Problems with the race concept


Introduction: The Study of Race in Science

A 1904 painting showing the cultural and physical diversity of some of the peoples of Asia.

The topic of human variation has interested scholars since the very earliest days of science.  Carolus Linnaeus, who you may remember from Module 1 was the first to scientifically classify living species.  In his famous Systema Naturae, published in 1758, he also classified human beings into races, a synonym for subspecies used at the time.  After Anthropology developed as a formal discipline a little over a century later, human diversity was studied mainly through anthropometry, the measurement and proportions of the human body.  This emphasis on human physical traits is how Physical Anthropology got its name. Sources of data included the osteological study of skeletal features, especially craniometry, the measurement and study of features of human skulls.  Early physical anthropologists also studied non-skeletal physical characteristics, including body types, facial features, hair texture, and others.  During this time they were most interested in traits related to believed racial differences.  The image below shows hair samples and glass eyes used for studying racial classification in the early 20th century:

Racial classification schemes figured prominently in early physical anthropology. The map below shows a 19th century map of human races from Meyers Konversationslexikon (a German encyclopedia), published 1885-90.  The map shows what was believed to be the racial classification of humans from that period, based on the study of human traits in physical anthropology, now sometimes referred to as race science.  

Map of what were believed to be human races from a German encyclopedia, c. 1885-1890.

 Among the groups listed on the map are the  “Caucasian” races (divided into sub-groups Aryans, Hamites, Semites) in blue, the “Mongolian” races (northern Mongolian, Chinese and Indo-Chinese, Japanese and Korean, Tibetan, Malayan, Polynesian, Maori, Micronesian, Eskimo, American Indian) in yellow, and the so-called “Negroid” races (African, Hottentots, Melanesians/Papua, “Negrito”, Australian Aborigine, Dravidians, Sinhalese). The three major racial categories portrayed on the map all have their origins in the 18th century European science of racial classification.  “Caucasian” was a term originated in the 1780s by German anatomist Johann Blumenbach who was part of a group of scholars at the Göttingen School of History in central Germany.   He proposed after a trip to the Caucasus mountains (between the Black and Caspian seas in modern Russia) that the people living there must have been God’s ideal creation of humanity.  Blumenbach named other categories of human races at the time and his typology then evolved: “Mongolian” and “Negroid” were added by Blumenbach and other scholars associated with the Göttingen School of History shortly after. 

Categorizations of early philosophers and naturalists were virtually always tainted by racist ideas about European superiority.  For example, Linnaeus divided humans into four major groups: European, Asian, African, and Native American.  He based his categories on physical traits such as facial features, but also on”personality,”  “temperament” and what each group was “ruled by.” In his classification, Europeans come out looking very good: they are of “vigorous” temperament, “smart and sensitive” in personality and ruled by “law.”  All other groups are described much less positively: Asians are by nature “strict,” “contemptuous” and “greedy,” while Africans are “sluggish” and “lazy,” according to Linnaeus.  Thinking critically about his classification system, we now understand that Linnaeus was guilty of the fallacy of essentialism: instead of objectively describing these categorizing them, he was idealizing them on the basis of a reduced number of handpicked traits.  Today it is also obvious such observations are both ethnocentric (falsely viewing one’s own culture as superior to others) and racist (discriminating against others on the basis of racial categorization).  Thus, we now view the classifications of Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and others as examples of scientific racism.

Following Linnaeus’ first attempt at a scientific classification of the human species, scholars have continued debating the nature and validity of racial categories for over 250 years.  As you read in our Explorations textbook, late as the 1960s, Carleton Coon, a physical anthropologist considered credible at the time, was still arguing for the validity of these racial categories. Even more recently very small number of contemporary researchers, now regarded by the scientific community with disdain, have continued to do problematic work.  The best known of them was psychologist J. Phillipe Rushton (1943-2012), who until his death spent a career trying to prove a correlation between race and intelligence. Rushton and a small number of other researchers are outliers.   The data shows the rejection of racial classification by American scientists happened gradually over time but at different rates in different fields. A survey taken in 1985 for example, asked scientists whether they agreed with the statement “There are biological races in the species Homo sapiens.”  At the time only 16% of biologists and 36% of developmental psychologists disagreed with the statement, while 41% of biological anthropologists and 53% of cultural anthropologists disagreed with it at that time. When the same question was posed in 1999, 69% of biological anthropologists and 80% of cultural anthropologists disagreed.  The numbers have continued to increase since then and at this point, particularly among those who conduct research on topics related to this issue, the idea of biological based races has been rejected.

The scientific community may have rejected racial classification, but unfortunately, the designation of these racial groups by early scientists was adopted into the popular vocabulary and continues to this day.  In spite of being scientifically discredited, Blumenbach’s typology and ideas based on it  continue to be used today, as discussed in anthropologist Yolanda Moses’ article “Why Do We Keep Using the Word “Caucasian?” (Links to an external site.) Even more important than such continued use of problematic terms, racism based on these early categories continues to plague the United States and other societies around the world. Recently, some have falsely explained the higher fatality rates for COVID-19 among African Americans as resulting from race-based genetic differences.  As discussed in Sonia Zakrzewski’s article “No, ‘Racial Genetics’ aren’t Effecting COVID-19 Deaths,” (Links to an external site.)  scientists have had to repeatedly point out that there is no evidence for this kind of explanation.  As medical anthropologists and public health researchers will attest, the higher fatality rates among African Americans result not from genetics but from lower income, poorer access to quality health care, and other dimensions of structural racism.

Problematic assumptions about race can also be found in some contemporary scientific research.  We saw some issues with how race and ancestry are problematically constructed in the direct-to-consumer personal genomics discussion in Module 2.  Anthropologists and other scientists of color are often burdened with pointing out such bias in scientific research.  At the end of your Explorations textbook you read the personal story of Michael Rivera, the chapter’s author. As he discussed, being a person of color in today’s academic world entails many burdens and difficulties.  As Rivera’s testimonial shows, human races may lack a strong genetic basis but that doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t impact people of color harmfully.  Racism remains far too real and is based on categories that are assumed by many to have a biological basis.  It is not that “race doesn’t exist”– it is all too real for many of us and you yourself have either suffered from racism or witnessed it happening firsthand.  Race exists because we treat it as real and it plays a powerful and damaging role in our societies and lives.  Thus, anthropologists generally argue that race does not have a biological basis, but it is socially constructed


As you know from the discussion of race in Explorations and the “Closer Look” page on Human Genetic Variation, anthropologists no longer see racial categorization as supported biologically. There are many reasons for this.  Both the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (Links to an external site.) (AAPA) and the American Anthropological Association (Links to an external site.) (AAA) offer statements on race discussing the concept’s problematic history in anthropology, the inaccuracies of the idea, and the current wisdom and position on the issue. Use the links above to view those statements.

What you should do:

For this assignment, you should review chapter 13 of the Explorations book, especially its  discussion of the problems with race and racial categorization from a biological and anthropological perspectives.  You should also view the documentary “The Difference Between Us: Race—the Power of An Illusion” Links to an external site.which is available at that link through PCC’s Shatford Library website (you may be required to sign in to view it).  The site hosting the film has a transcript and offers subtitles.  Additionally, for a different but related perspective, please read Clarence Gravelee’s article “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality.”


Once you have reviewed the chapter, watched the film, and read Gravelee’s article, write up a discussion post that does the following:

Using the film, our textbook, and the article, make an argument against racial categorization on the basis of biological science (including genetics, population genetics, inheritance, or medical science).  Your answer should discuss at least three distinct problems with the race concept and correct the problems based on our current understandings of biological science. Your post should include at least one specific example from each of the three sources (the film, the article, and the textbook).

at least 500 words


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