Race as An Illusion: What Determines Race?

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"All human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same." President Bill Clinton.[1]

Throughout scientific history, there has been much debate and controversy over one major topic- race as a direct result of genetic variation. Although recent scientific data has caused mainstream scientists to conclude that there are no real racial differences among people and to state further, that race is purely an imaginary “social construct” that is perpetuated by modern society, many scientists think otherwise about the actual percentage of difference in genetic code. So what caused this concept of race to form and what exactly is the genetic truth behind these various claims?

When did this concept of the term “race” come into play? Although it may seem as though race became an integral part of society from the beginnings of human society, this term is relatively modern. Although in 400 BCE in the ancient Greek world they used a form of social classification, they mainly distinguished categories according to culture and language differences that existed rather than physical differences. In fact the term, “barbarian” was used in conjunction with the concept of “foreigners” and non-Greeks who stutters and is non-intelligible and it is important to note that even Africans can be accepted as Greeks as long as they adapted to the language and dress.[2] Although current modern interpretations of the ancient world may view them as archaic, on the contrary, this evidence proves that in fact we are the ones who need to learn from our ancestors and look past our skin tones and view each other as a part of one human entity.

              How different are we from one another in terms of genetic makeup? In current modern society, there is a common misconception that race is a direct result of genetic variation and geological isolation. Since each human is made up of small bits and pieces from millions of ancestors dating all the way back to the original homo sapiens in Africa, it is impossible to be able to analyze our complete genetic makeup. However, despite common belief, all humans share the same general ancestry that has origins rooted in Africa and are generally thought to have 99.9% similar in genetic makeup. Although recent findings have disputed this exact number and have caused scientists, such as Stephen W. Scherr of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, to state that “when looking at the entire 'content' of the genome, I would now say we are 99.7-99.8 percent identical”, scientists tend to generally agree that racial features stem mainly from the large amount of variation in the copy number, repetitions and number of repetitions of the genetic code.[3]

It is astounding to know that although all humans share similar ancestors and the genetic difference accounts for a small fraction of a percentage but yet this is the root of current racial tensions and genocide wars that have continued to occur throughout much of modern human history. In addition, this small change in genetic makeup “do exist between individuals and between groups, those differences don’t follow racial lines”.[4] Although there isn’t any direct evidence to prove the pre-conceived notions that humans have about major genetic differences or some have racial or genetic superiority, we continue to perpetuate this myth within modern human society without any genetic or scientific evidence.

              This concept of racial superiority through “genetic evidence” was even perpetuated through one of the founders of the human genome project and the DNA structure, James D. Watson. Watson, who was a part of the famed Watson-Crick duo that deciphered the DNA bond and winner of the 1962 Noble Prize of Physiology or Medicine, was quoted in a recent article in the Sunday Times Magazine on Oct. 14. 2007 stating that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”. In addition, Dr. Watson stated that he hoped everyone was equal, but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true”.[5]

Although he has since retracted his comment and argued that the news reporter from the Sunday Times Magazine had “misquoted” him and taken his comments out of context, the reporter stands by her interview, mainly since it was recorded. Through the consequence of Watson’s actions, he was immediately shunned by the scientific and academic communities, as he was relieved from his administrative position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Individual opinions about racial superiority aside, Watson’s outlandish claims about the innate nature of those of African-Americans lack any genetic evidence or reasoning. As a scientist, a Noble prize winning scientist, Watson knows better than anyone that the role of a scientist is to always question current theories on the basis of thorough scientific research and analysis without any subjective or skewed opinions attached to it of any kind. Although Watson was a world-renowned scientist who was well-respected, his unwarranted conclusions and biases caused further controversy and confusion within the scientific community.

Throughout much of scientific human history, there has been a long-standing controversy over the genetic origins of human race and what triggers this change. Although the minute aspects of percent difference in genetic changes can vary amongst scientists, there is a general consensus about the origins of human species in Africa and the idea that race sprouts from the variation in repetitions of similar genetic code. This general scientific declaration about how all humans on the face of this earth are similar in ancestry and should therefore peacefully co-exist as members of a large general human society should be continually understood and taught for future generations to come.

[1] “New Findings Undermine Scientists’ Claim that Race Isn’t Real”. World Science. 8 September 2004. World Science. 7 November 2007. <http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/exclusives-nfrm/040908_race.htm>.

[2] Adelman, Larry. Race-The Power of An Illusion. California Newsreel. 2003. Public Broadcasting Service. 8 November 2007. <http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm>

[3] “New Findings Undermine Scientists’ Claim that Race Isn’t Real”. World Science. 8 September 2004. World Science. 7 November 2007. <http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/exclusives-nfrm/040908_race.htm>.

[4] Adelman, Larry. Race-The Power of An Illusion. California Newsreel. 2003. Public Broadcasting Service. 8 November 2007. <http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm>

[5] Syal, Rajeev. “Scientist James Watson Flies Home After Employers Suspend Him”.
The Times. 20 October 2007. Times Newspaper Co. Ltd. 10 November 2007. <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article2697559.ece>


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