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Maverick Bell
Maverick Bell

The Emperor's New Clothes: How Biological Theories of Race Fail to Explain Human Diversity

The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium

Race is one of the most controversial and contested concepts in human history. It has been used to justify oppression, discrimination, violence, and genocide, as well as to celebrate diversity, identity, and solidarity. But what is race, exactly? How has it been defined and measured by science and society? And what are the challenges and limitations of biological theories of race in the 21st century?

The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Biological Theories of Rac


What is race?

Race is a social construct that refers to the division of humanity into groups based on perceived physical and behavioral differences. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the concept of race has historically signified five criteria: (1) Races reflect some type of biological foundation, be it Aristotelian essences or modern genes; (2) This biological foundation generates discrete racial groupings, such that all and only all members of one race share a set of biological characteristics that are not shared by members of other races; (3) This biological foundation is inherited from generation to generation, allowing observers to identify an individuals race through her ancestry or genealogy; (4) Genealogical investigation should identify each races geographic origin, typically in Africa, Europe, Asia, or North and South America; and (5) This inherited racial biological foundation manifests itself primarily in physical phenotypes, such as skin color, eye shape, hair texture, and bone structure, and perhaps also behavioral phenotypes, such as intelligence or delinquency .

How has race been used in science and society?

Race has been used in science and society for various purposes, ranging from descriptive to prescriptive. On one hand, race has been used as a descriptive tool to classify human variation and diversity, as well as to trace human origins and migrations. On the other hand, race has been used as a prescriptive tool to rank human groups according to their supposed superiority or inferiority, as well as to justify policies and practices that affect their rights and opportunities. For example, race has been used to support slavery, colonialism, segregation, apartheid, genocide, immigration control, sterilization, medical experimentation, criminal profiling, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and identity politics .

What are the challenges and limitations of biological theories of race?

Biological theories of race face several challenges and limitations in explaining human variation and diversity. First, they assume that there is a clear-cut boundary between races that can be determined by objective criteria. However, in reality, there is no consensus on how many races exist or how to define them. Different thinkers have proposed different numbers and criteria for racial categories, ranging from four to hundreds . Moreover, there is considerable overlap and intermixing between races due to gene flow and migration. Second, they assume that there is a causal relationship between race and phenotype or behavior. However, in reality, there is no evidence that racial groups share a common biological essence or that they differ significantly in their genetic makeup. Most of the genetic variation in humans occurs within rather than between races, and most of the phenotypic and behavioral variation in humans is influenced by environmental and cultural factors rather than by genetic factors . Third, they assume that race is a natural and fixed category that reflects human evolution and history. However, in reality, race is a social and historical construct that changes over time and space. Race is not a natural kind, but a human invention that reflects power relations and interests .

The history and evolution of biological theories of race

From creationism to Darwinism: the origins of racial classification

The biological concept of race is ancient, beginning with creationist narratives and eventually becoming a part of the modern evolutionary paradigm. The earliest attempts to classify human races were based on religious and philosophical doctrines that assumed a divine origin and purpose for human diversity. For example, some thinkers believed that races were the result of the biblical curse of Ham, the son of Noah, who was condemned to servitude for his disrespect to his father. Others believed that races were the result of the Tower of Babel, where God confused the languages and scattered the people across the earth. Still others believed that races were the result of climatic and geographic influences, such as heat, cold, humidity, altitude, or latitude .

However, with the advent of scientific exploration and discovery, racial classification became more empirical and systematic. The most influential figure in this regard was Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, who proposed a four-fold division of humanity into Europaeus (white), Asiaticus (yellow), Americanus (red), and Afer (black) in his Systema Naturae (1735). He also assigned each race a set of physical and behavioral traits, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, temperament, intelligence, morality, and culture . Linnaeus's classification was later modified and expanded by other naturalists, such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who added a fifth race called Malay (brown) and introduced the term Caucasian to denote the white race .

The development of evolutionary theory in the 19th century challenged the creationist view of human races as fixed and immutable. Charles Darwin, in his On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), argued that all living organisms, including humans, share a common ancestry and are subject to natural selection. He also suggested that human races are not distinct species, but rather subspecies or varieties that have diverged from a common stock due to adaptation to different environments. Darwin did not deny the existence or significance of racial differences, but he did not endorse any hierarchy or value judgment among them. He also recognized the role of sexual selection and cultural factors in shaping human variation .

From eugenics to genetics: the rise and fall of racial science

The application of evolutionary theory to human races gave rise to a new field of inquiry called racial science or eugenics. Eugenics was the study of human heredity and improvement, with the aim of enhancing desirable traits and eliminating undesirable ones. Eugenicists believed that racial differences were not only biological but also heritable, measurable, and meaningful. They also believed that racial mixing or miscegenation was detrimental to the purity and quality of races. Eugenics was influenced by various disciplines, such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, statistics, medicine, and law .

Eugenics had two main branches: positive eugenics and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics encouraged the reproduction of superior races or individuals through incentives or education. Negative eugenics discouraged or prevented the reproduction of inferior races or individuals through restrictions or coercion. Eugenics was widely practiced in many countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in Europe and North America. Some of the most notorious examples of eugenic policies were the sterilization laws in the United States that targeted people deemed unfit or feebleminded; the immigration laws in the United States that excluded people from certain regions or countries; the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany that prohibited marriage and intercourse between Jews and non-Jews; and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany that exterminated millions of Jews and other minorities .

From genomics to epigenetics: the new frontiers of racial research

The advent of genomics and epigenetics in the 21st century has opened new frontiers of racial research, offering new possibilities and challenges for understanding human variation and diversity. Genomics is the study of the structure, function, and evolution of genomes, or the complete set of genetic material in an organism. Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors and experiences can alter gene expression without changing the DNA sequence. Both fields have implications for exploring the biological basis and consequences of race .

Genomics has enabled researchers to map and compare the genomes of different human populations, as well as to trace their ancestry and migration patterns. For example, the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, sequenced the genome of a small number of individuals from different racial and ethnic groups, providing a reference for further studies. The International HapMap Project, launched in 2002, identified common patterns of genetic variation or haplotypes among different populations, allowing researchers to infer their evolutionary relationships. The 1000 Genomes Project, initiated in 2008, aimed to catalog the genetic variation among more than 1000 individuals from different populations, representing a more comprehensive and diverse sample of human genomes .

Epigenetics has enabled researchers to examine how environmental factors and experiences can affect gene expression and health outcomes across generations. For example, epigeneticists have shown that exposure to stress, trauma, toxins, diet, or drugs can alter the methylation or acetylation of DNA or histones, which are proteins that wrap around DNA and regulate its activity. These epigenetic changes can influence the development and function of various organs and systems, such as the brain, immune system, cardiovascular system, or metabolic system. Moreover, these epigenetic changes can be inherited by offspring or even grandchildren, creating a legacy of generational trauma or resilience .

However, genomics and epigenetics also pose some challenges and limitations for understanding race. First, they may reinforce or revive the notion of biological races as discrete and essentialist categories that reflect genetic differences. For example, some researchers have used genomic data to support the existence of distinct racial clusters or ancestries that correspond to geographic regions or continents . Others have used epigenetic data to suggest that racial groups have different susceptibilities or responses to environmental factors or diseases . Second, they may overlook or underestimate the role of social and cultural factors in shaping human variation and diversity. For example, some researchers have used genomic data to explain racial disparities in health outcomes without considering the effects of racism, discrimination, poverty, or access to health care . Others have used epigenetic data to blame racial groups for their own health problems without acknowledging the historical and structural causes of their trauma or stress . Third, they may raise ethical and social issues regarding the collection, interpretation, and application of genomic and epigenetic data. For example, some researchers have used genomic data to make claims about racial identity or ancestry that may conflict with self-identification or cultural affiliation . Others have used epigenetic data to justify interventions or policies that may infringe on individual autonomy or privacy .

The critique and alternatives of biological theories of race

The social construction of race: how culture shapes biology

According to this perspective,

- Race is a product of human culture and history, not of nature and biology. Race is not a fixed or universal category, but a variable and contingent one that changes across time and space. Different societies and cultures have different ways of defining and categorizing race, depending on their historical, political, economic, and social contexts . - Race is a tool of power and domination, not of knowledge and understanding. Race is not a neutral or objective concept, but a biased and subjective one that serves the interests of dominant groups. Racial classifications are used to create and maintain social hierarchies and inequalities, as well as to justify oppression and exploitation of subordinate groups . - Race is a matter of identity and representation, not of essence and reality. Race is not a natural or inherent attribute of individuals or groups, but a social and symbolic construction that reflects how people perceive themselves and others. Racial identities are fluid and dynamic, rather than static and fixed. Racial representations are diverse and contested, rather than homogeneous and consensual . The intersectionality of race: how race interacts with other identities

Another critique of biological theories of race is the intersectional perspective, which argues that race is not an isolated or independent category that affects people in the same way, but an intersecting or interdependent category that interacts with other identities, such as gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc. According to this perspective,

- Race is a multidimensional and complex phenomenon, not a unidimensional and simple one. Race is not a single or monolithic factor that determines people's experiences and outcomes, but a multiple or composite factor that combines with other factors to produce diverse and nuanced effects. Different dimensions of race, such as skin color, ethnicity, culture, ancestry, etc., may have different implications for different people . - Race is a relational and contextual phenomenon, not an absolute or universal one. Race is not a fixed or stable category that applies to people in the same way across situations, but a flexible or dynamic category that varies depending on the relationships and contexts in which people are situated. Different aspects of race may be more or less salient or relevant for different people in different situations . - Race is a heterogeneous and contradictory phenomenon, not a homogeneous or consistent one. Race is not a coherent or uniform category that produces similar or predictable outcomes for people within groups, but an inconsistent or contradictory category that generates diverse or paradoxical outcomes for people across groups. Different experiences of race may create both advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and challenges, privileges and oppressions for different people . The diversity and complexity of race: how race varies across time and space

A final critique of biological theories of race is the comparative perspective, which argues that race is not a static or fixed category that reflects human nature, but a dynamic or changing category that reflects human variation. According to this perspective,

According to this perspective,

- Race is a diverse and complex phenomenon, not a simple or uniform one. Race is not a single or monolithic category that captures human variation, but a multiple or multifaceted category that reflects human diversity. Racial categories are influenced by biological, environmental, cultural, and historical factors, resulting in different patterns and expressions of racial variation across populations and regions . - Race is a dynamic and adaptive phenomenon, not a static or rigid one. Race is not an eternal or fixed category that remains unchanged over time, but a temporal or flexible category that evolves and adapts over time. Racial categories are influenced by natural selection, gene flow, mutation, and drift, resulting in different rates and directions of racial change across generations and epochs . - Race is a contingent and emergent phenomenon, not a deterministic or essential one. Race is not a predetermined or inherent category that determines human destiny, but a contingent or emergent category that responds to human agency. Racial categories are influenced by social movements, political struggles, cultural innovations, and technological developments, resulting in different forms and meanings of racial identity and representation across contexts and situations . Conclusion

Summary of main points

In this article, we have examined the concept of race from various perspectives, highlighting its biological, social, historical, and cultural dimensions. We have shown how biological theories of race have evolved over time, from creationism to Darwinism, from eugenics to genetics, and from genomics to epigenetics. We have also shown how biological theories of race have faced various challenges and limitations in explaining human variation and diversity. We have then presented some alternative perspectives that critique biological theories of race, such as social constructionism, intersectionality, and comparativism. We have argued that these perspectives offer more nuanced and comprehensive ways of understanding race as a complex and dynamic phenomenon that varies across time and space.

Implications and recommendations for future research and practice

Third, we suggest that researchers and practitioners should adopt a creative and inclusive approach to engaging with race, exploring the diversity and complexity of racial experiences and expressions. Such an approach would enable a more positive and empowering engagement with race as a dynamic and adaptive phenomenon that involves agency and identity .


Here are some frequently asked questions about race and biological theories of race.

- Q: Is race a biological fact or a social construct? - A: Race is both a biological fact and a social construct. Race is a biological fact in the sense that humans are genetically diverse and have different physical traits that can be observed and measured. Race is a social construct in the sense that humans assign meaning and value to these traits and use them to classify and rank people into groups that are not natural or objective, but cultural and subjective. - Q: How many races are there in the world? - A: There is no definitive answer to how many races are there in the world, as different racial classifications have been proposed and used by different thinkers, cultures, and societies over time. Some of the most common racial classifications include four or five major races (White, Black, Asian, Native American, and sometimes Pacific Islander), but others have suggested more or fewer races, or different criteria for defining them. Moreover, some people prefer to use other terms, such as ethnicity, nationality, or culture, to describe human diversity. - Q: What is the difference between race and ethnicity? - A: Race and ethnicity are related but distinct concepts that capture different aspects of human diversity. Race refers to the division of humanity into groups based on perceived physical differences, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, etc. Ethnicity refers to the division of humanity into groups based on shared cultural characteristics, such as language, religion, customs, traditions, etc. Race and ethnicity may overlap or coincide for some people or groups, but not for others. For example, someone may identify as Black (race) and African American (ethnicity), or as White (race) and Irish (ethnicity), or as Asian (race) and Filipino (ethnicity), or as Native American (race) and Navajo (ethnicity). - Q: What is the relationship between race and health? Race may also influence health indirectly through environmental exposure, socioeconomic status, access to health care, quality of health care, health behaviors, health beliefs, health literacy, or health outcomes. Conversely, health may influence race directly or indirectly through natural selection, gene flow, mutation, or drift. Health may also influence race indirectly


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