I just recently read this article by Nicholas Wade on Time Magazine's website about a biological basis for race. It all sounded very racist, but of course my Western liberal attitudes about racism shouldn't cloud my stronger Western liberal convictions about Science giving every empirical claim a fair hearing.

So, that said, where can I learn more about the evidence supporting and contradicting this view? I found on his Wikipedia page that a number of scientists have condemned his work, but I'd like to actually know the evidence and arguments underneath all this.

I suppose I should also ask more generally about the state of biological evidence for the reality of race. I had heard in college that there is no biological basis for race, but I'm wondering if that is an out-dated view in light of recent work in genomics. I read this stack exchange question but it had more to do with whether there is a consensus rather than on the arguments surrounding the issue.

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    $\begingroup$ The linked article doesn't appear to provide any empirical evidence about a biological basis for race. The biology is limited to two paragraphs at the start which are presented as FACT with no citations. The only (obliquely) cited arguments are Darwin, some (economic) historians, and a reference to book in the sociology field from 1975. He can't make scientific arguments without directly linking to the science. These are red flags for me but it's hard to rebut the biological evidence when he hasn't presented any. $\endgroup$
    – Michael_A
    Oct 5, 2016 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ Don't you think saying "Western liberal" instead of simply "liberal" is regionalist if not mildly racist? $\endgroup$
    Oct 5, 2016 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure why this was downvoted - it's an honest question about an admittedly touchy subject, but the OP asks it in an open manner and wants a clear, unbiased, scientific answer - exactly what we're here for. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Oct 5, 2016 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Like other animals, why humans don't have species & breeds? $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2016 at 21:28
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2 Answers 2


I think it's best if you check out Wikipedia article on Race. Race is not a taxonomic term. In a nutshell, you can't define it in a useful way that has anything to do with the usual associations of the word, or gives it a practical value in science.

The problem with arguing about the existence of races in humans is that this is an argument about a word without an agreed definition, so there's never a true or false. This author is merely making some controversial extrapolations from quite obvious biology: Of course human genomes change over time, and it is also possible to an (impressive) extent to trace genetic lineages geographically. Of course there are subgroups that share a small set of characteristics not found in the rest of the human population. Some of these subgroupings are for example medically relevant.

Essentially, "race" ends up a loosely defined term that has something to do with subgrouping a species based on whatever criteria chosen. The reason why it's not a useful word to argue about in humans is because whatever subgrouping you might make, and for whatever purpose you are subgrouping, there are better, more meaningful (and quite importantly, less controversial) terms to describe those subgroups.


You will probably be interested in the American Association of Physical Anthropolologists' statement on Biological Aspects of Race. It's rather long and detailed, so I won't attempt to reproduce it here, and it's rather well written, so my summation wouldn't really do it justice.

In science, when we classify something, we need to have inclusion and exclusion criteria. You either carry a certain gene variant that has a deletion mutation that increases your risk of cancer, or you don't. To be a zebra, you need four legs and stripes. If you have stripes, but six legs, you're not a zebra. If you have four legs, but spots, you're not a zebra. So how then do you classify a race? Taking the three major old (and racist) classifications, people were either thought to be mongoloid, caucasoid, or negroid. How do you tell if someone is negroid? Well, their skin is dark brown! Caucasoids have white/pink skin. But where's the cutoff? How would you classify someone of Arab descent, with skin darker than a northern European, but lighter than a sub-Saharan African? How would you classify the offspring of a northern European and a sub-Saharan African?

People are a blend of phenotypes. While you can always define a group of people that look one way, and another group of people that look a different way, you'll always be able to find people somewhere in the middle. We are all the same species; every single fertile male on Earth can reproduce with any fertile female, regardless of social class, national or geographical origin, ethnicity, culture, skin color, or any other factor. This is not true of robins and cardinals, or elephants and zebras, or dogs and cats. (Yes, some species can form hybrids with other species, but that's a different topic.)

Within our species one can define certain groups based on physical characteristics, such as those of Han Chinese descent, that are grossly similar to one another, but far from identical. This group may share some common gene alleles, but there will still be (sometimes significant) variations from one person to another. One of the problems identifying that group as a race is that there is no strict biological definition of the term, with explicit inclusion and exclusion criteria, and the reason for that is it is almost impossible to identify these strict criteria that more than a handful of people would meet, due to the variation I mentioned earlier.

Now, of course there are groups of people with similar ancestry that share certain common gene variations that protect them from or predispose them to any number of diseases or conditions. There are also confounding cultural, socioeconomic, and environmental factors that make absolute connections between these gene variations and the associated diseases tough, as well (African-Americans and heart disease, native Americans and alcoholism, etc.). However, calling these different groups "races" is not helpful, and most of the time not even accurate (again, getting back to the lack of a clear definition of race).

Race is a social construct, based on a long and dark history of misguided attempts at classifying people. The concept likely has some utility to sociologists (I'm not one, so I don't know) so that people can voluntarily choose to identify with a group, and likely other reasons as well. However, because of the vagueness surrounding its meaning, and the incredible genetic diversity and identity between people, the concept really has no biological basis. I can just as easily study why people with certain genetic markers are predisposed to heart disease, for example, as I can study why many African-Americans get the disease, and I actually have a clearer criteria for subjects to include in the different arms of my study because I have a solid genetic definition, not just one based on skin color, which is completely irrelevant to the subject at hand.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the link, I'll try to read it in as much detail as I can. So I've actually been arguing this point with someone who was trying to argue that race is real. I've made a lot of these same points, granted with not quite as much education or detail as you have. I've also mentioned that even if we pretend races are well-defined and sample Fins and a certain group in Africa, we find that in-group variation is many times larger than between-group variation--I believe this falls within the statistical theory of ANOVA, yes? $\endgroup$
    – Addem
    Oct 5, 2016 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ Also, even if races existed we still have no evidence that valuative properties are heritable, like intelligence or morality--again, here, there is a measurement problem just like with the problem of race. IQ has been found a poor measure for a few reasons, and of course morality is even less possible to measure. Just wanted to say these out loud to someone who might know more than me in case I'm making any mistake. $\endgroup$
    – Addem
    Oct 5, 2016 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Addem I don't know about the statistics, so I can't judge that claim one way or the other. It all depends on what you're measuring. Regarding your argument with your friend, race is real depending on what your definition of reality is (seriously). If you're talking about police (mis)behavior, then yes, race is definitely very real. If you're talking about biological classification, then it is not - there's just not enough differences between people, and there are no good ways of defining inclusion and exclusion criteria, as I've written. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Oct 5, 2016 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not quite sure what you mean by "valuative properties". There is definitely a genetic component to intelligence, but the nature vs. nurture debate is very relevant in that area - you can take offspring of two very intelligent people and have them raised by uneducated, economically disadvantaged people in an overcrowded, under-funded school district, and they won't turn out anywhere near as well as if they were raised in a wealthy home with attentive, highly-educated parents with access to the best educational and enrichment resources. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Oct 5, 2016 at 23:30

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