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

Abstract

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.

close

References

Andreasen RO (1998) A new perspective on the race debate. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 49: 199–225.

Andreasen RO (2004) The cladistic race concept: a defense. Biology and Philosophy 19: 425–442.

Barbujani G, Magagni A, Minch E and Cavalli‐Sforza LL (1997) An apportionment of human DNA diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 94: 4516–4519.

Dobzhansky T (1962) Comment on: on the non‐existence of human races. Current Anthropology 3(3): 280–281.

Edwards AWF (2003) Human genetic diversity: Lewontin's fallacy. BioEssays 25(8): 798–801.

Gissis SB (2008) When is ‘race’ a race? 1946–2003. Studies in the History and Philosophy of the biological and biomedical sciences 39: 437–450.

Jakobsson M, Scholz SW, Scheet P et al. (2008) Genotype, haplotype and copy‐number variation in worldwide human populations. Nature 451(7181): 998–1003.

Lewontin RC (1972) The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology 6: 381–398.

Lewontin RC (1982) Human Diversity. Redding, CT: Scientific American/Freeman.

Livingstone FB (1962) On the non‐existence of human races. Current Anthropology 3(3): 279–280.

Novembre J, Johnson T, Bryc K et al. (2008) Genes mirror geography within Europe. Nature 456(7218) (6 November): 98–101.

Risch N, Buchard E, Ziv E and Tang H (2002) Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. Genome Biology 3(7): 1–12.

Root M (2003) The use of race in medicine as a proxy for genetic differences. Philosophy of Science 70: 1173–1183.

Rosenberg NA, Pritchard JK, Weber JL et al. (2002) Genetic structure of human populations. Science 298: 2381–2385.

Weiss KM and Fullerton SM (2005) Racing around, getting nowhere. Evolutionary Anthropology 14: 165–169.

Further Reading

Appiah KA and Gutmann A (1998) Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bamshad M, Wooding S, Salisbury BA and Claiborne Stephens J (2004) Deconstructing the relationship between genetics and race. Nature Reviews: Genetics 5(August): 598–608.

Farber P (2003) Race‐mixing and science in the United States. Endeavour 27(4): 166–170.

Fausto‐Sterling A (2008) The bare bones of race. Social Studies of Science 38(5): 657–694.

Hull DL (1998) Species, subspecies, and races. Social Research 65: 351–367.

Pigliucci M and Kaplan J (2003) On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans. Philosophy of Science 70: 1161–1172.

Smedley A and Smedley BD (2005) Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist 60(1): 16–26.

Weiss KM (2008) Tilting at Quixotic Trait Loci (QTL): an evolutionary perspective on genetic causation. Genetics 179: 1741–1756.

Witherspoon DJ, Wooding S, Rogers AR et al. (2007) Genetic similarities within and between human populations. Genetics 176(May): 351–359.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
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]