Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Some Common Misunderstandings About Biology and Race

Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle

The following is adapted from Understanding Race by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall, Cambridge University Press (2022).

When addressing the “reality” of race, we need to realize that the word was first developed as a social term, then co-opted by biologists as a taxonomic one. It thus possesses implications in both the social and the biological domains. In this blog, extracted from our recent book Understanding Race, we address some of the major misconceptions about race in the biological domain.

Biological races exist.
The human mind has a deep desire to catalog and classify the elements of the world around it, including the varieties of humankind that we perceive. Yet in doing so we distort our perceptions of the world by ignoring its awkward complexities. Division of the peoples of the world into four or five or more definable groups has been repeatedly attempted, and it has proven an impossible task. Our species Homo sapiens is undoubtedly variable in its physical features; but it is variable in so many different ways that no system of defined groups can capture that variability.

Different “racial” groups have different abilities.
It has often been assumed that physical differences among people must map onto different spectra of ability, or, worse, onto superiority and inferiority. This has proven not to be the case. Just looking at someone’s appearance tells us nothing anything about his or her skills or cognitive abilities.

Skin color is a useful feature for defining racial groups.
Skin color is hugely variable among human beings. But there is more than one way in which our bodies can arrive at a particular skin color, and individuals with apparently identical skin colors may have entirely disparate histories and genes. Skin color is therefore not a good scientific diagnostic for any group of people.

We can tell if there are genetic races by just looking at patterns of variation of humans.
This misconception disregards the time-tested approach of hypothesis testing in science. It also ignores the fact that what the observer is seeing with respect to skin color is the underlying correlation structure (UCS) of the grouping perceived in the mind of the observer. The UCS is what we use to visually and quickly categorize things (including other people), and is neither empirical nor hypothesis-testing.

The geographical varieties of humankind have deep roots in time.
We have a keen eye for our own species, and so we tend to overestimate the significance of the differences in appearance that we see among people from different areas of the world. In turn, we often conclude that those differences must have been established over long periods of time. In reality, however, all biological differences among modern human beings are of extremely recent origin. Our species Homo sapiens was born a mere 200,000 years ago, a blip in evolutionary time. And not only are all variations among humans around the world an epiphenomenon of that short period, but all variations we see outside the continent of Africa are a product of no more than the last 70,000 years or so.

Arguments against the existence of genetic races are semantic.
This misconception neglects the importance of taxonomic thinking, and it trivializes the science of taxonomy whereby scientists formally name things. The application of taxonomy does not result in semantic arguments, but in sound scientific conclusions and precise nomenclature. The designation of a group of organisms as a species, a subspecies, or a race, or anything else is a taxonomic act, and as such it needs to be scientifically rigorous and precise. Trying to do this for humans has proven futile, so that while human variation undoubtedly exists, races do not in any scientific sense.

The modern techniques that are used to analyze the genomic basis of race, like STRUCTURE and principal components analysis (PCA), clearly show the genetic existence of races.
This misconception conflates the results from genetic or genomic analysis using clustering methods like PCA, STRUCTURE. or tree building, with the conclusion that races exist in a genetic context. The most precise method for testing the cohesion within a group of organisms, or the lack of such cohesion, is through tree analysis. When this approach is used, it notably fails to tell us anything about race. More importantly, we have to note that clustering approaches like STRUCTURE and PCA are best used to visually summarize data and pose new hypotheses, and should not be used to test hypotheses.

Understanding Race by Rob DeSalle & Ian Tattersall

Title: Understanding Race
Authors: Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall
Paperback ISBN: 9781009055581

About The Authors

Ian Tattersall

Ian Tattersall, American Museum of Natural History, New York...

View profile >

Rob DeSalle

Rob DeSalle, American Museum of Natural History, New York...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!