Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity

By Razib Khan | May 2, 2012 12:04 pm

Razib Khan’s degrees are in biochemistry and biology. He has blogged about genetics since 2002 (see his Discover Blog, Gene Expression), previously worked in software development, is an Unz Foundation Junior Fellow and lives in the western US. He loves habaneros.

…At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Prof. Schaaffhause has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex, Volume 1 – by Charles Darwin

The above quote is not to vilify Charles Darwin. On the contrary, I believe Darwin was a scientific hero whose work is the foundation of modern biology. Nevertheless, he was a man of his age. Despite the fact that Darwin was a political liberal from a family of liberals, with pristine credentials in progressive social movements of his day, such as the anti-slavery campaigns, it is clear that he had Victorian biases nonetheless; some of the passages in The descent of man clearly come from a fortunately bygone era, when white scholars and adventurers cataloged and surveyed the unexplored corners of our world, and created taxonomies of the “lower races” as if they were just part of the local fauna. The reality is that Charles Darwin’s age was fundamentally one of white supremacy. In the year 1900, one out of three human beings alive was of European extraction. In the four centuries since Christopher Columbus, Europe and its Diaspora had entered into massive demographic expansion—which many Victorians saw as survival of the fittest. Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as H. G. Wells, foresaw a future where the “higher races” would naturally marginalize those peoples who were lesser participants in civilization. Such was taken as the judgment of nature.

How 100 years do change things. And yet just as Darwin could not help but reflect the presuppositions of his era, so we in our day can not help but channel the zeitgeist. Like Charles Darwin, today’s scholars have concluded that humans are fundamentally an African species. But unlike Darwin they conclude from this that there is a biological, essential unity of humankind, such that talk of “civilized” and “savage” is rendered moot and irrelevant. We do look through the mirror of our ages darkly, seeing startlingly different insights from the same shadows of reality. Whereas racist assumptions and beliefs were supported by interpretations of science of the 19th century, today we attempt to harness science in the opposing direction.

The topic of human variation, and more plainly, race, is fraught. The past century has seen a wild swing from the widespread acceptance of the idea that human races are real, with big, important differences, to the opposite position: that race is fundamentally an illusion, a social construction of the human mind. But both of these arguments are mistaken. The established modern consensus about the equality of people, irrespective of race, is morally and ethically justified. But these beliefs we hold to be true do not derive from the natural science, which doesn’t present a clear moral lesson.

Assertion: Because most genetic variation occurs within races, two random individuals from different races may be genetically closer than two random individuals from the same race.

The image above, from a 2009 paper, is one of the clearest refutations of such assertions. An evolutionary chart, or phylogeny, of human population is not difficult to construct. Multiple different genetic methodologies have converged upon the same general pattern of Africans differentiating from non-Africans, and West Eurasians differentiating from East Eurasians, and so forth. Why? Though on any given gene, one may be more similar to an individual from some distant population than an individual from the same population, when looking at the average across many genes, there is a clear pattern whereby individuals from the same populations tend to share variants in common.

We can see this point by making an analogy between populations and families. Blue eyes are inherited in a roughly recessive fashion. That means that parents of opposite eye colors may have children with blue or brown eyes (as in the chart to the left), while people who are unrelated may share the same blue eyes with some of these children. Clearly on that particular gene, two unrelated individuals can be more similar than parents and their own offspring (e.g., brown eyed parent/blue-eyed child vs. blue-eyed strangers). But it doesn’t follow from this that parents and offspring are less genetically similar overall than strangers with the same eye color as some of the children. Rather, it tells us to be careful of extrapolating from just one gene when it comes to thinking about overall patterns of genetic relatedness.


Assertion: “We are all Africans”

Credit: Science

Today this assertion needs the qualifier “mostly.” To make a long story short, the “strong form” of the “Out of Africa” model of human origins seems to be falsified by the most recent genomic data. Rather, it looks as if modern human populations are a synthesis of a dominant “Out of Africa” lineage, flavored with assorted other populations, until recently known as “archaic modern humans.” The most famous of these were Neanderthals, but it looks as if they may just be the first in a long list of other ancestors humans interbred with. In fact, some hunter-gatherer African populations, the Pygmies and San, may harbor very deeply diverged ancestry from the mainline African stock. These are hominin lineages which separated from the lineage which led to the “Out of Africa” migration nearly ~1 million years ago, only to recombine in the last few tens of thousands of years with these hunter-gatherers (in contrast, the divergence between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans occurred on the order of ~250,000 years ago).

What does all this imply? On a deep level, in terms of morals and ethics, pretty much nothing. If the human tree becomes more busy and complicated, does that entail that our moral and ethical systems should become more complicated and nuanced? I suspect that most people would react in horror at such a reconsideration, which goes to show that the precise nature of recent African origins for humanity was more of an icing on the cake, rather than a concrete basis of one’s motivation for human decency. How humans came about is less important than the fact that we are all human.


Assertion: Because modern humans are a young species, there has not been enough time for major differences to emerge between populations.

This is false. 5 to 10 thousand years ago a set of strangely mutated humans arose. They continued to be able to digest lactose sugar as adults, in contravention of the mammalian norm. In fact, humans are the only mammals where many adults continue to be able to consume milk sugar as adults. The rapidity of this shift has been incredible. 5,000 years ago almost everyone in Scandinavia was lactose intolerant. Today, very few are. The area of the European genome responsible for this shift is strikingly homogeneous, as a giant DNA fragment “swept” through populations in a few dozen generations.

The literature on recent human evolution is still evolving, so to speak. But it is clear that during the Holocene, the last 10,000 years, our species has been subject to a wide array of selective forces. Lactose tolerance, malaria tolerance, differences in color, hair form, and size, seem to be due to recent adaptations. And because of different selection pressures human populations will evolve, change, and diversify. Our African ancestors left 50 to 100 thousand years ago. If 10,000 years was enough time for a great deal of evolution, then the “Out of Africa” event was long enough ago to result in genetic diversification, which we see around us.


Assertion: Race is a social construction and a biological myth.

Race, the way we have traditionally thought of it, is indeed a social construction. But whether racial groups are purely a biological myth is debatable. There are serious biologists who believe that race is a useful framework. Race may be a biological myth, but there is no unanimous consensus on this topic, and those who dissent from the position that it is a myth are not marginal cranks. 100 years ago almost everyone agreed that race was real, and that the consequences of race entailed that populations should be subject to different standards of treatment. Today almost no one agrees with the proposition that populations should be subject to different standards of treatment (besides racism-countering policies like affirmative action), but there is disagreement on whether race is real or not.

The key issue is to move beyond the term race. Rather, the question is this: does evolution apply to humans? If so, then we must remember that variation is the very stuff of evolution. Not only does variation emerge as an outcome of evolution, but it is the raw material of evolution. The creationist Duane Gish is wont to say that if you tell people they are animals, they will behave like animals. The reality is that humans are animals, but we are no less human for it. Similarly, people fear that if you admit that populations may be biologically different it may lead some to conclude that they are morally different. But the fact is that different populations are biologically different, and none are less human for it.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • SS

    I think there is a typo: “That means that two brown-eyed parents may have two children with blue eyes (as in the chart to the left), while two people who are unrelated may share the same blue eyes. ” Either the chart and resulting blue eyed children statistic is incorrect or the statement about parental eye color to begin with is wrong.

  • Brendan Bombaci

    As mentioned, individuals from separate bottlenecked genetic stocks, or “races,” generally have unique biological characteristics that give them bioregional (sickle cell anemia for malaria, Bergman’s Rule and Allen’s Rule, melanin production, etc.), and technological (i.e., lactose tolerance) adaptations which may differentiate them from other groups in very utilitarian or evolutionarily beneficial ways. Every stock has its own great advantages for climatological and cultural means. The more exogamy takes place, the more variation exists and, perhaps, the more various individuals will express phenotypes which are either positive or negative for their location and culture. This is both due to, and problematic of globalism. In theory, the rise of the diseases of modernity may be largely caused by a combination of this and the recent changes in macronutrient loading, sleep cycles, and environmental pollutants. If parents were to get (and afford to get) for their children a genomic readout (perhaps more helpful than a karyotype description) on the more widely known genetic adaptations and problems that exist today, we may be better able to prevent many maladies from taking shape later in life. This may involve moving to a different climate, following a certain diet, or doing and abstaining from particular activities. And it would certainly be a great addition to preventative medicine.

  • Ridahoan

    Nicely put. It seems to me that one socially motivated wing of biology has been asserting that there is no such thing as race by applying themes on the variation within vs without argument, while another wing, most visibly led by drug companies finding that some drugs work for some human populations and not others, continue to find fascinating and exploit biological differences between populations. Sometimes these populations break into what are commonly thought of as racial groups, and other times not. At this point I think few biologists talk in terms of race, but every human geneticist knows the importance of populations within our species.

    Now, let us not forget the remainder of our immediate biological family, the remaining hominids who are indeed close to extermination as this Prof. Schaaffhause predicted. They are not human but nonetheless clearly emotive and sentient. Here the biological differences are much clearer, but again, mere biology should not trump ethics.

  • Drake

    Interesting article. I’ve recieved sideways glances by some when I don’t outright dismiss the concept of race as a social construct or a meaningless fabrication. To be clear, the common usage of race(e.g white, black, asian) is a social construct, but the concept of genetic variation between groups of people is entirely plausible(if not obvious). As mentioned in the article, these differences are negligible in the larger schema(we are still all Humans afterall!), but the seemingly fundamentalist egaltarian philosophies common in modern sociology come acreoss as willfully ignorant. The inconsistency of the defintions/application of race in the USA and Brazil says nothing about the meaninfullness of race scientifically. All the inconsitency can logically imply is that different societies define race differently. No more, no less. It is like suggesting that since different societies define ‘obesity’ differently, then obesity must be a scientifically meaningless conept. The logic is astoundingly dubious.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @SS: I’m not seeing the problem. The two brown-eyed parents (the top two squares) each have a recessive blue-eyed gene. Each sent a blue-eyed gene to both of their kids, who are therefore blue-eyed. So just in terms of eye color, the blue-eyed offspring might be more genetically similar to a stranger than to their own parents. That does not mean, of course, that they’re more similar overall to the stranger than to their own parents.

    Does that clarify anything?

  • Jan

    I agree with SS. I was also confused by the diagram used to explain eye colour. My understanding of Punnett squares is that the parent generation is represented by the rectangles and the potential offspring are represented by the four squares. If you have two brown eyed parents who both carry the blue eyed recessive gene, you will have 1 brown-eyed homozygous, 2 brown-eyed heterozygous and 1 blue-eyed heterozygous offspring. So the ratio of brown-eyed to blue-eyed offspring is 3:1.

    I understand your assertion that variation in one trait can be greater in a family than in the population as a whole but I think you’re diagram is incorrect. Both parents should be represented by Bb if you want to demonstrate how the blue-eyed offspring are produced. If you had BB and Bb as parents, all the children would have brown eyes but two would be heterozygous Bb and two would be homozygous BB.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Jan: Whoops! Yes, an editing error there. Fixed it.

  • Graham

    There is no doubt that a lot of textbook rewriting will be required in the future. According to the DNA evidence that we have, the Denisovans were a large – thus genetically diverse – population about which we currently know almost nothing. They seem, for a start, to be more genetically diverse than the Neanderthals who ranged across Europe and parts of Asia, and yet we know almost nothing about them at present. Far more work needs to be done in Asia on tracking down Hominin remains.

  • Stefano

    The link in “falsified” is a manipulation: it links up with Svante Paabo’s group work on the Neanderthal genome, which simply suggests some Neanderthal/Sapiens interbreeding. It does not “falsify” out of Africa.

    And in any case the human lineage DID start in Africa. And in any case, the largest amount of human genetic repository IS in Africa.

    Not quite sure what the point of the post is: the fact that humans are subjected to natural selection? Hardly shocking, isn’t it?

    It is a shame that the subtle undertone of the post fails to mention that RACE as it has been used DOES NOT match the patterns of substructure that can be inferred from genomic variation: i.e. there is far more differentiation between a Nigerian Yoruba and a Kenyan Masai than there is between an Italian and an Indian.

  • crookedshoes

    The eye color chart is an oversimplification. It states in the text of the article that blue eye color is inherited “roughly” like a recessive allele… That is true but patently oversimplified since eye color is governed by at least three genes. So the darkest eyes would be AABBCC and the lightest would be aabbcc. There are many variations because eye color is a polygenic trait. If eye color were truly the way this punnett square depicts, then there would only be blue and brown eyes.

  • Paardestaart

    The idea that biology would ever trump ethics is uncivilized and primitive..Such a pity that uncivilized and primitive ideas have had so much sway. If only scientists had been more responsible and courageous, how much suffering would have been spared us, how many disastrous legislation would have been avoided, and how much social animosity and even hatred would have been spared us..

  • NMObserver

    For most people who don’t read science (and that’s a lot of people) the idea of race, I think, goes something like this: a certain array of physical characteristics indicate your “race” (i.e. your defining category amongst human beings) which then correlates to where you are from, how intelligent you are, what language you speak, what cultural traits you practice, and what your last name is or should be. I think the misunderstanding is that while “race” might exist in the sense that your DNA can tell you a lot about the migratory paths taken by your ancestors and whether or not they bred with other hominids or even about recent physical adaptations to the environment, “race” doesn’t exist in the sense that there is any correlation between these things and your physical characteristics now, your intelligence, the language you speak, the culture you practice, your national origin or citizenship, nor your last name. You could randomly choose 100 people from around the world that all have the physical characteristics identified with Africans and the chances are strong that there will be lots of differences in language, culture, intelligence, national origin, last name and probably even the migratory paths taken by their ancestors. The only overarching similarities will be the superficial physical characteristics. For most people, the idea that a person’s physical appearance does not necessarily tell you about a person’s cultural practices, language spoken, intelligence, national origin, or their last name is counterintuitive. But most people don’t realize this because they don’t read science very much, especially the science about human origins. They’ve been steeped in the belief that humans can be categorized by virtue of their appearance since the time they were born. So for them, race does exist and they use it every day as a way of mentally categorizing people they meet and then making decisions about how to interact with them. It’s a kind of shorthand for dealing with people in the world. Granted, it’s a flawed shorthand—often very flawed–but they use it nevertheless. I think this is the point of this article.

  • Jorient

    This article is about as non-scientific as you can get. It reads like a nightly newscast on MSNBC, so far from reality as to be totally meaningless. It is time to get beyond this nonsense and move on to real science. The first clue of irrelevancy is the use of the “blue eyed” chart. That has been the heart of most non-scientifics since the fifties when it was found in every book on psychology, sociology and biology. Of course, it also showed up in every liberal publication you could find. We simply have to stop using pseudo–science to promote liberal agendas and explain away the real world. Redefining words do not make them go away. We either have to all be the same or celebrate our differences. You can’t have it both ways. As long as we have this mushy talk, we will never make any progress! Did you hear that, progressives? We are looking for progress/growth/understanding, not some redefinition of reality.

  • Nathan

    1st Assertion rebuttal rebuttal: The assertion is using the the colloquial version of the word race, and in that sense it is correct. Nobody refers to ‘Western Eurasian” as a race. And while we’re on the topic, the phylogeny described is not equivalent to the biological definition of race. Eye color in particular doesn’t even fit that division…Fail.

    2nd Assertion rebuttal rebuttal: Humans are all mammals. Well mostly, our species also bred with apes in it’s extant past…Do you see the failure in logic there? We are all still African, but we’re also partially neanderthal, and denisovan, and any other ‘extinct’ archaic human you want to add in pending evidence of interbreeding. Fail.

    3rd Assertion rebuttal rebuttal: None of the differences listed are major. It’s almost as if you thought the assertion was; ‘there hasn’t been enough time for any new mutations to spread throughout the population’ because that’s the only assertion you managed to refute. Nice strawman. Since we came ‘out of africa’, which is the actual timeframe for us to gain races not enough time has passed. Our species population only got large enough, and geographical divided enough for it to be a possibility since then, because, in case you forgot, you need divergent populations. Populations, plural. Got it? Fail.

    4th Assertion rebuttal rebuttal: Again, you’ve misunderstood the use of the word race. Not only do humans not fit the definition of biological race, making any statement to the contrary a reference to myth, but the colloquial sense itself is based upon myths and is itself one. Yes humans evolved, and are still evolving, and yet we have no races still. Fail.

  • Pingback: Richard Dawkins accepts the usefulness of race | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • TGGP

    “In the year 1900, one out of three human beings alive was of European extraction”
    That’s surprising, I thought China + India (which encompassed a lot more territory then) would match them. Through I was led to Lothrop Stoddard’s famous book and he starts by noting that whites had political control over most of the earth’s territory, but were still a minority of the total population.

    NMObserver, just because 100 random people will have a lot of variation within-group does not mean there will be “no correlation” between group-membership and other traits. For example, we know that a great many people of african descent speak english (a language associated with whites/europeans). But if Swahili is almost a 100% predictor of African descent, then we can say that African ancestry is correlated with speaking Swahili (even if it’s a minority language among our random 100).

  • AndrewV

    @13 Jorient Here is a clue for you. The author of the paper is a secular conservative.

    @14 Nathan you and Jorient also appear to be a great examples of the Dunning–Kruger effect.

    The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.

  • Nora

    As a Political Scientist (I apoligize in advance for not doing ‘real’ science), studying in South Africa, I naturally have some serious personal reservations about using the word ‘race’ to define anybody. A ‘neutral’ scientifically-rooted definition is, and has been, easily misused. We cannot discard this as another person’s problem in any discussion on race.

    That being said, I have a question about the scientific definition of race, or ‘substructure’. If we take the concept of different races in science as a given, where do totally mixed population fall?

    The Masai (who dont just live in Kenya but all over East Africa) are relatively homogenous so they make a favourite example of ‘African populations’. In contrast, in South Africa, we have a large population of ‘Coloureds’ (NOT in the American sense) who are descendents of important Malaysian slaves, the local populations, White settlers and whoever else was around. Now, under apartheid they were defined as a race based on a common language, culture etc.

    My question is, in this globalised word, using the Coloureds as an example, how can any population which has so many different ancestors and genetic variations be defined as a race, even scientifically? Who do they share common undertones with? Where can science begin to classify races when humans have aleays reproduced across all races?

  • Pingback: Hypothetical questions are always scary « S.J. Esposito's Weblog()

  • Jason Antrosio

    Hi Nora,
    I would agree that this is an important consideration. A close look at the genetic-cluster plot above reveals these are sampled from populations that would be considered native to Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Americas are obviously not included. But as you point out, in the last 500 years, these populations have almost all been reshuffled and moved around. Interestingly, the place where the idea of race emerges and is held most firmly in place are the colonial places: the Americas and South Africa. Those are also the places where–I suspect–one would most likely get a smear across the canvass if contemporary populations were plotted. We can talk about admixture fractions from ancestral populations, but that also involves interpretive and sampling exercises as Razib’s post on Finding Fake Roots clarifies.

  • Geack

    @ 11. Paardestaart:
    “If only scientists had been more responsible and courageous…” What are you talking about? Scientists have had depressingly little impact on social behavior. They are certainly not the source for racism and all the other group hatreds people have cherished over the millenia. We have generally treated biological theories the same way we treat religious texts – ranting about whichever parts support our collective prejudices at a given point in time and ignoring the rest. I supposed one might mourn the fact that science hasn’t magically cured all humanity’s inherent flaws, but to blame science for those flaws is simply nonsense.

  • Jorient

    Comment to AndrewV

    @17 AndrewV says that Nathan and I suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect. That may be true, but isn’t that the classic liberal argument…attacking the individuals rather than what they say? Doesn’t that shut down the dialogue and therefore allow the attacker to win by default? The problem is that to discuss major issues such as evolution and races can’t be done in an article or one liners, or by redefining words. It takes years of careful study and at least a long discussion. Sorry I didn’t take the time to do that. I have only studied evolution for forty years. Guess I will just have to start over.

  • Tanya McPositron

    @Jorient, et al:

    I hold my Dunning-Kruger Effect dear! Sometimes, being science-y is better than being a scientist–no? I always say that I am just dumb enough to see things clearly.

    For example, I have this theory (hypothesis?) that Dunning-Kruger resides on (in?) the same gene that codes for optimism, OXTR…

    Just wait and see. Betcha I’m right.

    (I usually am)

  • cwhig

    A couple in England gave birth about eight years ago to this set of twins. Are they the same race?

  • Peter Deepinsky

    Difference as an empirical vs. ethical judgement. In the past our understanding of the world was shaped largely by theology; today it is increasingly empirical. Too bad most people are unable to think empirically, and necessarily their ability to behave ethically is impaired. I imagine over time this may change, but I am left to wonder if we, as a species, have enough time.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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