6th October 2010
The nonsense of ‘race’
Here's an extract from my current revision of DOF. Comments appreciated.
During the last 5 000 generations since our sub-species came into being in Africa, we have spread across the planet through countless migrations. We thereafter split into groups each with its own cosmetic differences from others due to local adaptation. Among these are people’s superficial perceptions about differences in ‘race’ as well as real differences in religion, language and culture (I enclose the word ‘race’ in inverted commas throughout this book since, biologically, it is an entirely fictitious concept). These cosmetic and cultural differences often divide us politically. Sometimes, these divisions are sharp, almost cutting us off into different species. We are therefore characterised, at the political level, more by disunity than by unity. Our common great-great- – -grandmother, an African lady, would never have imagined that her progeny would split into so many different groups incessantly battling each other. In the rest of this section, I explore some of our alleged differences, for only then can we comprehend the political constraints under which we work, and suggest an approach to address them.
Evolution is unrelenting. It never stops – even for a generation. Millions of mutations occur in each generation, as the life force engages in active experiment to prepare itself for all contingencies. The overwhelming majority of these mutations don’t survive. Millions of unsuitable human foetuses are aborted by nature every year; and thousands that are born, quickly die. Only ‘good’ mutations, those that could give the species a genuine competitive advantage, survive. This allowed our ancestors to roam the earth in all environments with relative ease. In each generation, only the children best adapted to the new environment survived. Our minor cosmetic differences arose primarily from climatic adaptation.
We have all descended from dark skinned African forbears that were adapted to intense equatorial sunlight. However, as humans moved to the higher latitudes they found less sunlight there, which makes it hard for those with a darker skin to produce vitamin D, so vital for bones and general health. In these higher latitudes, children with a natural mutation that helped them produce less melanin (i.e. those with a lighter skin) had better odds of survival than their darker skinned siblings. Over time, the so called ‘white race’ evolved as a local environmental adaptation. Being a function of random chance, evolution does not lead to exactly the same outcome everywhere.
Similarly, children with a mutation for longer hair probably survived better in higher latitudes than those with short, curly hair because long hair keeps the head warmer (the opposite hair condition should be more successful in hot Africa). Once these mutations had emerged, other factors such as their ‘popularity’ (sexual adaptation), would have also come into play.
A wide range of adaptations that are not cosmetic but crucial, have also emerged. For instance, Europeans with a mutation that protected them from bubonic plague survived the Black Death, while those without it, died. The progeny of the survivors (most Europeans living today) are resistant to the bubonic plague.
Such adaptations have led to many minor differences across human populations. Overall, these differences are extremely insignificant, accounting for less than 0.01 per cent of the variation in the human genome. We are identical to each other in 99.99 per cent of our genes. Detecting differences among humans at the DNA level is therefore hard work. In particular, scientists tell us that ‘[i]t is impossible to look at people’s genetic code and deduce whether they are Black, Caucasian or Asian.’ The variation amongst individualswithin a so-called ‘race’ is greater than the variation among individualsacross so-called ‘races’. Thus, ‘modern human genetics … deliver[s] the salutary message that human populations share most of their genetic variation and that there is no scientific support for the concept that human populations are discrete, non-overlapping entities.’ But though the myth of ‘race’ had long been exploded, such as by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu in his 1942 book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, most people continue to believe that in this concept has a real basis. It is time to grow out of this misconception. The use of such a term, like ‘race’, is a bad habit. It creates categories where there are none, and distorts the social and political discourse.
Regardless of what happens in the future to the human species, racism has simply no legs to stand on. However, this mis-conception won’t go away easily given widespread ignorance among most humans whose knowledge of biology is weak, at best. Today this idea of ‘race’ has transmutated to the concept of ethnicity, being a combination of ‘race’ and culture.