First of all, it’s important that we’re clear on exactly what we mean by race. The ancient Greeks, perhaps not so surprisingly, were amongst the first to have a concept of race. Thinkers such as Hippocrates and Aristotle observed that groups of people originating from different geographical regions had varying physical traits. The Greeks generally attributed these differences to geographical and climatic effects. Through time, these ideas of race persisted, through the Roman Empire and later the Catholic Church, with a range of ideas proposed to explain this variation in visual appearance. As we entered the modern era, racism in the form that we now know it was born of Colonialism; technologically inferior peoples came to be considered biologically inferior, and the notion of race as a biological trait is now firmly ingrained in our social conscience. But despite this long history of race and racism, race has remained poorly-defined; relying on visual cues and geographical distribution to assign individuals a “race” to which they belong.

At the time when the Greeks first observed this geographical distribution of physical features, there was quite a strong case for the existence of race – throughout much of the world at this time were isolated, pre-technological peoples, who were mostly cut off from the rest of the world. In these circumstances, a group of individuals would be expected to become genetically distinct from other isolated groups, whether this be through random genetic “drift”, or evolutionary adaptation arising from specific selection pressures in that area. Today, though, this is not the case, and has not been for centuries; increased transport links and globalisation means that, with very few exceptions, people do not live in isolated groups; we live as a single community, distributed over a large area, with a high degree of both cultural and; more importantly to this argument; genetic mixing.

Taking my own background as an example, I grew up in a rural part of England, in an area that was almost entirely white. However, when I ask people about their ancestry, I usually find that people refer to themselves as “half-scottish” or “quarter-irish”, or some other fraction of their family comes from some other nearby country; this despite simultaneously participating in the belief that their race is “white British”, and that the Scottish and Irish people are somehow biologically distinct. Within my own immediate family, I have relatives who originate from Eastern Europe, and even cousins who are “half-Bahraini”. So when I fill out a form and designate myself as “white British”, what am I actually saying? That I am a part of a genetically distinct group of white British people, despite having an ancestry that certainly doesn’t originate in Britain? Or that I grew up in Britain and happen to have a pale skin tone?

And on a broader scale, exactly what criteria are we using to define what “race” someone belongs to? Features such as skin colour, hair and eye pigmentation, facial structure, height, and any number of other features used to justify racial grouping, all exist on a spectrum. Looking at genes instead of physical features just confuses the issue even more, since the genetic variation within racial groups is far more significant than the variation between two groups. That is to say, the number of genes coding for pigmentation, body shape, and so on which are typically used to define the difference between races, are much smaller than the number of genes that naturally vary between individuals within any assigned racial grouping. We concentrate on small variations in certain genes with strong effects on physical appearance, while ignoring huge variations in genes which do not. By concentrating on the genes that directly relate to visual differences between people that form the basis of our ideas of “race”, we reinforce the ideas about race that we already have; this is called “confirmation bias”. Even if we try looking at genes which do not directly relate to physical appearance, but which appear to correlate with certain race groups, the evidence tends to break down. Take for instance sickle cell anaemia – a recessive, genetic disorder, where two copies of the responsible gene variant lead to abnormal/misshapen red blood cells and an increased risk of premature death. A single copy of the gene, however, provides resistance to the effects of malaria – a disease responsible for millions of deaths in the tropics. Because of the disease’s historical distribution in sub-saharan Africa, it is unsurprising that sickle-cell anaemia is highly prevalent amongst black Africans, particularly in West Africa (where incidence peaks at 4%), due to the evolutionary selection pressure for this gene. However, in the USA, where malaria is not endemic, incidence amongst people of West-African descent is much lower (around 0.2%) and still falling, demonstrating that although often considered to be associated with race, it is in fact for environmental reasons that sickle-cell anaemia is so prevalent in West Africa.

Lacking any prescriptive physiological or genetic definition of what a given “race” is, we have to accept that we’re dealing with approximates. And if we’re assigning people to approximate groupings based on their visual appearance with no evidence that these differences are in any way significant beyond their historical connotations, then the question is why do we need these groups at all? That said, historical connotations are probably the main reason why we still have a concept of race – while there is no prescriptive, biological case for race, in a social sense race is still very important because we are still living in a racist society. Race is still used around the world as a justification for slavery, genocide, murder, and discrimination. Here in the UK, people with darker skin are still far more likely to be suspected of criminality, and there is a long and ongoing history of racial profiling. In the USA, where different race groups are present in higher numbers, racial profiling, race-motivated crime, and the presence of racist hate-groups have persisted at worryingly high levels. As long as race persists in the public consciousness, then so must it be used to track racial discrimination; to sociologists and statisticians, it doesn’t matter whether there is any biological justification for race; it only matters that people still consider race to be an important part of both their identity, and that of others.

References and further reading:

The Medicalization of Race: Scientific Legitimization of a Flawed Social Construct, Ritchie Witzig (MD, MPH), 1996.

Sickle Cell Disease in Africa: A Neglected Cause of Early Childhood Mortality, Grosse et al, 2011.

CDC, Sickle Cell Disease, Data & Statistics.

Refiguring “Race”: Epidemiology, Racialized Biology, and Biological Expressions of Race Relations, Nancy Krieger, 2000.

Wikipedia, “Race and Genetics”.