of diversity – intragroup diversity, which is a function of effective population size and may reflect layers of admixture (as in the case of admixed post-1492 New World [Columbian] populations that are also rich in intragroup diversity or heterozygosity).” Unlike intergroup diversity, which focuses on groups as a whole and examines differences between and among different groups, intragroup diversity looks within the group to identify characteristics that differentiate group members. My point is that it’s the “subsets” as you call them, that actually added significantly to the intragroup diversity in Sub-Saharan populations. Finally I didn’t have “accusations” of political correctness in the article, but have questions about that.

        • Wasn’t sure where you got your quote from, but it seems to come from Anthropogenesis. If so, you should know that the author is talking about something quite different, and is pushing a view that is pretty far out of the scientific mainstream. Anyway, I’m open about my political leanings, but that doesn’t invalidate the scientific consensus presented here.

  • 54321Truth

    Funny how my eyes can easily tell if someone is a negroid, caucasoid or mongoloid. Very easy to see and group; I must have very special eyeballs. Easy as grouping the primary colors red, yellow, blue but in skeletal ways instead of meaningless color ways (my skin changes color with the seasons because I am an awesome caucasoid). Race and Gender are BOTH biologically real and their differences are very important.

    • Wrong in so many ways. Your eyeballs are under some seriously socially-constructed delusions. Adding -oid to your descriptions doesn’t make them more scientific. People have been attempting such red-yellow-blue classifications for years, without success. You may want to read Why Do We Keep Using the Word “Caucasian”?, especially since the Caucasus Mountains are home to what would now be yet another ambiguous or transitional biological features that depart from the classic groupings. Since you also seem bent on talking about gender, you might check out Anthropology, Sex, Gender, Sexuality: Gender is a Social Construction.

  • “There are no identifiable clusters”

    Ha hahahah ahrhahr hahr ha haah aha hahrharhar harharhar haha hahahaha hhahrhahrharhahrharhahha hah gha ghaghag gahhga

    breathe in

    hahah ahrhar aharh arh ahhah ahararha rharh guffaw guffaw hahsharharhahshrhah ahah aha ha ha haHAHA HAHA

    wew lad

  • Ana Marija

    Okay, so my question is: If we can’t say that another person who is different due to the common traits of physical characteristics, HOW CAN WE DESCRIBE THE DIFFERENCE? Per example, a cop is chasing a man who has all characteristics of an Asian. What does he say if he can’t say “An Asian man”?

    • Hi Ana, thank you for the question. No one is saying that you can’t describe physical difference, and that it may be convenient to use what Relethford calls “crude labels” in the same way we use terms like short, medium, and tall. However, we need to understand that using these “crude labels” often involve shortcuts, that “an Asian man” your cop is chasing may turn out on closer investigation to be multi-racial (and trans-gender), and that we definitely don’t want to make assumptions based on physical difference that certain groups are “given to crime.” The example about the bones from Iowa is probably worth re-reading so you’ll better understand the often hidden steps forensic anthropologists might take before arriving at a possible racial designation.