Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue

Feb 5, 2016

Photo credit: R. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock

By Megan Gannon

More than 100 years ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. He spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups, claiming that these distinctions ignored the scope of human diversity.

Science would favor Du Bois. Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning. And yet, you might still open a study on genetics in a major scientific journal and find categories like “white” and “black” being used as biological variables.

In an article published today (Feb. 4) in the journal Science, four scholars say racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out. [Unraveling the Human Genome: 6 Molecular Milestones]

They’ve called on the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to put together a panel of experts across the biological and social sciences to come up with ways for researchers to shift away from the racial concept in genetics research.

“It’s a concept we think is too crude to provide useful information, it’s a concept that has social meaning that interferes in the scientific understanding of human genetic diversity and it’s a concept that we are not the first to call upon moving away from,” said Michael Yudell, a professor of public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.


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12 comments on “Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue

  • I am curious to know; if there are no differences biologically how do you explain health issues that seem to occur in higher rates within certain “races” regardless of geography?

    Robekre… I think that most problems between ethnicities is driven by cultural differences and color is a scapegoat for ignorance. I have used your line myself sarcastically in the past but I say that we should be enjoying and admiring the differences between cultures rather than using them to justify denigrating others.

    Namaste



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  • My passport should read, Citizen of Planet Earth. I am a member of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens. So is everyone else on the planet. Primitive evolutionary drives that demand blind loyalty to your tribe and fear of the “Other” result in the creation of “Races” with all of the social baggage that goes with that stone age thinking. It was as successful evolutionary strategy that passed on your genes so became imprinted on your brain ROM.

    Takes a responsible adult in the room with a disciplined act of intellectual rigour to overcome your primitive stone age brain. Few can do it. Almost no republican presidential candidate is capable.



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  • Races are surely real. That cannot be denied. It’s not to say one is “better” than any other, but the differences are obvious just by looking, and genetic surveys confirm there are differences.
    What I’m saying is consistent with basic evolutionary biology and repeated among millions of species. Populations become separated geographically, restricting gene flow, and given sufficient time the genetic differences accumulate due to natural selection, random mutations and genetic drift. If you find the word “race” has too many negative connotations, choose another word if you like.
    Some bird field guides use “sub species”.
    I’m actually gobsmacked at how the zeal for racial equality, whilst a noble pursuit, has thrown basic science out the window.



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  • Jeffrey Norriss #4
    Dec 28, 2016 at 5:56 am

    Races are surely real.

    That is so when taking about animal species and sub-species.

    That cannot be denied. It’s not to say one is “better” than any other, but the differences are obvious just by looking, and genetic surveys confirm there are differences.

    In humans however genetic differences between what are referred to as “races” are small.
    Much smaller than genetic variation between biologically described “races” in other animals.

    There are however some exceptional genetic based racial features which are “better” – such as the eyesight of aboriginal Australians!

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7457480
    Racial variations in vision.
    This study determined the distributions of uncorrected visual acuity and of refractive error in representative groups of Australian Aborigines and Australians of European origin aged 20-30 years. The methodology used in this study and its verification are described in detail. As a group, the Aborigines have significantly better visual acuity than the Europeans. This was true for both monocular and binocular vision. Some Aborigines have acuities below the previous postulated threshold levels. Aborigines as a group also have the previous postulated threshold levels. Aborigines as a group also have less myopia–in particular, less high myopia–and less astigmatism than Europeans. The mean refraction for Aborigines is about half a diopter more hypermetropic than that for Europeans, although there is not an excess of high hypermetropia in Aborigines. The lack of high refractive errors suggests that the Aborigines may not possess the genes that cause abnormal axial lengths usually associated with high refractive errors in Europeans. The superior vision of the Aborigines persisted, however, when comparing groups which were essentially emmetropic. Therefore, it appears to be a true racial difference which is not explicable on the grounds of variation in refractive error but may result from finer retinal organization or better cerebral integration of visual stimuli.

    What I’m saying is consistent with basic evolutionary biology and repeated among millions of species.

    That is correct, but not generally in the case of humans, who are somewhat of an exception in the limited diversity of their genome.



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  • B Sal Butler #2
    Feb 8, 2016 at 8:05 pm

    I am curious to know; if there are no differences biologically how do you explain health issues that seem to occur in higher rates within certain “races” regardless of geography?

    There are biological and genetic differences.

    http://phys.org/news/2016-03-world-neanderthal-denisovan-ancestry-modern.html

    A world map of Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry in modern humans
    March 28, 2016

    Most non-Africans possess at least a little bit Neanderthal DNA. But a new map of archaic ancestry—published March 28 in Current Biology—suggests that many bloodlines around the world, particularly of South Asian descent, may actually be a bit more Denisovan, a mysterious population of hominids that lived around the same time as the Neanderthals. The analysis also proposes that modern humans interbred with Denisovans about 100 generations after their trysts with Neanderthals.

    The Harvard Medical School/UCLA research team that created the map also used comparative genomics to make predictions about where Denisovan and Neanderthal genes may be impacting modern human biology.
    While there is still much to uncover, Denisovan genes can potentially be linked to a more subtle sense of smell in Papua New Guineans and high-altitude adaptions in Tibetans. Meanwhile, Neanderthal genes found in people around the world most likely contribute to tougher skin and hair.




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  • Olgun #7
    Dec 28, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    I found this. A bit old but the way we live seems to have quite an effect.

    There are a lot of the nature V nurture issues.

    I think in the Australian example there are genetic differences.

    That is not to say that a lot of habits and developed abilities, attributed to “race”, cannot be simply cultural rather than genetic.



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  • This notion of writing off genetic racial differences as a social construct is a pretty dangerous idea actually. Certain genetic markers make people more prone to a rather wide variety of diseases and disorders. Some of those markers affect people of racial groups more than others. Why?

    Racial genetic markers are literally the effect of speciation caused by groups of people not intermingling for extremely long periods of time. That’s precisely why people with different racial markers are more prone to different diseases.

    Take sickle cell anemia for example. As it turns out, people with sickle cell anemia have a much higher resistance to malaria. It seems that evolution determined that the benefits of being resistant to malaria were more important than the health issues caused by sickle cell. There are other malaria hotspots, around the world and the people who have lived in those regions for thousands of years are also prone to sickle cell. Caucasians have not, for the most part, lived in those regions for thousands of years. As a result, evolution found no benefit to preserving the gene. It may not be PC to call sickle cell a “black” disease, but according to actual science it is most certainly a “not white” disease.

    Anyone can be a carrier, but Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic predisposition to contract Tay Sachs. Most of the Jews alive today are Ashkenazi, by the way. As it turns out almost half carry at least one of 38 genetic diseases.
    Caucasians run a higher risk of contracting cystic fibrosis, melanoma and hemophilia than any other race.
    Thalassemia is a type of anemia that almost exclusively afflicts Asians and Middle Easterners. The highest risk group is Chinese living in southern China.

    The evidence is pretty clear that race is, in fact, not a social construct. I’m absolutely floored that the website of a Biologist would be promoting this pap in the first place. However, since that Biologist is Richard Dawkins, who knows damned good and well how evolution works is utterly ridiculous. If Dawkins supports the notion that race is a social construct and actually approved of this being posted on his website, then his political views have officially rendered him irrelevant as a scientist.



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  • David Crisp #9
    Jun 1, 2017 at 5:18 am

    The evidence is pretty clear that race is, in fact, not a social construct. I’m absolutely floored that the website of a Biologist would be promoting this pap in the first place. However, since that Biologist is Richard Dawkins, who knows damned good and well how evolution works is utterly ridiculous. If Dawkins supports the notion that race is a social construct and actually approved of this being posted on his website, then his political views have officially rendered him irrelevant as a scientist.

    Hi David!

    The posting of articles on this site does not imply endorsement.

    Articles are posted for critical analysis and discussion.

    There are from time to time pseudo-science or anti-science articles posted – and their arguments are usually quickly shredded by some of the critical thinkers on this site!

    While you make some very good valid points, the genetic the differences between races in humans are substantially less, than the genetic differences between races in other species.

    There are indeed many aspects of the old “nature V nurture” debates.



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  • While you make some very good valid points, the genetic the
    differences between races in humans are substantially less, than the
    genetic differences between races in other species.

    This is true. In fact, I just looked into that and found a brief (I will link it below) that almost confirms what you are saying here. It’s the only thing that I found in my admittedly short search that even came close. According to the .PDF, humans have less variation than “many other” species. Not all other species. Not even most other species. “Many other” species. The author doesn’t even say it’s more or less than half. So, what she means by “many” is a complete mystery. It’s not a mystery I would put a lot of faith in to prove a point in any discussion.

    To say that “the genetic the differences between races in humans are substantially less, than the genetic differences between races in other species.” is true. However it also appears to be true that the genetic the differences between races in humans are substantially more than the genetic differences between races in other species. At least I have to believe that based on wording in the source material I’m looking at.

    Regardless, while all humans may have only a .1% variation in our genetics, the end result of that .1% variation is infinitely more important than the figure itself. As far as I’m aware, speciation of any kind does not require a set percentage of variation. So, it’s concievable, to me at least, that the right variation of .001% could have just as much impact as .1% under the right circumstances IF that variation was enough to make one group of humans distinctly unique. Since most anthropologists still classify modern humans into 4 racial groups and 30 sub-groups, I would posit the theory that far less than a .1% genetic variation more than enough to account for racial differences.

    On the other matter; to be perfectly honest, I phrased that badly. I’d bet a dollar that Richard Dawkins doesn’t even log into this website on a daily basis.

    https://www.ashg.org/education/pdf/geneticvariation.pdf



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  • David Crisp #11
    Jun 2, 2017 at 7:56 am

    I’d bet a dollar that Richard Dawkins doesn’t even log into this website on a daily basis.

    He uses twitter more these days, but has also been recovering from a stroke and been busy with a US lecture tour lately (see the RDFS home page).



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