No such thing as race?

Very frequently fatherjohn hears it said that there is “no such thing as race.” The basis for this argument is that the distinctions between races are necessarily somewhat arbitrary.

What distinctions aren’t at least somewhat arbitrary?

Aren’t most lines at least a little blurry?

What’s the problem with racial distinctions then? If you look at it honestly, I believe the problem is that many people find racial distinctions hurtful.

And such distinctions indeed may be hurtful, but it shows that “no such thing as race” is really a normative argument masquerading as a descriptive argument.

In other words, “no such thing as race” is really an argument about what should be pretending to be an argument about what is.

So be honest and say “people shouldn’t make racial distinctions” rather than “there is no such thing as race”

Bboy muses: Does fatherjohn usually refer to himself in the third person?

If there was no distinction in the races, a NHRA dragster could compete in NASCAR. Humans are human, no more no less

Or we could be accurate and say “there’s no such thing as race”. At least from a scientific standpoint. You can define races as a cultural phenomenon, but there are no biological or genetic reasons to classify people as belonging to seperate groups based upon their makeup.

More links to race diccussions on the SDMB than you can shake a stick at

To chime in agreement with Amok, your second sentence would be more accurately written as

The basis for this argument is that the distinctions between races are completely arbitrary.


Fenris, at the end of this self-referential run-on sentence, will answer Bboy’s question by saying “Not to the best of Fenris’s knowledge”.

In the second sentence of Fenris’s response to Bboy, Fenris comments that third person references are only slightly less annoying than run-on self-referential, third person sentences.

In a sentence that falsely claimes to be Fenris’s final comment, Fenris will note that the sound you hear is Collounsbury banging his head against a wall.

In Fenris’s true final comment, Fenris notes that self-referential sentences, like third person posts, sound better in theory than they are in practice.

This is the line where Fenris puts his name


Bboy wonders pitifully if he will ever be as good as Fenris at using run-on, self-referential, third person sentences to illustrate so effectively, just how annoying run-on, self-referential, third person sentences are, and in so doing, subtley shifting the focus so far from the main idea of the initial post, that the original poster, fatherjohn (in this case) may feel totally dissuaded to reply, or even acknowledge the victim’s comment at all, all the while making the subject of the slam feel somehow like he has just recieved a blessing for the attention bestowed upon him by such a thoughtful, scrutinizer, only to come to the realization that it is an unattainable goal, which Bboy is going to just have to resign himself to, and do the best he can. Bboy humbly acknowledges, he is in the presence of greatness.[/hijack-conclusion?]

fatherjohn, if you are truly interested in the subject, please note that the statement occasionally abbreviated “there is no such thing as race” is shorthand for the rather longer statement:

There is no underlying biological reality to the concept of race.


There are no genetically identifiable races.
Certainly, there are groups of people upon whom one can apply the culturally determined label of race “x”. The ability to lump people into identifiable groups based on physical appearences is what allows us to write Jim Crow laws or to murder people who do not look the way we do with a (more or less) clear conscience.

Anthropology does use the term race to identify a number of groups that interact in similar ways with each other and interact with others differently. (Although the definitions are so fuzzy that we cannot get the anthropologists to agree how many such groups there are, with numbers ranging from three or five to 60 or 200.)

The problem arises when we take any culturally imposed definition of race (even when supported by the musings of anthropologists) and attempt to claim that there is a biological reality behind it. There is no biological way to identify a member of a race because people have been onterbreeding so successfully fo so long that all of the human genes are thoroughly mixed. The expression of those genes, based on other factors (such as the amount of sunlight that strikes a region) has given us the false impression that there is a biological reality, even though we can point to groups living thousands of miles apart who are clearly not closely related, who appear to be the same “race.”

The most recent example of this nonsense was the book The Bell Curve that attempted to define the “intelligence” of peoples according to their “races.”

Leaving aside the fact that it has been pretty well demonstrated that the authors “cooked the books” to make their point, the underlying assumption of the book was false. It is not possible to show that blacks or whites or anyone else is smarter than anyone else as a race because there is no biological race.

Now, before you respond that biological races exist, please read at least a few of the presentations provided in the links that Amok cited a few posts back.

We have gone over this ground on multiple occasions in the last few months and a few posters are just a bit weary of having to repeat the samer arguments with people who have refused to look at evidence provided seven or eight times, previously.

I read this: and this:

Honestly, it seems to me that any of the criticisms of racial distinctions would apply to virtually any other classification or distinction.

Consider an extreme example outside of genetics:

I live near the border of two U.S. states. This border is fairly arbitrary and has been the subject of dispute for hundreds of years, up to and including the late 1990s.

Of course state lines are used for many purposes, including scientific purposes. Would anyone seriously argue that states don’t exist? For any purpose?

I respect you guys. I really do.
It takes a lot of patience to fight this battle over and over again.
Thanks for the effort.

Did you read all the links? To take your analogy further, states exist, but they exist because we’ve constructed them, and don’t exist outside of our construction. For example, I live in Virginia. If I travel about 7 miles north, I’ll be in the District of Columbia. If I then travel about 7 miles north again, I’ll be in Maryland. This gives me the classification “Virginian”. However, except for this classification, I’m not different from a “Marylander”. It’s arbitrary, based on a line we drew. Race is the same thing. We made a category and said “We’ll put people who have straight hair and epicanthic folds in their eyes in it”, and we did, and called them “Orientals”. We didn’t need to use that category. Biologically, whether someone has an epicathic fold or not isn’t a big difference. We just arbitrarily chose that category to determine “race”

Fine. If you choose to use the term race in an anthropological or cultural setting to indicate that, for example, people who have lighter skin had a better shot at social acceptance in the 20th century than people with darker skin, then having a less than rigid boundary is not going to invalidate the term.

The guy who went through the birth records of Virginia in the 1920s, reclassifying as colored anyone who had at least one great-grandparent who had been a slave, was successful in denying voting rights to various people based on “race.” The results of his actions were real, and however warped his criteria, they had a very real effect on people. In that case, “race” was certainly “real.”

When moving into the area of biology, however, when we find that there are no genetic criteria that can be applied to any large group to identify them, what are you going to use biologically to identify “race” and what would be the point in trying to do so?

In other words, we grant the use of the term in a cultural setting. Are you trying to insist that there is a biological reality in the face of the evidence? Or are you asking why we need to use real definitions or real facts in a biological setting?
Once more: Race can and has been used in cultural settings and I do not know anyone who claims that no culture can impose the idea of race on any group of people. (I know people who argue that the “racial” identification is counterproductive, but that is a different discussion.)

Race cannot be used in a biological setting because the genetic evidence indicates that it is quite possible for a Scandinavian and an Ibo to be closer, genetically, than an Ibo and a Masai–or then two Ibos.

From the perspective of biology, what does the idea of race buy us? We cannot show that any “race” is smarter, healthier, faster, better able to breed, more (or less) resistant to disease than any other “race.” So what is the point of lumping people together in a scientific discipline who have no scientifically discernible uniqueness?

Smaller populations do exist, with greater or lesser degrees of shared traits that are unique to that small group. None of those groups are large enough to be considered a “race” as the word has typically been used. (And applying the word to those small populations would simply confuse the issue.)

The reason to avoid using race in a biological sense is to avoid falling into the error of the authors of The Bell Curve, who thought they could discern a reality that did not exist (and who squirreled their numbers to make their point).

Do you have an example where the word race would have any application outside a cultural context?

Umm, shouldn’t that read “no genetic criteria **have yet been found ** that can be applied to any large group to identify” ? The first “complete” genome data just came out this year so no one has yet had the opportunity to examine all possible genetic criteria for even a single large group, much less do comprehensive comparisons between groups. That’ll probably take another 10-20 years.

This is a political argument against the existence of races. It does not cover the fault in your scientific argument. It does explain why it is so easy to overlook the fault in the scientific arguments.

I suppose that it is possible that we may, indeed, discover phlogiston at some sub-atomic level, as well. That hardly requires us to preface every discussion of combustion with “Until or unless phlogiston is discovered…”

The reality is that even without the genome project we have an immense source of data regarding human DNA as found in nearly all human populations. The accidental differences in morphology can already be explained in terms of environment and it is extremely unlikely that we are going to discover anything from the genome project that changes the information that we have culled from DNA comparisons over the last fifteen years.

Remember, the genome sequencing project was not looking for new elements. It was an effort to identify which segments on already known DNA controlled which aspects of growth and development. The studies of the last decade and a half have already demonstrated that humanity shares extraordinarily similar genes across all populations throughout the world. Discovering which DNA segment triggers darker or lighter skin will not change the already-discovered fact that we share the same DNA to effect that trigger.
I’m afraid that your last paragraph is not clear.

Let’s try: The Bell Curve was a political argument disguised as a scientific one. Recognizing that we have already demolished the notion of biological race (barring an unforseen–and utterly unlikely–future discovery) should help us to avoid allowing future political arguments to be based on bad science.

Looking at ~500 out of ~36,000 gene products and not finding evidence of racial differences does not qualify as proof that there’s no such thing as races. If we were to apply that standard of proof to such things as a lost set of car keys we’d be forced to conclude that they didn’t exist after a 5 minute search of the living room. This isn’t some sort of statistical sampling game where the law of large numbers applies. To find out wether something is there or not you really do have to look in all the places it could be hiding.
So far, most of the evidence used as “proof” that races do not exist has been obtained using techniques such as restriction enzyme mapping that measure sequence polymorphism without regard to wether a DNA sequence is part of a gene, or is part of the 90% or so of the genome with no known function (i.e. junk DNA). Yet racial subgroups, if they exist, would have to differ in expressed genetic traits, so comparison of actual gene products (i.e. protein sequences) is a much more direct way of looking at the issue. With the genome project barely complete this sort of information is not yet available so the race question cannot yet be answered conclusively.

The genome project was very much involved in finding new genetic elements. Until we finished it we had little idea how many functional genes were present in the human species. Estimates ranged from 30,000 or less to more than 100,000. We now know that it takes at most ~36,0000 different proteins to make a person. We also, and for the first time, know the sequence of all of them ! We did not know many of the sequences before the genome project was completed. The genome project did not tell us much about how different genes control different aspects of growth and development, it simply gave us a list of all possible gene products. The press has been quite vocally calling the thing a human “blueprint”. This is a misleading characterization. What we have now is more akin to a list of components than a blueprint. Having obtained this list it is now possible to to thoroughly examine which genes affect which aspects of growth and development, but we do not get that information for free just by dint of having sequenced a few billion bases.

I’ve no disagreement with that. My point is that your arguments suffer from the same problem.
The “majority of evidence” argument that you use is not valid in this situation.

Maybe I need to rephrase my question.

Let’s suppose somebody does a very careful study based on Birth and Death Certificates, and announces that Marylanders are more likely to die of leukemia than are Virginians.

Question 1

People might respond in different ways. But would anyone seriously claim in response that “there’s no such thing as states”?

Question 2

What constructs aren’t artificial?

Squink, even accepting your “yet” qualification, we do not have any evidence at this time that race has any biological coherence. So, we have no reason to presume that race will be discovered later.

We already have pretty good explanations for the phenomena that are displayed that people originally put into “racial” categories–and those phenomena do not require “race” for explanation. What is the point of expending efforts speculating about hypothetical races before we even have evidence that such a phenomenon exists, since our current evidence argues against it?
fatherjohn, do you see the difference between assigning races in a cultural context (however arbitrarily) and noting that we do not have (at this time) any biological evidence for race? What “races” do you believe have an objective reality? And what difference do you think it makes that such races might exist?

In other words: Why do you care?

I’d say that there was something in the water in Maryland.

So you agree - environment, not genetics, is the key factor?

The presumption for the last few thousand years has been that races do exist. The arguments for their existence were based on sensory data about differences in physical appearance.
There is as yet no new scientific proof of the “nonexistence” of biochemically distinct races, so it’s premature to switch to a paradigm that isn’t even supported by the best available data.

Race may turn out to be an arbitrary distinction signifying nothing; but it’s far too early to tell one way or the other. However, different populations have already been shown to have different genetic markers. It’d be pretty interesting if some sets of markers ended up corresponding to commonly perceived racial differences. Such a finding would probably be politically inconvenient because nasty people would find a way to oppress others based on their genetic heritage. Unfortunately, the universe does not seem to care what we would like the truth to be.

I don’t have the time or the inclination to get involved in yet another race merry go round, but I think a comment or two is warranted here:

I have trouble understanding this statement as it seems to be irrelevant. The question of races depends on, as I have noted in the past, question of trait distributions through populations, human variability --at the individual and group level. The question becomes one of aggregate distributions, not the absolute existence of some population differences. As such, after a certain level of confidence is reached, one has to draw conclusions.

Once more the relevance of this escapes me as you seem to misconstrue the problem, IMHO: for the question is not whether there are differences, but onto what populations they map. Further, this question is indeed a question of large numbers. The issue is not whether there are population differences, the issue is in regards to whether the classical races exist as coherent biological units. At a certain level of confidence we have to begin drawing conclusions. In re population genetics, the data to date are a sample, a large sample of the extent variation. Given the strength of the body of results in regards to trait distributions — especially those well known classical markers — not mapping onto races, degree and type of variation in human populations, the conclusion (that is the consensus position of experts in the field is) has been reached to a high degree of confidence that biologically the classic races are not supportable.

Frankly, I don’t see that this is an accurate objection, especially in re the sequencing ascription.

They would have to have some kind of fixed difference from other groups. See the Hay article I cited in earlier threads.

Political Argument

I disagree with all due respect. While your judgement of the evidence may differ, I do not see a basis for claiming that the consensus is based on politics.

And to add further

False, races is a relatively new concept --if we are talking about the classic big four/five born in the 19th century.

Your assertion is not supported by the broad consensus of population geneticists.

Please consult the prior threads, your statement here is false, although very in fact eerily familiar. Other than one unclear example, no population at any scale has been shown to have a marker. Differing distributions, yes, although these are not coherent across the population and the traits.

Not particularly.