The Surprising Science of Race and Racism

06/30/2015 01:22 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2015
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What causes racism? And what can be done to overcome our nation's legacy of intolerance and hatred?

Americans were struggling to answer those basic questions long before the tragic church shooting in Charleston, S.C.--and we still are. But as it turns out, those questions are based on the belief that there really are such things as different races of people--and scientists say that's not the case.

In fact, many common notions about race and racism are based on faulty information.

To set the matter straight, HuffPost Science reached out to Dr. Robert Sussman, an eminent physical anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of The Myth of Race: The Troublesome Persistence of An Unscientific Idea. Here, lightly edited, are his answers.

robert sussman

Dr. Robert Sussman

Is there any scientific validity to the concept of different races?

In biology, there is a concept of sub-species, or race. Over time animals of a species may separate and develop different populations with different gene frequencies. If this happens over a very long period of time, the genetic differences will make it difficult for these populations to breed with one another, and they develop into two different species. Over this period of time, the different populations of animals would develop into different subspecies; differences would be great but during the interim they could still interbreed. Thus, for example, different populations of mammals could be very different from one another but, if brought together (in a zoo, for example), they could still breed. There are a number of subspecies or races of chimpanzees in Africa. These are separate populations with some specific biological differences and with a number of genetic differences in each population.

Biologists now have a way of measuring these biological and genetic differences. (Basically, subspecies are geographically, morphologically, and genetically distinct populations but can still interbreed.) We can measure different mammalian populations, for example, and see how close different populations are genetically. We can examine the patterns and amount of genetic diversity found within and among populations.

However, the genetic differences among human populations are not similar to those found among many other mammalian populations. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have only been on earth for about 200,000 years and have not been separated from one another for any long period of time.

The idea of race in Western thought is very old and very entrenched, and many people do not understand or believe in the modern science of human genetics.

Can we quantify the separation that has occurred between humans?

Using a specific measurement geneticists have been able to measure the amount of variability between various mammalian populations (one measure is called an Fst score--a score of 0 to 1, with 1 being a completely different species). For geneticists, a mammalian population would have to have a score of 0.30 to be considered a true subspecies or races. Different coyotes have a score of 0.40, and chimpanzee populations have a score of around 0.70 in the measurement of population genetic differentiation. Humans only have a score of 0.156.

What are the origins of the concept of human races?

The concept of human races began during the Spanish Inquisition (around 1480), when a purity of blood decree was established and those converting to Christianity (or converses) needed to prove their Christian origins. Racism became even more established a bit later, during colonization, when two theories were developed to explain why people in other parts of the world looked and behaved differently from Europeans: "Others" were either those who were created by God but had degenerated (monogenism), or those who were here before God had created Adam (polygenism or pre-Adamites). The former, although degenerate, could be improved by missionization or by giving them a proper education; the latter could never be improved by any environmental factors.

The actual idea of specific races as they are thought of today developed through a long process that began with Western philosophers, like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Blumenbach in the 1700s, though they were still influenced by the theories of monogenism and polygenism.

Have most scientists discarded the concept of races? If so, why does it persist?

Most biologists, geneticists, and anthropologists have discarded the concept of race. This was, first, because it was always difficult to describe the characteristics that made up a race, and who was in what race. Now, because actual genetic studies have shown that there are more genetic similarities among different populations than there are genetic differences. However, the idea of race in Western thought is very old and very entrenched, and many people do not understand or believe in the modern science of human genetics. Race has been part of their "world."

Most people have not been taught that races do not exist biologically. They do not have a good education or an education in modern human biology. It is not a part of the normal educational curriculum.

How do anthropologists think about different groups of humans?

Anthropologists think of them as ethnic groups. Different people have different backgrounds, behaviors, world views, values, social organizations, etc. because of their socialization, history, and culture, not because of their biology.

Just how much does human DNA vary from group to group?

DNA does not necessarily differ between different groups in any recognizable way. You cannot distinguish any group called a race by their DNA. Again, there are more similarities in DNA between human groups than among them. DNA varies because of environmental, disease, etc. types of adaptations. Thus, gene frequencies for sickle cell will differ because of where an individual was born (and the frequency of malaria in that region) and might be the same for someone born in Africa and for someone born in the Mediterranean. Genetic pathways for dark skin are different in Tamil Nadu an in Nigeria. Genetic traits do not correlate with one another.

There is no biological device to make us fear either snakes or other people. We teach and learn these behaviors.

Why do human populations look so different?

All human populations differ from one another, even within families. People develop different adaptations over time and these make us look different. There are also geographical influences on our appearance. People are darker who live, or are derived from people who live, in very sunny environments due to adaptations to prevent skin cancer, for example. People in different environments have different types of genetic differences; the genetics of skin color are very different from the genetics of blood type, or hair shape, or structure of the mouth.

People with "similar" skin color might have very different shapes of nose due to different adaptations to climate. These differences are called "clines." Clines are genetic adaptations to environmental factors over a geographic area; different genetic adaptations over different geographical regions. There are no specific races and clinal differences vary in different ways. As was said earlier by anthropologist Livingstone (1962) among humans: "there are no races, there are only clines."

As a result of the genes they carry, different populations can face different vulnerabilities-for example, their risk of suffering from certain diseases. Do certain populations have specific physical or intellectual attributes?

There is no indication from any scientific evidence that different populations have any specific physical or intellectual attributes, or abilities. Those characteristics relate back to one's socialization or upbringing (or nutrition). For example, it might seem that basketball is a sport best played by blacks. However, it was a "Jewish" sport a few decades back. Why is this? Professionally, it was more inviting to Jews in the past than it was to blacks.

Physical traits, body types, and things like eyesight are related to various abilities, but these are not generally correlated to different populations or "races," they transcend "race." Basketball players are usually tall, and there are many tall, darker people. However, this does not make all black people good basketball players and all tall people are not good basketball players.

Here we are talking about populations and not races. People believe that "black" people have a higher risk of heart disease but this is not true. Many "black" American's might have a higher incidence of heart disease, but this is not true in Africa. Stress is a major factor related to "black" heart disease in America, and this is mainly related to behavioral factors. Many other diseases are also more likely to occur in certain ethnic populations, but most of these are related to both physical and environmental factors, all of which must be related to the individual and not to any general, "racial," factor.

Did we evolve to be suspicious of or racist toward others? If so, why?

We might have some adaptations to be suspicious of strangers, but this might also be a cultural adaptation. We can teach our children to be suspicious or racist. However, we also can teach our children to be open to strangers. It really does depend on our education and our socialization, not on our biology. There is no biological device to make us fear either snakes or other people. We teach and learn these behaviors.

Will racism ever disappear? What would be required for that to happen?

I am not sure if racism will disappear in the U.S. or in Europe. It is so intensely a part of our culture. However, we can make it disappear in a major portion of our population. To do this we must continue to teach our children (and adults as much as possible) the realities of what the concept of race is and how it is totally incorrect biologically. The way to do this is to teach about the history of the concept of race and racism, how it developed over the past 500 years, and what it really means. People can and do understand the reality of genetic variation and how this can be extremely good for the population, and for individuals. Sometimes people do bad things--like the Nazis--but these were learned (though they developed with certain motives in mind) and are not inherent, genetically determined behaviors.

What people do depends upon their history, their background, there neighbors, and not upon the biological reality of race! After all, variation is the spice of life!!

Next up in HuffPost Science’s four-part series on race & racism:

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