Human Biological Variation and Race

Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? we read chapter 5, “How does the evolutionary study of human variation undermine notions of biological race?” The first part of the lecture concentrated on human biological variation and race:

The second part of the lecture was on a Biocultural Approach to Race. These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after finishing the first unit with a discussion of human evolution.

Human Biological Variation and Race

Anthropology emerged as an academic discipline during the apex of European and North American colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the fundamental questions anthropology grappled with was how to explain human biological variation and whether all people possessed equal human capacities. Ideas of racial determinism were often used to justify European conquest and rule.

Racial classification schemes, mostly developed in the last 500 years, continue to influence our thinking about human biological variation and race today. However, it’s crucial to understand that the concept of distinct human races is a relatively recent idea in human history.

The Rise of Scientific Racism

With the advent of evolutionary theory in the 1860s, ideas about race became intertwined with concepts of natural selection. This led to the emergence of “scientific racism”–an attempt to use evolutionary ideas to justify racial inequality and reinforce notions of racial superiority and inferiority.

This combination of ethnocentric beliefs and misapplied evolutionary concepts resulted in a toxic worldview that positioned “civilized man” at the top of a hierarchy, with a perceived gap between “civilized” and “primitive” humans, and another gap between humans and other animals.

Anthropology’s Shift: Challenging Racial Determinism

Over time, anthropology began to challenge these ideas. Key figures like Franz Boas argued that:

  • Race does not determine behavior, language, or culture
  • Racial classifications are inadequate to describe biological differences among humans
  • Environmental factors can influence physical traits, challenging the idea of fixed racial types

Modern Evolutionary Synthesis & Race

The Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, also known as Neo-Darwinism, combined Darwinian mechanisms with Mendelian heredity. This synthesis provided a scientific basis for undermining 19th-century concepts of biological race.

Species, Subspecies, & Human Variation

To understand why the concept of biological races in humans is problematic, we need to consider the definitions of species and subspecies:

  • Species: Populations that can interbreed and produce viable offspring
  • Subspecies: Subgroups within a species, often geographically isolated

Humans are a single, interbreeding species. The last populations we might truly designate as subspecies of Homo were likely Neanderthals and Denisovans. Modern Homo sapiens represent a relatively homogeneous subgroup of what was once a more diverse set of bipedal, large-brained creatures.

Human Biological Variation: Visible & Invisible Traits

Human biological variation is real and important. Informally, we can group this variation into “stuff you can see” and “stuff you can’t see”:

Visible traits:

  • Skin color
  • Hair color, form, and texture
  • Eye color and shape
  • Nose and lip form
  • Ear shape
  • Head form
  • Height and build

Invisible traits:

  • Fingerprints
  • Blood types
  • Genetic groupings
  • Gut bacteria
  • Malaria resistance
  • Lactose digestion

The Complexity of Human Biological Variation and Race

While human biological variation exists, these traits do not neatly align with traditional racial categories. Many traits exhibit clinal variation, changing gradually across geographic ranges. Other traits vary independently of each other, making it impossible to define clear racial boundaries.

For example, lactose tolerance and sickle cell trait don’t map onto skin color or other visible traits often associated with race. Recent research has shown that lactose tolerance is more complex than previously thought. While it’s still more common in some populations, the genetic basis for this trait has evolved independently in different parts of the world, further complicating its relationship to traditional racial categories.

Similarly, the sickle cell trait, often associated with African populations in the Americas due to the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, is also found in parts of the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean. If we grouped people by these genetic traits, we’d end up with very diverse-looking groups that don’t match our traditional racial categories.

Explaining Human Biological Variation

Several mechanisms contribute to human biological variation:

  • Natural Selection: e.g., sickle cell trait in malarial regions
  • Sexual Selection: May influence some traits considered “beautiful”
  • Random Factors: Gene flow and genetic drift
  • Complex Genetics: Many traits are influenced by multiple genes, and single genes can affect multiple traits

Skin Color: A Prime Example of Clinal Variation

Skin color, often central to racial categorization, exhibits perfect clinal variation in human populations. If we lined up all humans from lightest to darkest, we’d see a continuous gradient with no clear dividing lines.

The distribution of skin color across the globe (as of 1492, before transoceanic travel became common) shows gradual changes related to latitude. Moreover, recent genetic studies have revealed that the genetics of skin pigmentation are more complex than previously thought. Multiple genes contribute to skin color, and different populations have evolved similar skin tones through different genetic pathways, further complicating the relationship between skin color and race.

Race as a Colonial Construct

Our modern concept of race is largely a product of the colonial era, when people from different parts of the world were brought into contact through slavery, conquest, and colonization. This created a situation where populations that would normally have been separated by gradual variations were suddenly juxtaposed.

The racial categories we use today often reflect this colonial history rather than biological realities. They are based on a limited sample of human diversity and struggle to accommodate the full range of human variation seen globally.

Modern Genetics and the Concept of Race

Recent advances in genetics have further complicated our understanding of human biological variation and race. Large-scale genetic studies have shown that there is more genetic variation within traditionally defined racial groups than between them. These studies have also revealed the complex history of human migrations and intermixing, making it clear that no population has remained genetically isolated for any significant period of human history.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while human biological variation is real and important, it does not align with traditional racial categories. Our understanding of race is more a product of history and social constructs than biological reality. As we continue to study human diversity, it’s crucial to recognize the complexity of our species’ variation and the historical context that has shaped our perceptions of race. The ongoing dialogue between human biological variation and race remains a critical area of study in anthropology, genetics, and related fields.

Recap: Human Biological Variation and Race

Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? we read chapter 5, “How does the evolutionary study of human variation undermine notions of biological race?” The first part of the lecture concentrated on human biological variation and race:

The second part of the lecture was on a Biocultural Approach to Race. These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after finishing the first unit with a discussion of human evolution.

Related

I’ve attempted to convey the complexities of race through various classes, blogs, and webpages. On this website:


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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