The Meaninglessness of Race – November 21, 2010

In terms of biology and the physical being, the genetics markers that we use to determine a human’s race—color of skin, color and texture of hair, shape of nose or lips—are unconnected and virtually meaningless. Except possibly for expression of the genes that control skin pigmentation, they offer no inherent survival value. They are pure happenstance.

Deployment of melanin in the skin is an adaptation to living in latitudes with a high solar altitude and so a heavy exposure to ultraviolet rays. People with ancestry in the tropics, whether they are of African, Indian, or Australian origin, have dark skins as an adaptation to block the sun’s harmful effects. People with many generations at the extreme northern or southern latitudes have lighter skins, to absorb more ultraviolet light rays and produce life-sustaining amounts of vitamin D.

Certain recessive genes may also show up in some races. The most noteworthy is sickle cell anemia, which appeared in Africa as an adaptation to help the individual survive endemic malaria, which attacks red blood cells. Other populations from other areas exhibit similar recessives or genetic tendencies resulting either from local environmental conditions or from simple mutations that were carried forward because they weren’t widely or immediately life threatening. Some people have curly hair. Some have green eyes. None of these traits would be a suitable basis for judging the quality of a person or his worthiness for our association.

The point is, we are all human and very closely related.1 We haven’t known of a separate hominid species—a genetically isolated strain that cannot breed fertile offsping—for at least the past 30,000 years. Those were the Neanderthals, and the jury is still out as to whether Homo neanderthalsis and H. sapiens could breed successfully.

The genetic markers and the phenotypes they express are virtually meaningless. We would hardly notice them at all, except that we use them as visual cues to define race in a social context. Depending on your background, you may tend to associate a person’s look in terms of skin or hair color with an expected difference in behavior or viewpoint or cultural affiliation. We use genetic characteristics, meaningless as they are in terms of survival or behavior, as determinants of “the other.”

Fear of, distrust of, and distaste for “the other”—other clan, other tribe, other nation, other culture—goes deep in the human psyche. We like to be with people who are similar to us. We are more comfortable when we are certain of how a person will respond to our words, gestures, and other socialized exchanges. When we don’t know this, we don’t know whether a wrong word will lead to anger and a blow or, equally important, the humiliation and embarrassment of arousing the other person’s amusement and disdain. It takes courage to shake hands across a cultural divide.

But none of this is either phenotypic or genetic. It has nothing to do with the physical being. Race is purely a cultural phenomenon.

And this means that, with spreading knowledge and the rise of enlightened—that is to say, courageous—views, racial distrust can be overcome. It is not hard-wired. It is not immutable. And it is not destiny.

1. See “We Are All Cousins” from October 17, 2010, in Science and Religion.