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Scientifically, Race Doesn’t Exist

Terry H. Schwadron

March 30, 2018

The lessons are there, if only we would look.

A neighbor lent me his copy of the April, 2018 National Geographic Magazine that highlighted articles on race, mixing in photography, social anthropology and a healthy dose of science — the kind of thinking our society is pushing away in favor of “populism,” which too often stands for some kind of white nativism.

What the Science says, of course, is that there is no such thing as race as a natural distinguishing factor.

Instead our greatest societal contribution has been to create an entire set of global man-made values around racial difference and how tribal we can be about it: Slavery, foremost, but also in housing, education, policing, imprisonment, hiring fairness, medical treatments, taxi use all have been shaped around our understanding of how to use race. Diseases, family roles, aspirations, fears all have been routed into racial ruts. What do you mean there is no such things as race? Why do we maintain such a need to blame “the other,” to find scapegoats.

It’s more than timely as a discussion for our society. Apart from continuing police shootings of unarmed black men and the ugliness passing as immigration policy, tonight’s Passover seder reading reminds us that we ourselves were slaves who rose up in history’s first recorded revolt against Egyptian masters.

From a scientific point of view, the Magazine presents side-by-side photos of a chimpanzee and a human baby, noting that “The DNA profiles of these two are nearly 99 percent the same.” It is higher than that for comparisons between humans, of course.

The Magazine tells the story of Philadelphia scientist Samuel Morton in the first half of the 19th Century, who collected skulls, eventually classifying them into five categories that his “craniometry” that “corresponded to their place in a divinely determined hierarchy” with Caucasians at the top of the heap. “In the decades before the Civil War, Morton’s ideas were quickly taken up by the defenders of slavery,” said the article. The anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum acknowledged that Morton had had a lot of influence as the father of scientific racism in giving credence of the social distinctions we assign on the basis of racial difference.

Of course, Morton did his collecting long before we knew about such things as DNA or even Darwin. “Researchers who have since looked at people at the genetic level now say that the whole category of race is mis-conceived,” the article on Science said, quoting Craig Venter, a pioneer of DNA sequencing as saying “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”

The article goes on to recount the start of all human activity in the African continent as long ago as 300,000 years, the eventual migration of different groups perhaps 100,000 and 60,000 years ago to more isolated areas where populations in-bred with Neanderthals and other branches of humanoid life to create distinctions that may have reflected climate conditions, diet and intermarriage.

Obviously, today we only count on the last few thousand years of habitation as important, or in this country, only the last 200 years, and then, perhaps only the last 50 years or so as significant. It’s interesting to step back, naturally. In DNA terms, these many kinds of hominoids differ by as little as a single set of genes in the DNA strand of three billion divided into about 20,000 genes. The mutation most responsible for skin color appears to be a single gene difference.

“The deepest splits in the human family aren’t between what is usually thought of as different races — whites, say, or blacks or Asians or Native Americans. They’re between African populations such as the Khoe-San and the Pygmies, who spent tens of thousands of years separate from one another even before humans left Africa.”

Coincidentally, David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard, argues in a new book summarized in Sunday’s New York Times, traced the history of genetic research into race. “A consensus was established that among human populations there are no differences large enough to support the concept of “biological race.” Instead, it was argued, race is a ‘social construct,’ a way of categorizing people that changes over time and across countries,” he argues. But over time, he challenges the new orthodoxy. “I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’ ” in such measurable elements as body dimensions and susceptibility to disease.

We ought to be celebrating the fact that Science, and DNA in particular, has given us tools to understand diversity in much different ways than our society has chosen to do. Instead, we continue to be mired as a global society, and in American society, for sure, with outmoded social distinctions that we have imposed in the name of racial difference.

“When people speak about race usually they seem to be referring to skin color and, at the same time, to something more than skin color. This is the legacy of people such as Morton, who developed the ‘science’ of race to suit his own prejudices and got the actual science totally wrong. Science today tells us that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history. They reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure and not much else,” the Magazine argued.

That race is an invented man-made distinction and not genetic does not make it any less important or powerful, or oppressive. Science did not give us slavery and Jim Crow laws, did not require Civil Rights campaigns and Voting Acts to right the ills of our society. We Americans have built in centuries now of horrible laws, customs and prejudices based on something that is scientifically invalid.

In our periodic societal ruminations, perhaps in our elections, for example, it is impossible to consider that we ignore what we have made of race over the centuries, that we ignore the awfulness in personal and governmental action justified on the basis of race.

Obviously, this also is true of gender difference, religious and ethnic conflict, of money-based differences of class, of harassment of sexual orientation.

That shameful list goes on and on.

What makes us human is science. What should make us humane is the bigger challenge.

Maybe that ought to be on a hat.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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