more complicated than biological 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?” This textbook chapter is phrased as a long question, the answer to which is: Human variation is more complicated than biological race

These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after finishing the first unit with a discussion of human evolution. The next class turned to archaeology and Archaeology Methods.

Transcript of part 1, “Evolution undermines race”

Archaeology, History & Culture: A long dialogue with race

Today we are going to start our unit that spans quite a bit of human history. Also, quite a bit of anthropology. You might say in the sense that we’re doing this unit as “the archaeology part.” That is what we’re concentrating on. We will read more about archaeological methods, a very detailed method section. We’re going into some archaeology, but we’re starting out where we left off with what we might say are the endpoints of our human evolution. Human evolution isn’t over, but where we got to with Homo sapiens across the whole planet as a single interbreeding species. We’re going to be talking about how you categorize those Homo sapiens that spread out across the planet. Then we go into some heavy-duty archaeology, then we end up in the concept of culture. We’re in what we might call a period of talking about human history. The reason I want to overview this: I think it is a nice way to start out this section. Sometimes I put this part at the end of the last section and in that first exam, although it would have been a little overwhelming. It’s a good way to start this section, because it’s also the way we’re going to be ending it. In the sense that you can’t really understand what anthropology was talking about in the concept of culture without understanding what it was talking *against*. Every time we dig things out of the ground and look for what we call “civilization.” How people domesticated plants and animals. Those things may seem very technical. They’re part of a long history of people, especially coming out of European countries, trying to categorize the world and trying to make it make sense with this other idea that was developed: that human beings come in racial categories. That we come in different kinds or groupings, and those groupings say something about our capabilities. This is something that was actually a recent idea in human history. It came about within the last 500 years: that people have these racial groups and that’s what determines human life and culture. It’s something we then project onto the past. We go looking for these things because it is such an active issue in our world of today. As we all know, we haven’t really left the idea of race behind in any way, shape, or form.

Race, Colonialism, Anthropology

We’re going to be tackling this idea of race. We’re going back to some of the first things that we learned about anthropology. It’s where it came from as a discipline. Anthropology became an academic discipline during what we might consider the heyday or the apex of European and North American colonialism, during what is the 19th century and early 20th century. One of the big questions of anthropology from the beginning: “Well, how do we explain why people act differently? Are people all the same? Are the other people that we meet of the same equal human capacity as us Europeans?” These ideas of people determined by their race were also used during this time to justify the way history had gone down. [They were used] to justify and make sense of the European conquest and rule that had been put into place already. Race is in some ways a relatively recent classification. Throughout human history, obviously people have looked at other people and tried to figure out what physical differences that they have. The idea that these physical differences would be grouped as races: that there were five of them, or 45 of them, or a certain number of them. Those [ideas] developed in the last 500 years, in the colonial era, and they continue of course through today. We inherited them from an earlier time. They are not an eternal grouping that everyone has always thought about humans in this way. Something happens since the time of Darwin–evolution gets pulled into this mix. There were already these ideas that humans (we saw from Linnaeus for example) came in four or five different types. Then in the 1860s, from the time of this idea of natural selection and evolution, then that gets pulled in to justify this inequality and to reinforce this idea that certain people were meant to be superior and others were meant to be inferior. This became known as the idea of “scientific racism.” I put that in quotes very deliberately, because: it was racist, it wasn’t scientific. There really wasn’t anything scientific about it.

European Ethnocentrism

We talked about the idea of ethnocentrism: thinking that your own way of life is superior to another’s. What we were talking about then was that in the European countries a very specific idea of ethnocentrism developed, which was that “we” in Europe or the West were civilized, and those other people out there were primitive or backward.

Early evolutionary ideas

There’s this idea of ascent from the lower animals all the way up–in the Great Chain of Being, it was up to the angels and to God. As evolution comes in, in some ways it doesn’t displace the Great Chain of Being as much as join those links. The underlying ideas remain.

Scientific racism

If we put these two arrows together, which is what happens with this idea of “scientific racism,” you combine this incorrect ethnocentrism with an incorrect evolutionary idea. You get this idea that there is a gap between “the civilized man” and the “primitive man.”

Note on scientific sexism: I used “man” very deliberately here because these ideas are very gendered. This lecture was mostly about race. But the gender stuff is also very prominent. For an example of scientific sexism straight from Darwin and related to contemporary issues in science, see A Distorting Treatment, RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on by Dr. Holly Dunsworth.

The idea is that there is the civilized man at the top, and there’s a gap between the civilized man and the inferior primitive man. There is another gap between man and the lower animals. The idea is that everything can be ranked along this hierarchy. This an idea that is not necessarily causal for things like eugenics, or the idea that bad traits could be bred out of a population. It doesn’t cause things like the Holocaust. It does serve as a justification for some of the bad things that people have done to each other over time.

It also is one of the reasons we don’t learn about Alfred Russell Wallace. You may wonder why, if Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace published together the idea of natural selection: Why do we only hear about Darwin and not Wallace? Darwin was a better writer. He wrote some very good books, and he became more famous for that reason. But Wallace, in contrast to Darwin, challenged the notion that there was a huge gap between the brains, or the intelligence, of the civilized and those of the people that he had actually lived with in other places. Wallace was much closer to other people in other parts of the world. He said: “It can’t be that they are naturally dumber than us.” They’re quite smart and adapted to their own environment. Wallace was trying to explain this, and in his efforts to explain, his efforts to defend the people that he knew, he suggested that God had created an equal intelligence. For that, he has been banished from the scientific community. You can do a lot of bad things and still be a scientist, but if you say that you believe that God created something you’re probably not going to make it very far in the in the biological sciences. He was trying to argue against this idea that there was a gap between the minds of the civilized and the primitive.

[For an interesting 2021 look at the Darwin-Wallace exchange as it relates to contemporary issues, see The Good, The Bad, and the Scientists Who Don’t Know the Difference by Jonathan Marks]

Anthropology eventually argues against racial determinism

In some ways, Wallace was anticipating what anthropology would eventually argue. Remember, anthropologists are part of this whole schema. They were born during this period and a lot of them participated very much in these ideas. Eventually different anthropologists, and some of the key founding figures of anthropology, would argue that race is not determining of our capacities or of our behavior. You can’t figure out what language someone is going to be speaking because of the way they look or because of their head shape. You can’t figure out what culture someone might be able to learn based on their racial phenotype. Franz Boas, one of the founders of US anthropology, was also someone who early argued against the association of race with language or race with culture. Anthropologists, in part because of fieldwork, could tell us that you can’t understand somebody’s culture just by knowing what biological race they would be. This probably makes sense to us. I think we all understand this, that you can have a very same phenotype and yet participate in a very different culture. Race does not map onto culture or describe culture in any way. Boas was also starting to–although it was before some of the genetic stuff came out–understand that our very scheme of race was not a good descriptor of the biological differences that could be found in the human population. The idea that humans came in these stable racial units, this is something that Boas was working on, was how people would be variable based on where they grew up, in their environment. Their body form and head form could change based on where they were raised. This was considered insane at the time. People still get pissed off at Boas because of the studies that he was doing. Anthropology eventually starts to argue that not only race isn’t determining, and not only that culture is different from race, but in fact that race is not a good way to describe the biological differences that we see in the human population. This is a difficult thing for us. Most of us know the first two things. But the third one is hard for us to wrap our minds around. We live our lives swimming in the idea of race. These things are hard. It’s hard to wrap our minds around. It’s going to take a few times. You always have to rehearse it, because it’s opposed to what our senses tell us. It’s opposed to the way we’ve been raised to believe.

Modern Evolutionary Synthesis

As Lavenda and Schultz say, Boas and others were already working on these ideas and starting to get the hints of them before what we call the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. This is also called Neo-Darwinian, or “new Darwinism.” During Darwin’s time, he didn’t understand the mechanism of heredity. That came to us more from Mendel’s work with those pea plants. What Neo-Darwinism did, or the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis did, was to put together the idea of natural selection with the idea of how different traits and genes (eventually we would figure out they were genes) get inherited in different populations. We talked about the strength of this synthesis. We also talked about how some people want to develop an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. In the 1940s and 1950s [neo-Darwinism] became state of the art. It’s still a very important contribution. Perhaps we don’t necessarily need to go beyond it, especially when we’re thinking about race. What Lavenda and Schultz say here is that people like Boas were working on some of these ideas, It is exactly these Mendelian plus Darwinian ideas of what they call “Microevolutionary studies: How populations change,” were the things that would lay the basis for undermining or discrediting these 19th century ideas that people came as biological races. That’s why they asked this question for the chapter: How does evolution undermine the idea of biological race? Most of us never thought about that. We never had that question. We just assumed that evolution helped us understand biological race. It actually undermines, or it discredits the idea that humans come as biological races. It is not easy to wrap our minds around this scientifically. We are so raised to *not* see life in this way. It’s difficult to get our mind around it.

Species & Subspecies

I want to start by talking about, as Lavenda and Schultz do, the concept of a species, and what a subspecies would be. Let’s start with what makes a species. The members of the species (I mean obviously not everyone is going to be interbreeding all the time), but populations in a species can interbreed with each other. Those offspring are also going to be able to successfully interbreed. We’re not talking about horses and donkeys to produce mules that then can’t reproduce with each other.

Human beings are one interbreeding species!

In terms of human beings, we are one big interbreeding species all across the planet. If you take people from Norway and from Australia and from Sub-Saharan Africa and from Chile, those populations can all interbreed and their offspring will be viable offspring. The thing about humans is that when we look across history we’re always doing this. There are countless examples of us interbreeding with each other. We often fight each other too. We say we hate each other. But in every war and every conflict there’s always going to be interbred offspring. Whenever populations come into contact with each other, even if they say they don’t like each other, there’s going to be some of this species-testing boundaries going on. We’ve seen it every time that humans come into contact with each other.

The last races?

If we were going to be able to sort people into groups like race–humans are one interbreeding species. Race would be something like a subspecies. It wouldn’t define an inter-breeding population. It would be a sub-designation below the species level. Now, many of us believe that the last populations we could truly designate as races or subspecies of Homo or Homo sapiens was Homo neanderthalus and maybe Homo Denisovan, the Neandertals or the Denisovans. Let’s deal with the Neandertals. We have more physical evidence of Neandertals. For a while, a lot of people didn’t believe that there was interbreeding between humans (Homo sapiens) and Neandertals. For a long time there wasn’t evidence of interbreeding. They looked pretty different. Those high brow ridges and the chinless features. People were like, “nah.” For a long time people considered Neandertals to be a separate species. It’s only since 2010 that we found evidence that they did interbreed. That Neandertals did contribute some DNA that has persisted to this day in the modern human gene pool. In general that would have been more like what we would call a “race.” As in, you could tell that they were all at the boundaries of people that you might want to interbreed with, and quite physically distinct and different. They’re on the edge. They’re interbreeding, but it’s a subgroup. They’re obviously fertile, they can interbreed, but it’s getting closer to what we might call hybridization. Again, when it comes to Homo sapiens, those of us who are left, we’re like a sub-group of pretty genetically homogeneous [individuals]. There’s not a huge amount of difference, one human being to another, of what once was a probably more diverse set of bipedal large-brained creatures. If we had Neandertals and Denisovans walking around here, then you’d probably know it. They’d be more distinct than what we see among Homo sapiens. We seem to be a less diverse clade. Some people call us a “relic species.” We are the offshoot of something that was once more diverse in the past. These are basic concepts of species and subspecies, which are important to get our head around when we think about: “OK, human populations today, can someone indigenous to Africa mate with someone who is from the lightest of the northern populations?” Yes, that can all happen, and it happens all the time. We do it all the time as well.

Is there enough biological variation to classify groups?

To get to some of the reasons this is difficult to deal with, I’d like to pose this as a couple of different questions. Are there enough biological differences that, if we wanted to, we could classify people into groups? The answer to that question is: Yes. That is to say, yes, humans are relatively genetically homogeneous–we don’t have a huge range of genetic variation–but we’d be fools to say that we couldn’t classify people into groups based on the ways that we actually do vary.

Obviously when we look around at people, they do vary biologically. The second part of this question is: could we then put these differences together in such a way that we would have everyone with a certain type of feature also linked to another trait, so that we can mark off a race boundary? The answer to that question is: No. We have real human variation out there. But the ways in which that combines and mixes biologically is much more complicated than our traditional idea that people come in three or four or five different blocks or groups or Linnaean categories. Let’s talk about this a little bit in terms of what human biological variation there is. I sorted this out into the wonderful categories of “stuff you can see with your eyes” and “stuff you can’t see.” Let’s deal with the stuff you can see.

stuff you can see


First, as we all know, humans vary biologically in terms of skin color. We often believe that we use skin color in order to classify people into different races. But humans of course vary in different ways than just skin color. We might think about this: after skin color, what’s the next thing that you look at physically to try and figure out what a person might be like?

hair, eyes, noses, lips

Hair is crucial. We’re always commenting on hair color. Hair form, curly or straight. Texture of hair. This is something that obviously varies across human populations. We also can look at eye color. We can look at eye form and eye shape. Obviously people classify different groups based on their eye color and shape. If we want to get down into the elementary school level, and terrible jokes about people that I would never want to repeat, we would also talk about nose form and lip form. (Unfortunately we can’t see any of that anymore because here [during COVID masking] we don’t get to see that.) People get very weird about their noses and lips. People get into that, and those vary. There’re people with thin noses, thick noses, etc. Nose form varies all the time.


This is something you probably haven’t commented on: ears. Do people notice ears? Maybe we do now? No, we don’t tend to notice ears, at least in the United States. We don’t tend to notice ears. We do notice hair and skin. When I first met the people who would be my eventual in-laws, who are from the Korean peninsula, in the Korean population the hair form is pretty uniform. Unless you dye your hair, you’re going to have pretty much the same hair. They commented on my ears. It was interesting because if you don’t have other things to go on, you actually might notice how people’s ears do vary geographically and individually and in different groups. Of course we could talk about the shape of people’s heads and how big people’s heads are. We can talk about how tall they are. These things we see, and how they’re built, and these are all things that biologically vary. That’s stuff that we can see.

stuff you can’t see

There’s also variation in stuff we usually don’t see.


I’m going to start with something that we could see if we really got into it and started getting your criminal record out there: fingerprints. Those actually vary. They also vary geographically. Different populations tend to have more “whorls” or “hills.” We usually don’t look at people’s fingerprints unless we’re trying to catch them doing something.

blood, genetics, gut bacteria

Blood types: ABO and negative/positive. Those vary over human groups. We can also talk about different genetic groupings. This is a new one: people have talked about different types of gut bacteria. Which again vary individually, by group, and geographically.

malaria, lactose

Malaria resistance: the sickle-cell trait is something that varies in the human population, is a biological characteristic. Lactose digestion: the ability to drink milk or eat cheese later in life. Whether you will be able to do that is another way in which humans biologically vary. Again, one would be a fool to say that humans don’t biologically vary–we do in all kinds of different ways. But the question is: How do these variations map onto each other? Do they map onto each other? The answer to that is much more complicated. If we take lactose for example, it turns out that only one-third of the worldwide population can digest milk. The campaigns to “drink milk” have a lot to do with the ways in which many Americans are from places in the north of Europe, where people were able to digest milk. This is the percentage of the adult population that can drink milk without getting a stomachache. You may know that if you go into the store now you can find lactate and various things. We use culture to modify even that.


On the one hand this maps onto some very light-skinned populations up in the north where they made a lot of cheese. It also maps onto some very dark-skinned populations. In western Africa, this little dot in Sub-Saharan Africa, people in Saudi Arabia, and parts of India. All of these places where people grew up with, and over time domesticated animals, that were vitally important for how they would later drink milk. What I’m trying to say here is something like lactose tolerance, which is a biological trait, doesn’t map onto any particular form of skin color. If we group together all the people who are lactose tolerant, we’d have all kinds of different looking people. Same thing with something that some people consider a racial trait but is actually more complicated than that: the sickle-cell allele. It occurs in areas in which malaria comes into play. Sickle cell gives some resistance to malaria. Because of our own migration patterns in the Americas, people that were brought to the Americas as enslaved Africans [were brought predominantly from malarial areas]. We often associate sickle cell with African populations, but there are lots of African populations which don’t have sickle cell. There are other populations in parts of India and parts of the Middle East, even in parts of Greece and Cyprus, that have sickle cell because malaria was there. Again, if you put these people together and say, “aha, we can group them by sickle cell,” you get very different looking people in the same category. There’s another map of the percentage of the population that has the B allele. We could do different blood groupings. What we find is there’s nothing that is unique. There’s obviously different percentages in different populations, but when you group people together based on A’s or B’s or O’s you’re going to get different groupings. These gradually fade in/out and vary over time. This leads us to the crucial idea of *clinal variation*. Most of the features that we see as varying among human populations vary gradually over a geographic range. This applies to skin color, perhaps most famously. It applies to a lot of the other features that we talked about as well. Other features can be–as we know from Mendel and genetics–combined and recombined in different ways. There’s not a particular skin color that goes with a particular nose shape. There are people that have thin noses of every skin color.
All of these things vary independently of each other. They do not co-vary. They do not concord with each other. We can sort people into these kinds of types. If we try to map them onto each other–trust me, people have tried this over and over again because everybody wanted to find the groupings–if you map lactose or malaria onto skin color, height, or build, or a hair or eye form, all of these things would produce different groups and different ideas about how human beings could be sorted. Human biological variation is real. It’s important. But it doesn’t sort well into our traditional race categories. One of the things we do need to do is not to try to categorize people into groups. It is good to explain *why* it is that humans do have this biological variation. Some of the biological variation can be explained by natural selection. The distribution of sickle-cell trait is a natural selection mechanism that arises in places where there is malaria. Malaria is a mostly lethal disease. Sickle-cell trait also can be quite lethal if you get both of the recessive genes for it. It can actually be lethal from very early on. The reason I say that is–it’s an example of something that is only adaptive in a very particular environment. If the environment changes then it becomes a very maladaptive thing. It’s good in a way, even though it hurts a lot of people, it eventually can be successful as a natural selection mechanism. It doesn’t mean that we all want to get it. We definitely don’t all want to get it. Now that we hopefully can be able to do more to eliminate malaria, we want to not have the sickle-cell variant. It’s an example of something that can be adaptive in a certain environment but maladaptive in another environment.

Sexual Selection

The other possibility, or one of the things that can also help to explain human biological difference, is the idea of sexual selection. Darwin–although you probably didn’t learn about this in high school–wrote about sexual selection, or how people and other creatures choose mates based on things that they consider to be good for mating. This is an important evolutionary mechanism. I’ve underlined here that it *might* help in some ways. You would think that with ideas like race and hair and eyes, those are also things that people put on their “want-ads,” when you’re looking around for someone. Those are things that we notice. We usually think about people as beautiful based on different characteristics like that. But it’s very difficult [as an explanation]. A lot of people tried to explain skin color and other things through sexual selection. My feeling is it hasn’t worked that well as an explanation in the human population. It is an important thing to think about. It’s completely difficult to avoid that people do check each other out when they’re trying to figure out who to have children with. A lot of biological difference is also random. Fingerprints, for example. There’s not really a selective pressure that would mean that certain populations end up with a higher percentage of a certain fingerprint. That is a consequence of gene flow or genetic drift. These mechanisms are things that happen at random, when a certain population goes further out than others and gets a little bit isolated. Then they come back in with certain genes. Some of these traits group up in certain areas, not because of selective pressures, but simply because that’s the population that happened to break off and populate that area. Then I should also mention that a lot of these traits are complex to figure out. Genetics is a lot different than it was in the time of the Mendelian idea of “one gene / one trait.” Especially with human traits like skin color. They are influenced by a whole bunch of different genes all across the genetic system. Also, we know that one gene might influence a whole bunch of different traits. It’s a complicated process, which also mixes with our environment and where we are raised. These are things that help us to explain why there is biological variation, and explain without necessarily having to try and categorize or even attempting to categorize people into groups.

Clinal Variation

One of the interesting things about human beings, and one of the things that we talk about the most, is skin color. We believe that our racial categories are based on skin color. Skin color in human beings exhibits perfect clinal variation. If you line up all the human beings from fairest or lightest to darkest, there’s a continuous variation all across. There’s no line [of division]. Different people have tried to come up with schemes to measure these things. This one, Biasutti’s Skin Color Variations, which goes from the number one to the number “over 30.” You put something on your arm and be able to tell, match it up closely to a skin color. What we can say from this is that the populations–I’ve used the year 1492 here because this is before people started traveling across the oceans to each other. These are the populations that would be indigenous or native to these areas before trans-oceanic travel. People have been moving around forever, and that’s what we’ve been talking about is these human migrations, but at this time if you took a walk from the far north down to the equator: there is no line at which you cross over from one group [to another]. You couldn’t say, “aha, I’ve crossed over from White to Black here. I found the village where it happens.” No, you’d see continuous variation. Most people believe that there are different natural selection elements involved in skin color, having to do with skin protection against excessive sunlight. Also, having to do with Vitamin D absorption, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. We talked about human evolution happening mostly in Africa. As people moved into some of these northern areas, through the Middle East, there was depigmentation, or the loss of pigment, as people moved in these areas. Then you see a similar thing going on in the Americas. When you are closer to the tropics the skin color gets darker. Not quite as dark as in some of the other areas. That may have been a re-pigmentation of people who lived in those areas. Or it may have been that they did not depigment as much if they moved into these areas around the equator. Again, this is if you walked from east to west or from north to south, you’d see gradual variation all along these routes. You see different parts in which people have different kinds of skin color. We tend to associate dark skin colors with Africa, but those also occur for Indigenous Australian populations and Indigenous Papua New Guinean populations and in parts of India where you see a whole different range of skin tones.

Race as a colonial category

Our idea of race–that these skin tones come to us from race–is a product of the colonial period, in which people from one part of the world started sailing down to another part of the world, bringing people into the Americas, enslaved Africans into the Americas, who would then interact with people who were indigenous to the Americas. [Colonialism] put them all in the same place. Instead of walking from one place to another, where you’d see gradual variation, you brought these different populations into contact with each other in the context of what was called the New World and the Americas. The rise of plantations, ownership of the land, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the Americas of their land. [Colonialism] brings these different populations together in a particular way. There are certain populations that get almost completely left out of our US racial classifications. There’s a huge variation of skin color in India, but we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t understand it, because it wasn’t part of the colonial experience. We don’t really include that as part of [race classification schemes]. We don’t know what to do with someone who would be aboriginal to Australia, who might be quite dark-skinned. Do we classify them as Black? They didn’t participate in the colonial experience [of the Americas]. Our ideas about where people fall racially is based upon the labor and productive regimes that were set up under the colonial encounter, in which people started moving different people around trans-oceanically. Then putting them together in ways that they would not necessarily have come into contact when people were mostly walking around from place to place. In some ways, our ideas about race, that there are three groups or five groups of human beings, is based on a strange sample of the human population: the people who ended up in the Americas. When we see people from Saudi Arabia, we in the US don’t know what to do. We’re confused. We didn’t develop a classification scheme for all the [world’s] peoples under colonialism [in the Americas].

For a lecture devoted to race and ethnicity in the Americas (not just the United States) based on the textbook Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean see: