The Realities of Races
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Jonathan Marks is a molecular anthropologist who teaches at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is author of Human Biodiversity and What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee.


Anthropologists have been studying race for over 200 years now, and contrary to what seems to be conventional wisdom (at least as articulated in Leroi’s New York Times essay), they have learned quite a bit about it.

Perhaps the most significant discovery is that human groups, however constituted, are fluid, bio-cultural units. They run a broad gamut from more-or-less biological to more-or-less cultural, both in the criteria used to define the groups and in the context or circumstances that make such groups interesting or relevant to define. Thus, a category such as "achondroplastic dwarves" or "albinos" is unified by the possession of a few key phenotypes and genetic features in spite of the overall biological and cultural heterogeneity of its members. A category such as "blondes" or "Italians" is likewise constructed around some aspects of phenotype, genes, geography, or nationality. However, one can become a blonde or an Italian, while one cannot become an achondroplast or an albino.

The Nature of Race

Race was a category devised by scholars of the 18th century to summarize an ostensibly natural set of divisions within the human species. We know when, we know by whom, and we know in what forums. Prior to that time, and even into the 19th century, human variation was always interpreted as varying in local terms, not in para-continental terms. Why did race catch on then? Who knows? It is most likely related to the political economics of the age, involving sea voyage and exploitative relations with people who had more chimeric and fluid political systems than the recognizable, centralized, precisely bordered nation-states with which the Europeans were familiar. It was, in a phrase, a concept that was good to think with.

As long as you did not think too hard.

Simply within the 20th century, scholars used race to mean three distinct things. At the turn of the century, race was something etched or inscribed within you. It was passed on undiluted, often in opposition to the physical features. Someone who looked white, could really be black. Race was a property, a quality, something that needed to be diagnosed and identified, and a specialist armed with calipers emerged to make those kinds of ascertainments. We can call this a theory of “race as essence.”

The trouble was that this was hard to reconcile with known patterns of biology. Nothing was known to be inherited in such a fashion. Mendelian heredity was probabilistic and quantized. You had a 1/8 chance of inheriting a specific chunk of hereditary instruction from any great-grandparent. And that was equal across all chunks and across all great-grandparents.

Even more problematic was the fact that it didn’t answer how many different racial essences there were—how different “different” was; and since it was a reification to begin with, it could be applied to pretty much any group of people with their own name, who could be seen to differ, if you looked hard enough, from contrasting groups of people. Thus the Aryans, the Jews, the French, or the Gypsies could all be considered distinctive and detectable elements, core natural identities buried under complex layers of ancestry.

Consequently, scholars of the age could casually elide linguistic groups, national groups, religious groups, social groups, and geographical groups in spite of their non-comparability. One commonly encounters discussions from that era of “races and peoples,” for example. But of course, peoples come packaged many different ways, mostly culturally, and if you don’t make a distinction between the kinds of groups you are talking about, then it is not at all clear that you can claim to be talking about races in any meaningfully rigorous sense.

By the 1930s, a different way of thinking about races had emerged. Race became a large and distinct geographical population. While this may sound similar to the race as essence, it is in fact very different, since you are now a part of a race, a race is not a part of you.

Race now becomes simple facts of ancestry and appearance, not something to be diagnosed or identified. Passing is less of a problem, because that is predicated on the one drop of blood rule, which is not based on biology in the first place. Unfortunately for this theory, the physical features focused on as racial are seen to be distributed not uniformly over the continents, but as a series of gradients. This creates real problems in asserting a qualitative difference between nearby populations (such as Ethiopians and Persians), but no such qualitative difference between distant populations (such as Ghanaians and Ethiopians), when in fact all such differences are quantitative.

Such an assertion of qualitative geographical distinctions—race as continent—is not natural, not objective, not value-neutral, not scientific, and not being inferred from the data. It is, rather, the artificial division of a continuum into discrete sections, and the imposition of meaning or significance upon the separation between those sections. This imposes order upon an otherwise noisy, chaotic biological pattern. It is a very fundamental cultural practice; indeed it comprises much of the cognitive aspects of what we seem to mean by culture.

Lewontin’s 1972 quantification of the patterns of difference detectable genetically showed that such continentally-defined races are statistically trivial, and the mitochondrial DNA work in the 1980s showed that Asian and European gene pools were each a derived subset of the African gene pool, and in any event did not fall out as natural groups. These data and analyses undermined the idea that races were largely discrete geographical groups—when they were now obviously, for the most part, genetically overlapping groups.

But it left open the possibility of subtly redefining race yet again, to effectively a very careful look at the very small amount of genetic variation that has a major geographical component, in what is commonly expressed in a Venn diagram. This “gene pool residual,” the genetic distinctiveness of a group of people, is what I think the scientific discussion of whether or not race is “biologically real” is principally about today. But I would also venture to guess that it would be utterly incomprehensible to someone a hundred years ago or even 50 years ago, who might nevertheless have agreed with the proposition that race is biologically real.

There is also an epistemological problem with the idea of races as the gene pool residuals. You are the one who has decided how many circles there are in your Venn diagram, and which populations are parts of which circles. You could do a statistical cluster analysis, but that is sensitive to the population samples chosen, the individual people representing them, the demographic history of the populations, the assumptions of the particular algorithm, and the patterns of contact among the populations. In other words, the species still doesn’t come pre-packaged for you; you still have to decide, given the fact of difference, how much and what kind is meaningful and how much and what kind is not.

Thus, the best minds and most comprehensive data have never permitted the objective parsing of the human species into any fairly large, fairly small in number, fairly well-bounded, and fairly homogeneous basic constitutive units. Races, as natural divisions of the human species, are thus rather like angels. Many people believe in them, devoutly. They can even tell you what properties they have. But the closer you try to examine them to discover their real nature, the more elusive they become. And ironically, the people who claim to be most familiar with them are the ones to be the most suspicious of.

Anthropology came to the conclusion that race is most fundamentally about the construction of discrete symbolic boundaries within a pattern of geographical diversity that occurs as gradients. History says that the groups delimited as meaningfully different can change with the circumstances, as new identities are created (such as Hispanic or Latino) and others are dissipated (such as Hittite). We see that race is inherited sometimes with, and sometimes without, particular physical or genetic markers. And of course there has been a great deal of scholarship in the past few decades on the cooperation between the state and its scientists, ranging from the obvious Nazi example, to the more subtle ways in which biology defines what is normal and deviant, and what to do about the latter; or what is natural, its opposite being unnatural and thus meriting attention. The development of the concept of race can profitably be seen as an expression of this so-called “bio-power”—constituting an authoritative, scientific answer to the basic question, “What kinds of people are there?”

People in Groups

We can summarize what is known about the nature of human groups.

First, the differences that exist from person to person are principally found within a single population, and the differences that exist from group to group are distributed as a series of gradients. To that extent, para-continental races (as popularly perceived) represent the arbitrary agglomeration of populations, and the erection of boundaries where none exist in nature. Anthropology is predicated on human differences—if everyone was the same, there could be no anthropology. At issue is the pattern or structure of those differences, and they seem to be principally cultural; and those that aren’t cultural are principally polymorphic and clinal.

Second, human populations are historically ephemeral. While there are French, there are no more Franks, and the relation between the two is as much a cultural origin myth as a genetic genealogy, given the complex population movements over the last millennium.

Third, human populations are hierarchically organized. One can be Caucasoid, Central European, Slavic, and Polish simultaneously; all are identities, all are historically constructed, and all are distinguishable genetically from contrasting groups, on the average, if you look hard enough. The point is that humans come packaged many ways, in varying degrees of naturalness, arbitrariness, and historicalness. They come as variably sized bio-cultural units, encompassing and cross-cutting other such bio-cultural units. There is no merit—anthropological, medical, or historiographic—in pretending any of them are purely natural, objective, biological categories.

Fourth, human populations are genetically porous. People are often mobile and are always in genetic contact with their neighbors. This ranges in practice from exogamy to mass rape, with most instances lying in the broad middle, euphemistically called “gene flow.” In any event, those old traveling salesman jokes were probably being told in the late Pleistocene.

Fifth, human populations are culturally bounded. We in fact have rather little genetic variation as a species, and consequently we mark ourselves culturally, through dress, body language, spoken language, and many more subtle features. Sometimes they parallel physical differences; usually they don’t—but they cue us in to who we are and who we are not far more readily than biological features do.

Racialized Medicine

To understand the possibilities and problems posed by “racialized medicine” we need to distinguish crucially between risk assessment and intervention.

One often hears about Ashkenazi Jews in the context of the value of race for medicine, with elevated frequencies of real alleles for breast cancer, Tay-Sachs, familial dysautonomia, Gaucher’s, etc., not to mention imaginary alleles for intelligence. But what do Ashkenazi Jews have to do with race? If by race we mean a large natural division of people, they are neither particularly large nor particularly natural. And their genetic distinctiveness is the result of demographic processes and events on the scale of centuries, perhaps barely millennia.

All human groups, however constituted, have particular medical risks. African Americans, Ashkenazi Jews, Afrikaners and Japanese, poor people, rich people, chimney sweeps, prostitutes, choreographers, and the Pima Indians all have their particular health risks. And race is not the cause of it, in fact, race will positively obscure it.

Providing health care can obviously benefit by knowing something of the self-identification of the subject, given that different groups have different risks, due to their histories or life circumstances. But that does not presuppose that there are fundamental biologically-based divisions between the groups.

On the other hand, trying to develop different medical interventions for different groups does presuppose such basic natural differences. Imagine, for example, that there is an allele that affects the ability of a drug to work. How can we expect it to be distributed in the human species? As an African version and a European version? As a Basque or Ashkenazi version and a wild-type? Of course not—rather, we must expect it to be distributed in a similar fashion to all the genetic variation we are already familiar with. That is to say, we might expect to find the allele in 22% of Africans and in 54% of Europeans.

Of what benefit would racialized medicine then possibly be? The therapeutic intervention would have to be based on the genotype, not on any racialized identity. Otherwise it would be far more likely to kill people than to cure them.

Race In The Cultural Context Of Modern Science

The last issue of interest concerns the development of companies marketing a racial identity for their clients, based on the assumption that a small sample of Nigerians represent “pure Africans,” a small sample of Chinese represent “pure Asians,” etc.—and examining the genetic residuals that remain when contrasted with pure Northern Europeans and Native Americans. These residuals have been isolated, patented and called “ancestry-informative markers.”

Unfortunately, while the work is technologically and statistically sophisticated, it is epistemologically very primitive. The underlying historical model is essentially that of the 19th-century gloss on Genesis, in which Noah’s sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, sojourned to the most distant parts of the Old World and fathered the continental races. Everyone in between the extremes was seen as the product of a secondary race mixture. Actually, however, anatomically modern humans arose first specifically in those in-between places. The earliest modern humans are from Ethiopia, in East Africa; not from Ghana, Korea, and Norway. The extremes represent the most geographically divergent, not the purest.

In other words, this business has far more to do with the modern culture of science than with the production of reliable knowledge. When I was a graduate student in genetics in the 1970s, you could not get rich in genetics. Like any other academic field, you were lucky just to make a living at it. Science is different now. Private sector science is not something we were taught about, where the idealized search for true facts about the universe is checked and balanced by the profit motive.

To conclude, ultimately the issue in “racialized medicine” is about diminishing the quality of healthcare through the dissemination of incompetent biology.

It is thus like creationism, only with lives at stake.

We are faced not so much with the alternatives of “soft science” versus “hard science.” We are, rather, faced with acknowledging the patterns of human variation versus reinventing the square wheel. In a discussion filled with ironies, perhaps the greatest is that the scientists who say anthropologists are wrong about race would probably be the first to insist upon relying on the judgments of experts, if the context were only slightly different.