Race is a social, not biological / scientific concept

Nothing shows it more than today’s very interesting NY Times article on Michelle Obama and her white cousins.

We’re all of the human race - period.

The fact that most African-Americans have not-too-distant white relatives doesn’t really prove your point.

A better point might be the fact that the races that scientific racists tend to posit don’t really line up with actual genetic divisions in humanity.

I’ve seen it argued that if one were to divide humanity up into, say, a dozen categories based on actual genetics, 11 of them would be in Africa, with one for everyone else.

Your post does not support your thread title.


“Race” is a pretty broad term. It’s supposed to mean “distinct populations within a given species” but in regards to humans, there’s no concrete definition.

In theory the idea is just;

  1. A given population settles somewhere.
  2. Certain traits which fall within the species normal variations become more widespread (some selection may be involved, but it’s just as likely that a particular trait just happens to be there and its owner(s) get lucky in more ways than one).
  3. The population in question is now a “race”, made distinct by this combination of traits (which, again, are still part of the normal variations for that species).

So from a purely biological point of view, “race” isn’t really arbitrary, but it doesn’t mean much.

Socially, the only traits of a race that are going to be picked up on are the visible ones (I doubt there’s ever been a “Those without neotenous lactose tolerance need not apply” sign in shop windows, after all), which is arguably a lot more arbitrary.

tl;dr: Race is a thing, but not the thing people think of.

I think this chart demonstrates the point of the OP. To summarize, there are many African populations that are closer, genetically, to European and Asian populations than to many other African populations. Thus it’s absurd to refer to a “black” race, because many “black” populations are closer to “white” and “Asian” populations than to other “black” populations.

Another way of saying it is that any grouping by Most Recent Common Ancestor for populations that includes all “black” (even all sub-Saharan African) populations must by necessity also include all “white” and “Asian” populations (indeed, all of humanity).

Pretty much, but it’s a little more significant than that. If you look at Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America), the vast majority of the people living there are mixed race (if we take “race” to mean continent of origin of recent ancestors). That’s a heck of a lot more people than the 25M or so African-Americans in the US. More than order of magnitude.

But it is a secondary point, since the primary point is that H. sapiens is a species with clinal variations, not discreet genetic groupings.

And some of the people in the “everyone else” group would be (black) african.

Why does race being a social concept mean that it can not also be a biological concept?
Take height and weight. Someone who is 5’5 is of average height in Vietnam but is short in Sweden. Does this mean that there is no such thing as height as a biological concept? Likewise a man who weighed 170 pounds would be considered heavy in South Korea but considered light in the US. Does this mean that speaking of someone as fat or thin has no basis in biology?
Just because a black person can have white cousins does not mean there is no biological basis for the concept of race. Look at this study on the clustering of genetic markers: http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pgen.0010070
What it says is that there are clusters of people with similar genetics in geographic areas where travel is easy. Mountain ranges, deserts, and oceans tend to seperate people groups and those groups differentiate genetically from each other over time. Thus you get clusters which mostly correspond to the different races. What the limits of each race is and what it means to be in a race is the social construct part, but that does not mean there is no biological part.

Because, for any meaningful definition of race, the data does not support the concept.

There is nothing in human genetics that is coherent or exclusive enough to distinguish large groups of humanity from other large groups. There is plenty of evidence for meaningful biological groups at the population/ethnic level, but none that would allow for classifying humanity in 3, 4, 5, 7, or some other arbitrary small number of races.


There are groups of traits that we observe. They’re there. Black skin/white skin.

I think what you mean is that this group is no more important than any other group of traits that could be used to classify us, and the only reason we use these is that they are so obvious to us. They are “meaningful” in the social sense.

But they are still bioligical or genetic traits. They are inherited.

But none of these traits are unique to a particular race, unless that raced is defined only by those traits.

Another way to put it (paraphrased from a Pit thread): It’s absurd to group sub-Saharan Africans (and the sub-Saharan African diaspora) as a “race”; many populations of sub-Saharan Africans have a Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) with Europeans and Asians that is more recent then their MRCA with other sub-Saharan African populations. This chart, using mitochondrial DNA, shows the relative MRCA between multiple groups. For example (from the chart), the Bamileke of Cameroon (#19) have a more recent MRCA with Siberians (#30) then with the Kikuyu of Kenya (#11). So any race that includes the Bamileke and the Kikuyu must include Siberians, unless the racial “classification” is not based on genetic relationships or MRCA.

You must have missed this sentence in the study I linked to " In one of the most extensive of these studies to date, considering 1,056 individuals from 52 human populations, with each individual genotyped for 377 autosomal microsatellite markers, we found that individuals could be partitioned into six main genetic clusters, five of which corresponded to Africa, Europe and the part of Asia south and west of the Himalayas, East Asia, Oceania, and the Americas [3].
It is just basic science to say that populations adapt to their environment. Therefore different environments will lead to different adaptations. These different adaptations are what is meant by race, not common ancestors. We see that different groups have different phenotypes and can study dna to see that have different genotypes. That is the biological basis of the social construct.

I didn’t miss it, it’s just that it’s not particularly accurate or meaningful. There are important and distinct cases where these categorizations fail, and fail miserably. They aren’t internally consistent and if you follow them to their logical extremes it ends up invalidating the concept of “race”.

No one has a problem with populations. Your example of black and white as markers for race is exactly why you can’t extend population to race. Skin pigmentation is a lousy way of grouping populations, as are nearly all surface characteristics.

So a black skinned person in India (and there are people there with skin every bit as dark as anyone in Africa) is the same race as someone in Africa? What about someone with black skin, full lips, and “kinky” hair living in the Philippines?

My apologies, it wasn’t puddleglum who brought up the idea of using skin pigmentation to identify races.

But when grouped together, along with the traits they share with others, they make up a race. And they do tend to be grouped together genetically.

Racial classifications aren’t based only on genetics. Nobody said that.

But they are based on genetics.

We don’t bother to classify based on other genetic properties simply because they don’t matter to us.

Yes, race is a social construct. But some people seem to want to take that statement and say racial characteristics don’t exist. Of course they do. That is all.


Tell me, is a white-skinned person in England the same race as a black-skinned person in Africa?

Please don’t make me get more specific - it goes without saying.

Genetically, race is irrelevant. Socially, it is relevant (or has been - doesn’t mean we can’t change that). Race is still genetic though. Obviously.

This is the part that’s wrong- they don’t, really. There are many “black” populations in Africa that are more closely related to “white” and “Asian” populations than to other “black” populations. Plus, sub-Saharan Africa contains more genetic diversity then the rest of the world combined.

Only by an overly broad notion of “genetic” that doesn’t stand up to any but the most superficial level of scrutiny.

The notion of 3 races is primarily based on superficial physical characteristics (skin, eye, and hair pigmentation, for the most part). There’s also supposedly a geographic component. The subtle gradations in these factors leads to defining more than 3 races.

But then you’re down the slippery slope. The more you study the actual biology, you end up with dozens, if not hundreds, of “races” when you wanted to originally have no more than 5. And any simplification that keeps you down to less than 5 (or really anything less than 60) has no real genetic meaning beyond “this guy’s genetic legacy will give him lighter/darker skin, lighter/darker eyes, and lighter/darker hair (up to and including some measure of hair straightness)”. Maybe that’s sociologically meaningful, but it’s certainly next to useless for anything but simple biology/anatomy.

The problem here is that while those physical characteristics have a genetic component, grouping all people that share those physical characteristics as being a single genetic grouping can’t actually be done in a scientifically meaningful way.

It’s easier to divide human beings into a “male” and a “female” race. We know the genetic basis for that and have direct evidence of it (and yes, I get the fact that neither can propagate without the other, making the example inexact). And there are plenty of studies (in the past and ongoing) to study how that genetic difference plays out physically.

But even there, we still have a hard time separating genetic factors from cultural or socioeconomic factors. For example, the idea that women are innately worse at math is somehow still a controversy, even though we absolutely know we haven’t eliminated all the cultural factors from such studies and that when a few such factors have been ameliorated, the performance gap on math exams between males and females has become smaller.

So, even in cases when we have identified genetic differences, we still have a hard time attributing biology or environment to several traits. That’s what makes the old school 3-5 race division scientifically meaningless. There’s no way to do it that makes race genetically meaningful in any but a superficial way.