Does Race Exist?
Dr. C. Loring Brace
An antagonist's perspective
by C. Loring Brace
I am going to start this essay with what may seem to many as an outrageous
assertion: There is no such thing as a biological entity that warrants the term
The immediate reaction of most literate people is that this is obviously
nonsense. The physician will retort, "What do you mean 'there is no such thing
as race'? I see it in my practice everyday!" Jane Doe and John Roe will be
equally incredulous. Note carefully, however, that my opening declaration did
not claim that "there is no such thing as race." What I said is that there is
no "biological entity that warrants the term 'race'." "You're splitting hairs,"
the reader may retort. "Stop playing verbal games and tell us what you really
And so I shall, but there is another charge that has been thrown my way, which
I need to dispel before explaining the basis for my statement. Given the tenor
of our times at the dawn of the new millennium, some have suggested that my
position is based mainly on the perception of the social inequities that have
accompanied the classification of people into "races." My stance, then, has
been interpreted as a manifestation of what is being called "political
correctness." My answer is that it is really the defenders of the concept of
"race" who are unwittingly shaped by the political reality of American history.
[Read a proponent's perspective, that of anthropologist George Gill.]
But all of this needs explaining. First, it is perfectly true that the
long-term residents of the various parts of the world have patterns of features
that we can easily identify as characteristic of the areas from which they
come. It should be added that they have to have resided in those places for a
couple of hundred thousand years before their regional patterns became
established. Well, you may ask, why can't we call those regional patterns
"races"? In fact, we can and do, but it does not make them coherent biological
entities. "Races" defined in such a way are products of our perceptions.
"Seeing is believing" will be the retort, and, after all, aren't we seeing
reality in those regional differences?
Brace challenges the notion that his position
on race is a manifestation of "political correctness."
I should point out that this is the same argument that was made against
Copernicus and Galileo almost half a millennium ago. To this day, few have
actually made the observations and done the calculations that led those
Renaissance scholars to challenge the universal perception that the sun sets in
the evening to rise again at the dawn. It was just a matter of common sense to
believe that the sun revolves around the Earth, just as it was common sense to
"know" that the Earth was flat. Our beliefs concerning "race" are based on the
same sort of common sense, and they are just as basically wrong.
Until Copernicus challenged the notion, common sense said
the sun revolved around the Earth. Should we be challenging our common-sense
notion of "race"?
The nature of human variation
I would suggest that there are very few who, of their own experience, have
actually perceived at first hand the nature of human variation. What we know of
the characteristics of the various regions of the world we have largely gained
vicariously and in misleadingly spotty fashion. Pictures and the television
camera tell us that the people of Oslo in Norway, Cairo in Egypt, and Nairobi
in Kenya look very different. And when we actually meet natives of those
separate places, which can indeed happen, we can see representations of those
differences at first hand. But if one were to walk up beside the Nile from
Cairo, across the Tropic of Cancer to Khartoum in the Sudan and on to Nairobi,
there would be no visible boundary between one people and another. The same
thing would be true if one were to walk north from Cairo, through the Caucasus,
and on up into Russia, eventually swinging west across the northern end of the
Baltic Sea to Scandinavia. The people at any adjacent stops along the way look
like one another more than they look like anyone else since, after all, they
are related to one another. As a rule, the boy marries the girl next door
throughout the whole world, but next door goes on without stop from one region
We realize that in the extremes of our transit—Moscow to Nairobi, perhaps—there is a major but gradual change in skin color from what we euphemistically
call white to black, and that this is related to the latitudinal difference in
the intensity of the ultraviolet component of sunlight. What we do not see,
however, is the myriad other traits that are distributed in a fashion quite
unrelated to the intensity of ultraviolet radiation. Where skin color is
concerned, all the northern populations of the Old World are lighter than the
long-term inhabitants near the equator. Although Europeans and Chinese are
obviously different, in skin color they are closer to each other than either is
to equatorial Africans. But if we test the distribution of the widely known ABO
blood-group system, then Europeans and Africans are closer to each other than
either is to Chinese.
While in skin color
Europeans and Chinese are closer to each other than either is to Africans, the
distribution of blood groups indicates that Europeans and Africans are closer
to each other than either is to Chinese.
Then if we take that scourge sickle-cell anemia, so often thought of as an
African disease, we discover that, while it does reach high frequencies in some
parts of sub-Saharan Africa, it did not originate there. Its distribution
includes southern Italy, the eastern Mediterranean, parts of the Middle East,
and over into India. In fact, it represents a kind of adaptation that aids
survival in the face of a particular kind of malaria, and wherever that malaria
is a prominent threat, sickle-cell anemia tends to occur in higher frequencies.
It would appear that the gene that controls that trait was introduced to
sub-Saharan Africa by traders from those parts of the Middle East where it had
arisen in conjunction with the conditions created by the early development of
Every time we plot the distribution of a trait possessing a survival value that
is greater under some circumstances than under others, it will have a different
pattern of geographical variation, and no two such patterns will coincide. Nose
form, tooth size, relative arm and leg length, and a whole series of other
traits are distributed each in accordance with its particular controlling
selective force. The gradient of the distribution of each is called a "cline"
and those clines are completely independent of one another. This is what lies
behind the aphorism, "There are no races, there are only clines." Yes, we can
recognize people from a given area. What we are seeing, however, is a pattern
of features derived from common ancestry in the area in question, and these are
largely without different survival value. To the extent that the people in a
given region look more like one another than they look like people from other
regions, this can be regarded as "family resemblance writ large." And as we
have seen, each region grades without break into the one next door.
There is nothing wrong with using geographic labels to designate people. Major
continental terms are just fine, and sub-regional refinements such as Western
European, Eastern African, Southeast Asian, and so forth carry no unintentional
baggage. In contrast, terms such as "Negroid," "Caucasoid," and "Mongoloid"
create more problems than they solve. Those very terms reflect a mix of narrow
regional, specific ethnic, and descriptive physical components with an
assumption that such separate dimensions have some kind of common tie.
Biologically, such terms are worse than useless. Their continued use, then, is
in social situations where people think they have some meaning.
America has a leading role in generating and perpetuating
the concept of "race," Brace says.
America and the race concept
The role played by America is particularly important in generating and perpetuating
the concept of "race." The human inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere largely
derive from three very separate regions of the world—Northeast Asia,
Northwest Europe, and Western Africa—and none of them has been in the New
World long enough to have been shaped by their experiences in the manner of
those long-term residents in the various separate regions of the Old World.
It was the American experience of those three separate population components
facing one another on a daily basis under conditions of manifest and enforced
inequality that created the concept in the first place and endowed it with the
assumption that those perceived "races" had very different sets of
capabilities. Those thoughts are very influential and have become enshrined in
laws and regulations. This is why I can conclude that, while the word "race"
has no coherent biological meaning, its continued grip on the public mind is in
fact a manifestation of the power of the historical continuity of the American
social structure, which is assumed by all to be essentially "correct."
Finally, because of America's enormous influence on the international scene,
ideas generated by the idiosyncrasies of American history have gained currency
in ways that transcend American intent or control. One of those ideas is the
concept of "race," which we have exported to the rest of the world without any
realization that this is what we were doing. The adoption of the biologically
indefensible American concept of "race" by an admiring world has to be the
ultimate manifestation of political correctness.
Dr. C. Loring Brace is professor anthropology and curator of biological
anthropology at the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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