Race Wars: The debate on the importance of race as a method of classification

Kaari Pitts's picture

Race Wars: The debate on the importance of race as a method of classification

How do we as humans characterize and categorize ourselves? Do we look at

ourselves as one race, that is, the human race? Or do we look at ourselves as a multitude

of races of which people can belong based on varying characteristics, such as geographic

origin, facial features and skin color? During the Tuesday lab of Biology 103, the

students were asked to make an observation of two planets, Nearer and Farther.

Without using scientific tools, the students were expected to categorize the findings on

the through observation, noting size, color and height.

In lab, while observing the apparent diversity of the two planets, my group

began to think not only about the multitude of diversity within the plant world that we

were able to visually observe, but the diversity visually apparent within humans as well.

When our group presented to the class, Professor Grobstein asked the students to

observe and classify the number of “races” and/or “groups” that we could visually

observe within the classroom. Out of 18 girls, the majority either said that there were 18

different and distinct groups in the room or that there was only one group present, of

which we were all members. Only two girls said that there were four— distinct groups

which was based on physical observations such as skin color and physical characterizes.

This led me to question why there is no consensus about how humans should be

characterized, and why there are so many debates regarding the importance or

unimportance of identifying race as a viable method for human classification.

The argument regarding the importance of race as a viable form of categorization

spans many professional fields such as anthropology (physical and cultural), sociology

and biology. Within the discipline of genetics, the two main arguments are that, 1) race

is not important because there is more genetic variation within races rather then

between them and 2) the categories of self-identified ethnicity and race and/or ancestor

geographic ancestry is both valid and useful. This argument supports the belief that the

correspondence between “clusters inferred from multilocus genetic data…implies that

genetic factors might contribute to unexplained phenotypic variation between groups.”

According to the December 20, 2002 New York Times article, “Gene Study

Identifies 5 Main Human Populations, Linking Them to Geography”, scientists studied

the DNA of 52 human groups, were able to effectively place the majority of the worlds

population within five major geographical areas---Africa, Europe, Asia, Melanesia and

the Americas. By scanning the human genome, scientists were able to find a relationship

among the patterns and the number of ancestry informative markers, a short segment of

DNA that distinguished the five major geographical groups. “‘What this study says is

that if you look at enough markers you can identify the geographic region a person

comes from… [and] the[se] regions broadly correspond with popular notions of race.”

What is most interesting about this study is that, it draws a correlation and thus a

relationship between race and the closest geographic region that a person is originally

from. Although the scientists are not arguing that race is evident within genes, and as a

result it dismisses the notion of race solely determined by visual observations such as

skin color and facial features, which could be determined by natural selection. In

addition however, as stated within Science magazine, “self-reported population ancestry

likely provides a suitable proxy for genetic ancestry”. One’s race and ancestral

geographic origin are usually linked, therefore how can it be problematic to categorize

by race, if there is a proven relationship between many valid visual observations and

geographic origin.

This is particularly relevant and is a useful tool within the medical profession,

especially regarding diseases which certain racial groups are more susceptible to various

genetic diseases than other geographical groups such as sickle cell anemia for African-

Americans and people from the Mediterranean, Ty Sacs or Eastern Europeans Jews

among other diseases that target specific geographic populations. By understanding the

relationship between ancestral geographic origin, self identified race, and ancestry

informative markers, scientists are able to effectively identify disease, prescribe

medicine and inform populations about their respective degree/levels of susceptibility.

For many, these patterns of variation found within the five main geographical

groups support the usage of “traditional racial categories”. However, this argument can

be problematic as it excludes historically mixed groups such as many Hispanics and

some African-Americans who can have up to 30% of European ancestry. According to

Times Online, article “Gene tests prove that we are all the same under the skin”, race is

often used to predict whether patients will respond to particular drugs. While this can

be true on average, it leads to generalizations that deny useful medicines to millions

who do not meet ethnic stereotypes.” The article also argues that race is a social contrast

and that there is not enough variation within the genes of humans to argue that there are

different races. Scientists argue that genetically, race cannot prove intelligence or

behavior, that is, one cannot argue that different races have a genetic propensity for

different activities/behaviors. It is also argued that organizing people by race, will only

lead to support and strengthen the claims and ideologies of racist hate groups, that

support the theories of eugenics.

The debate about organize human populations rages on, and it seems to have

little to no end in sight. As an African-American woman, I feel uncomfortable with

regarding race as a invalid notion of categorization, although I agree with claims which

argue that categorization by race based solely on behaviors, skin color or social norms,

could potentially serve to further divide people. Nevertheless, humans will continue to

organize people based on visual observations, and if has been proven that these visual

observations support genetic evidence, of corresponding genetic ancestry, then

shouldn’t we use the evidence that has been provided for us? Therefore, I believe that

using race as a method of organizing populations is an effective argument, one that can

potentially help millions and millions of people.

References:

Bamshad, Michael and Olson, Steve .“Does Race Exist?” November 10, 2003. Scientific

America.com

Henderson, Mark. “Gene Tests Prove That We Are All The Same Under The Skin”

October 27, 2004. TimesOnline

Wade, Nicholas. “Gene Study Identifies 5 Main Human Populations, Linking Them to

Geography” December 20, 2002. New York Times.

Wikipedia.com “What is Race?”

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RICH SIMLICK's picture

Relevancy of Race

The Relevancy of Race
Anthropology 1000 - Other People’s Worlds
- By Richard Simlick

David Landes, of Wealth and Poverty of Nations fame, would argue that the intricate dissimilarities in physical character of different people around the world- would be enough of an argument for a measurable biodiversity in homo-sapiens. He states that the Japanese and other East Asians have had a significant knack for modern day computer micro assembly, because they "have exceptional manual dexterity that comes with eating with chopsticks” (Sailor 1998). But Steve Sailor, business man and writer, states that Landes did not take into account that the apparent skill of the Japanese in using chopsticks, may just be because they have had small and nimble fingers in the first place (Sailor 1998). They have small hands because of some evolutionary favorable trait passed down from their ancestors, with no argument for them being destined more than others to perform that specific task better than other cultures- like using chopsticks.

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This similar brand of reasoning that Landes postulated could be somewhat of the same philosophy that characterized African American slaves in the American South- and their supposed endurance of hot weather and ability to endure rugged physical work. Many thought that because they were of the “black race”, they had some gene or trait that mysteriously gave them the ability to sustain the manual hell many of them encountered every day. A scientist could argue this supposed cause-and-effect idea if he or she wanted to, and come up with some favorable statistics to support it. He would do a disservice to science though, if he did not take into account the impending violence of the whip being a major factor into the reluctance of many black slave captives- to disobey their master’s order of this same hard physical labor. So instead of searching for the mysterious trait that people from Africa supposedly had- acknowledging the common sense of someone just doing what they were told to do to avoid disgrace and disfigurement, would probably be the right thing to do. Unfortunately, centuries of misunderstanding other cultures, would perpetuate the Southern hierarchy of human beings- with blacks obtaining a mere traditional 2/3 status as a real person (U.S. Constitution 1789).
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According to Darwin, “Each new species is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those which it comes into competition, and the extinction of less-favored forms almost inevitably follows” (Darwin 1859:253). If homo-sapiens produced different sub-species or even different breeds, then these dissimilarities should indeed be enough to squeeze the “inferior” forms of our different “races” to extinction as well. Let’s look at this.
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One may argue that the apparent economic success of white European Western cultures has been attributed to the evolutionary superiority of, and subsequent success of these cultures, to squeeze say, Sub-Sahara cultures into a virtual and inevitable “extinction”. A good point David Landes does make, is that economic success of any culture is attributed to its people being able to settle down, and enjoy the fruits of its labor- without having to trudge through the usual dismal hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle (Landes 1998). Those living in the temperate farming zones-i.e. Europeans, could enjoy a good harvest- while investing more of their time in exploration, science, and engineering. Those living in the Sub-Sahara Equatorial zones, faced unfavorable farming conditions, along with the dismal malarial bug. Not exclusively the best conditions to perpetuate a thriving and economically successful society. It would be climate, and not the ability or evolutionary stature of those living there, that would plague many of these cultures.
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One could argue that the only real difference in the supposed races would be the apparent different color of skin. But biologically, this is merely a matter of pigmentation based on a people to utilize melanin in their bodies (Lenkeit 2009). Those who use this process more than others, live nearer the equator. They would use a lot of melanin to keep UV rays from harming them. Those who lived away from the Equator would not utilize so much melanin, for this would inhibit their ability to utilize sustainable vitamin D absorption (Lenkeit 2009).
Different colors of skin are the result of this particular body-covering organ to sustain us. No where besides protection from the Sun, does this play a factor. Any possible divergence as a species at this time does not seem any more viable, then when we originally ventured to the far corners of the world, with our one set of comparably similar homo-sapient genes.

Works Cited

Darwin, Charles
2006 [1859] On the Origin of Species. 2006 facsimile Folio Society. Cambridge University Press, Great Britain

Landes, David
1998 The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY

Lenkeit, Roberta Edwards
2009 Introducing Cultural Anthropology. Mcgraw-Hill, New York, NY

Sailor, Steve
1998 For Richer or Poorer. Published by National Review 4/6/98
http://www.isteve.com/wealth.htm

U.S. Constitution
1789

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