‘Race’: What Biology Can Tell Us about a Social Construct


Although there exist human populations that differ in the proportions of particular alleles present, this fact does not support claims that ‘race’, as it is usually understood, is a biological rather than a social concept. Although there are differences in proportions of alleles in those races usually recognised in contemporary western social discourse (folk‐racial categories), these differences are no more biologically significant than are the genetic differences that exist between populations that are not socially recognised as races (populations that do not correspond to folk‐racial categories). This implies that whatever average genetic differences exist between the populations called ‘races’ in ordinary social discourse, those genetic differences are not what account for the folk‐racial categories in use today. Despite recent research sometimes taken to imply otherwise, folk‐racial categories – which remain of fundamental importance to people's life‐prospects – remain social categories and not biological categories.

Key Concepts:

  • Many human populations differ from each other in the frequencies of particular alleles.

  • Many of these genetic variations between human populations can be explained by population structure.

  • Contemporary socially identified racial categories (folk‐racial categories) can be mapped (albeit only roughly) onto human populations identified on the basis of the continental location of recent ancestors.

  • Since physical location is associated with population structure, it is no surprise that populations whose ancestors came from different locations will differ in the frequencies of some alleles.

  • Although human populations identified on the basis of folk‐racial categories differ in the proportion of particular alleles, so too do many human populations that are not generally socially recognised as forming races (such as the country of origin within Europe).

  • Biologically, the populations that form folk‐racial categories (e.g. Asians) are no more important or significant than many other populations that are not usually identified as races (e.g. the Spanish and Portuguese).

  • Although human populations identified on the basis of folk‐racial categories differ in the proportion of particular alleles, this does not make the folk‐racial categories biological categories.

Keywords: biological race; allele frequencies; folk racial categories; human populations; human genetic variation

Figure 1.

Genetic distance between populations as estimated by SNPs (single‐nucleotides polymorphisms). Risch et al. note that these groups (Africa, Europe, East Asia, Oceana and the Americas) can be mapped onto some more or less traditional folk‐racial categories (African/Black, Caucasian, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American). Reproduced from Jakobsson et al., with permission from Nature Publishing Group.

Figure 2.

Are there many ‘races’ within Europe? The kinds of ‘clustering’ that lead some researchers to argue that socially recognised human races have a genetic basis can also be used to sort populations into much smaller groups, groups that no one seriously argues are of any biological significance. Here, when Novembre et al. sorted their sample of 1387 Europeans based on genetic similarity using two ‘principal component’ axis, they found that the resulting population structure mirrored the geographic data. Novembre et al. note further that despite the low overall levels of genetic differentiation, ‘an individual's deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) can be used to infer their geographic origin with surprising accuracy – often to within a few hundred kilometers’ (Novembre et al., , p. 98). Legend: AL, Albania; AT, Austria; BA, Bosnia‐Herzegovina; BE, Belgium; BG, Bulgaria; CH, Switzerland; CY, Cyprus; CZ, Czech Republic; DE, Germany; DK, Denmark; ES, Spain; FI, Finland; FR, France; GB, the United Kingdom; GR, Greece; HR, Croatia; HU, Hungary; IE, Ireland; IT, Italy; KS, Kosovo; LV, Latvia; MK, Macedonia; NO, Norway; NL, The Netherlands; PL, Poland; PT, Portugal; RO, Romania; RS, Serbia and Montenegro; RU, Russia; Sct, Scotland; SE, Sweden; SI, Slovenia; SK, Slovakia; TR, Turkey; UA, Ukraine and YG, Yugoslavia. Reproduced from Novembre et al., with permission from Nature Publishing Group.



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Kaplan, Jonathan Michael(Jan 2011) ‘Race’: What Biology Can Tell Us about a Social Construct. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005857]