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sociological concept, Italian race, Afrikaners, Jewish race, German Nazis

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>  Problems in Defining Races

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Race, term historically used to describe a human population distinguishable from others based on shared biological traits. All living human beings belong to one species, Homo sapiens. The concept of race stems from the idea that the human species can be naturally subdivided into biologically distinct groups. In practice, however, scientists have found it impossible to separate humans into clearly defined races. Most scientists today reject the concept of biological race and instead see human biological variation as falling along a continuum. Nevertheless, race persists as a powerful social and cultural concept used to categorize people based on perceived differences in physical appearance and behavior.

Interest in defining races came from the recognition of easily visible differences among human groups. Around the world, human populations differ in their skin color, eye color and shape, hair color and texture, body shape, stature, limb proportions, and other physical characteristics. However, most anthropologists and biologists regard these differences between populations as largely superficial, resulting from adaptations to local climatic conditions during the most recent period of human evolution. Genetic analysis, which provides a deeper and more reliable measure of biological differences between people, reveals that overall, people are remarkably similar in their genetic makeup. Of the genetic differences that do exist, more variation occurs within so-called racial groups than between them. That is, two people from the same “race” are, on average, almost as biologically different from each other as any two people in the world chosen at random. This high degree of genetic diversity exists within populations because individuals from different populations have always intermingled and mated with each other. Given that populations have interbred for most of human history, most anthropologists reject the idea that “pure” races existed at some time in the distant past. Today, genetic analysis has replaced earlier methods of comparing color, shape, and size to establish degrees of relationship or common ancestry among human populations.

The term race is often misunderstood and misused. It is often confused with ethnicity, an ambiguous term that refers mostly, though not exclusively, to cultural (non-biological) differences between groups. An ethnic group derives its identity from its distinctive customs, language, ancestry, place of origin, or style of dress. For example, the Hispanic ethnic group comprises people who trace their ancestry to Spanish-speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere. Although some people assume Hispanics have a common genetic heritage, in reality they share only a language. Members of an ethnic group with a common geographic origin often do share similar physical features. But people of the same ethnic group may also have very different physical appearances, and conversely, people of different ethnic groups may look quite similar. People may also mistakenly use the term race to refer to a religion, culture, or nationality—as in the “Jewish race” or the “Italian race”—whose members may or may not share a common ancestry. The term race is also sometimes used to refer to the entire human species, as in the “human race.” In everyday language, the distinction between race and ethnicity has become blurred, and many people use the terms to mean the same thing.

Many people believe, falsely, that differences in physical appearance have something to do with differences in the behavior, attitude, intelligence, or intrinsic worth of people. These beliefs promote racism, prejudice or animosity against people perceived to belong to other races. At its worst, racism has inspired the abuse and extermination of enormous numbers of people. Recent historical examples included the near-extermination of Native Americans by European settlers of the Americas between the 16th and 20th centuries, the capture and export of Africans for use as slaves in the Americas from the early 17th to the mid-19th century, the extermination of Jews in Europe by German Nazis during World War II (1939-1945), and the system of apartheid perpetrated by Afrikaners against all nonwhite peoples in South Africa.

This article examines the concept of human races and explains why most scientists have discredited race as a biological concept. It also traces the history of attempts to classify people into races, from ancient times to the present. Finally, the article describes the principles of human biological variation and discusses race as a sociological concept.


Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, M.D.

Professor Emeritus (active), Department of Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine. Coauthor of ''The History and Geography of Human Genes''. Author of ''Genes, People, and Languages''.

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