February 25, 2017

Human Races are Real: Race is a Valid Scientific Category

In this post I am going to argue that human races exist, look at the most common arguments I hear in favor of race denialism, and explain why, ultimately, I think they are mistaken.

It is somewhat misleading to talk about whether or not races are “real”. A race of people is just a geographically defined set of populations which, in the past if not now, lived together and bred with each-other more than they bred with outsiders. Given this definition, it is obvious that races are real because it is obvious that people who descend from Africa, Europe, East Asia, etc, are real. A better question is whether or not it is useful to categorize people by race.

Of course, this brings forth the question “useful for what?”. Well, I will argue that race is a valid scientific category, and science is in the business of predicting and explaining the world. So, for race to be a valid scientific category it needs to help us predict and explain things. Categories help us predict things when there are differences between them. If objects in one category are heavier than objects in another, then we can predict an object’s weight using this categorization scheme. Categories help us explain things when knowing which category something is in will give us a clue about why that thing possesses some trait.

So, firstly, how do members of different races differ, if at all? Well, obviously, the races do not differ in the sense that every member of one race has some trait, or gene, that no member of another race has. However, they do differ in terms of what the average person from each race is like. For one, as we all know, the races differ in mean skin color and various other “superficial” traits such as hair color and hair type, the length and density of various bones, muscle composition, etc., (Garn 1951Pollitzer and Anderson 1989Connor 2012Araujo 2010). Perhaps less well known is that these differences do not stop at the outside of the skull. Dozens of studies going back over a hundred years have shown that races differ in mean brain size and modern technology has recently revealed that races also differ in brain shape (Fann et al. 2015). Racial groups also differ in their frequency of various gene variants and the rate at which they possess various diseases (including genetic diseases) (Piffer 2015Ebert et al. 2014Mega 2015Piel et al. 2014) .

As we’ve already discussed, differences allow for prediction. Researchers can predict someone’s self-identified race with more than 95% accuracy using measures of their skull, and over 99% accuracy by looking at their genome (Sesardic 2010Rosenberg et al. 2002Tang et al. 2005Rosenberg et al. 2005Bamshad et al. 2003Guo 2015).

Races also differ in their mean levels of income, educational attainment, intelligence test scores, and many other variables (Walt and Proctor 2015Census 2014Roth et al. 2001)  Because the races differ in such a wide range of traits, grouping people racially might be useful to people in an equally wide range of sciences.

So, racial categorization can definitely help us predict things. Can it also help us explain things?

Knowing someone’s race can help us explain things for at least three reasons: the races evolved in different environments, the average culture within each race is different, and people treat others differently based on their race. For instance, knowing that someone is White might help us explain why they have light skin (evolution), why they have a certain diet (culture), and why it is socially inappropriate for them to use the “n word” (race based treatment).

So, that’s my basic case. Race allows us to make predictions about, and to explain, human differences and thus is a valid scientific category. Now, let’s look at some common objections.

No Credible Scientists Believe in Race

Some people feel that they do not have the needed expertise to judge the validity of race. So, they defer to the experts, and the experts tell them that race does not exist. The problem with this argument is, even though the most vocal anthropologists and biologists deny race, academic surveys show that there is no actual consensus on this topic.

Use of Race in Bilogigy Textbooks 1952-2002

Moring (2004)

Use of Race in Journals

Štrkalj  (2007)

Belief in Race among Anthropologists and Biologists

Lieberman (1992)

American and European Physical anthropologists on race

Liberman (2004)

Newer  European survey

Kaszycha (2009)

A few things to note about these charts:

  • Researchers outside of Western Europe are more likely to believe in race
  • Biologists are more likely than anthropologists to believe in race
  • Young researchers are more likely to believe in race than middle age ones, and the use of race in textbooks is increasing, suggesting that belief in race is on the rise in academia
  • The only place that has a consensus on race is China. The consensus is that race exists.

There Are No Race Genes

A “race gene” is a gene that is present in every member of one race and only members of that race. Such genes do not exist and some people think that the non-existence of race genes shows that races don’t exist either. Obviously though, this has nothing to do with the notion of race that I am advancing here. Races differ in gene frequencies, but that doesn’t imply that “race genes” exist.

(By the way, I don’t know of any race realist in history that founded their concept of race on race genes. Prior to the 20th century, races were almost always defined by where your ancestors came from and what your hair, face, skull, skin color, and general anatomy, looked like (Hamilton 2008). In the 20th century, race continued to be tied to ancestry, but the traits scientists used to infer ancestry changed from observable physical traits to gene frequencies (Ayala 1985) (Reardon 2005 Chapter 2))

Races Cannot Be Important Because We All Share 99% of Our DNA

Following the human genome project, many people heard that we share 99.9% of our DNA, and so there just isn’t enough genetic variation among humans to cause significant differences.

First, we don’t share 99.9% of our DNA. The human genome project researchers that made that claim have sense retracted it (Levy et al. 2007) . But we do probably share around 99% of our DNA. That said, we also share 95-98% of our DNA with Chimps and, yet, there are some pretty big differences between us and chimps (Varki and Altheide 2009).

The reason that a small percentage difference in DNA can lead to big differences is simple: a small percentage of a huge number can still be big, and genomes are huge. The human genome is made up of 3 billion nucleotide base pairs. If you compare two people’s genomes, these base pairs won’t match up roughly 0.5% of the time (Levy et al. 2007). 0.5% of 3 billion is 15 million base pairs. To put that in perspective, the difference between someone with and without the disease sickle cell anemia is a single base pair (SNPedia).

In fact, the human species has as much or more total genetic variation than many other species of animals:

Heterozygosity

Source: Woodley (2009)

(“Heterozygosity” is the probability that two individuals will have different gene variants for the same gene. This is different than the 99.5% number which refers to base pairs, which are the building blocks of genes.)

Human Races Are Not Genetically Distinct Enough

You may have heard that there is more genetic variation within races than between and, so, races must not be very biologically important. The first thing to say about this is that human races are on par with subspecies in other species in terms of how much genetic variation is within and between them.

Variation version

Sources: Jackson et al. 2014Lorenzen et al. 2008Pierpaoli (2003)Lorenzen et al. (2007)Jordana 2003Hofft et al. 2000Schwartz et al 2002Williams (2004), and Elhaik (2012).
Secondly, we’ve already seen that the genetic differences are sufficient to allow near perfect prediction of a person’s race based on their genome.

Thirdly, the average genetic difference between members of separate races is larger than average, and we’ve already seen that the average genetic difference between people is, potentially, very significant (Witherspoon et al. 2007).

There Hasn’t Been Enough Time for Races to Evolve Differences

From an evolutionary perspective, the question isn’t how long two populations have been separated but, rather, how large the genetic differences between them are. And, as we’ve already seen, the genetic difference between races is comparable to subspecies in other animals. How quickly these differences arose is irrelevant.  But this argument is flawed on even simpler grounds: the time that the races have been separated is equal to or larger than the amount of time it took subspecies, or even species, to evolve in other animals:

Comparison

Sources: Lindqvist et al. (2010), Wilson et al. (2011), Mikko and Andersson (1995), Lou et al. (2004), Peters et al. (2005), and Brammah et al. (2010)

Human Variation is Continuous not Racial

Some people say that human genetic variation tends to change slowly and as a function of geography. For instance, as you move further from the equator skin color tends to become lighter. The point that race deniers are making is that this gradual change in variation doesn’t have any “hard lines” that demarcate one race from another. Instead, races blend into one another and the genetic distance between populations is basically just a function of their geographic distance.

There are three things to say about this. First, scientists often group continuous variation into discrete categories. Consider, for instance:

  • Medical researchers break continuous blood pressure variation into discrete categories such as “high” and “low”.
  • Physicists group continuous variation across the color spectrum into discrete colors such as “blue” and “green”.
  • Social scientists break continuous variation in income into discrete categories such as “poor” and “rich”.

Secondly, this is typical in biology. Zoologists even have a word for situations in which subspecies are connected by intermediate populations: “Intergradation”.

Thirdly, human genetic variation is not, in fact, just like the color spectrum. Same race populations are more genetically similar than different race populations even when all three populations are separated by the same geographic distance (Rosenberg 2005).

More fundamentally, the problem with this argument is that it does not address the predictive or explanatory power of race. Even if genetic variation was totally continuous, we would still need to categorize it to make predictions rather than just say “Oh, that guy? He’s somewhere on the spectrum!” And to the degree that different sections of said spectrum experience difference environments, evolution, cultures, and interactions with others, racial categorization would still have explanatory power, too.

The Traits That Races Are Based On Are Arbitrary

This argument postulates that you could come up with mutually exclusive groupings of people based on different traits and that, because there is no objective method of choosing which traits to use, which grouping you decide to go with is arbitrary. For instance, you could group people based on skin color and, as a result, Africans and certain groups of Indians might be grouped together. Or, you could group people based on height, in which case Indians and Africans would most certainly not be grouped together.

The problem with this argument is that racial categories are not arbitrary. We use them because they help us predict and explain human differences. Can we think of other categories that are also useful for this purpose? Sure. So what? Sometimes it’s useful to group people racially, sometimes it’s better to use a different categorization scheme and sometimes is best to combine them. (“Black, poor, diabetics…).

“Genetic cluster analysis” is worth bringing up here. In a genetic cluster analysis, you give a computer program information on ton of people’s DNA and you tell it to sort the data into X number of groups, called clusters, so that the genetic differences within each cluster are minimized while the genetic differences between clusters is maximized. When you do this and tell the computer to group human genetic variation into 4 – 6 “clusters”, the clusters end up mirroring the races such that researchers can predict someone’s race based on which cluster they are assigned to with a 99%+ level of accuracy (Rosenberg et al. 2002Tang et al. 2005Rosenberg et al. 2005).

Thus, races are groups of people who are more genetically similar than average. Consider next that behavioral geneticists have shown conclusively that the more genetically similar people are the more alike they will tend to be in terms of just about every trait imaginable, from body size, to intelligence, to personality (Polderman et al. 2015Plomin et al. 2015). Studies utilizing adoption, and molecular genetic analysis of unrelated individuals, show that this is true even when the individuals in question grow up in different families and in different environments.  What this implies about race, then, is that members of the same race will not only be more similar than average genetically, but will also tend to be more similar than average with respect to every trait that is heritable, which is all of them.

Racial Categories Change across Time and Place

Race deniers sometimes argue that people in different places, or even Westerners just a few centuries ago, had radically different ideas about who was a member of which race and that, because of this, race is invalid.

I don’t think this objection makes much sense. Who cares if people in other parts of the world, or us a few centuries ago, had different ideas about race? The question is whether or not modern western racial categorization schemes are valid scientific categories. That is, can they predict, and can the explain? As we’ve seen, they can. Moreover, they clearly reflect the actual genetic clustering of the human race. So, what’s the problem?

(Race deniers often exaggerate the extent to which western racial ideas have changed over time. That isn’t essential to the argument.)

How many races are there?

Some people will rhetorically ask “how many races are there?”. There is no one answer to this question, and some people think that this entails that races don’t exist. But it really does nothing of the sort.

Sometimes, given the level of information we have and what we are trying to do, it can be useful to break humans into as few as 3 races or as many as dozens. Sometimes we want to talk about “whites”, sometimes “northern Europeans”, and sometimes “Celts”. This isn’t contradictory or hard to understand. It just reflects the fact that we need varying levels of specificity in different contexts.

Race Is a Social Construct

At last, we’ve reached the final argument! Some people say that race cannot be a valid biological concept because it is socially constructed. My response to this? Of course it is socially constructed. Like I’ve been saying this whole time, scientific categories are tools which we invent in order to predict and explain things. The fact that we invented them tells us nothing about how well they do either of these two things.

Now, some people will say that we invented racial categories for really bad reasons (oppression, racism, etc.). I don’t think this matches the actual historical records of where racial categories came from, but even if it did, that still wouldn’t be relevant. If the Nazi’s, or the commies, created some useful scientific information for evil reasons, would it therefore be invalid? No, obviously not. Similarly, the intentions behind the creation of racial categories is irrelevant to their ability to explain and predict human differences.

Conclusion

So, those are the common arguments I’m always hearing and why I don’t think they work. Hopefully, this article gave you something to think about. If you’re still not convinced, I would (honestly) like to know why. So, please leave a comment letting me know.

 

Facebook Comments
  • The Six Gorillion

    Excellent article.

  • Grey

    You couldn’t bring up one single point as to why defining people by race would be productive or useful, other than bringing up false equivalence analogies.
    Listen, if you think there are genetic differences. Compete with those who you think that are genetically different or similar than you, and find out who does better. And whoever does better may/may not indicate genetic superiority in that area.

    There are race deniers, those who don’t know- (this includes me), and race extremists (people like you). Nothing good can come from comparing people vaguely based on loose studies. Nothing good comes from sweeping generalizations. You are embodying what the left is doing, in reverse. You are two sides of the same coin.

    • Ryan Faulk

      You’re criticizing the article for not talking about things you wanted it to talk about. There are tons of articles on this site about biological race differences in cognitive functions.

      The purpose of this article is to counter the silly claim that “biological races don’t exist in humans”, which is then used to dismiss any genetically-based differences in cognitive functions between races.

      Look, we all know about clueless “post-racial” white “conservatives” who think that having a functional legal system and economy is not a racial issue. I get it, I used to be in that gilded fantasy where ideas and people were discrete and all you needed to do was persuade on policy.

      I know why you think it’s pointless, but you’re wrong. If you want free markets and functional property rights, you need whites. It’s not necessarily that blacks are even against those things, it’s just that they vote for politicians for all sorts of stupid reasons. This is true in Haiti, in Liberia, in Nigeria and in the United States. It doesn’t matter where or when, how much “education” they have.

      Blacks who identify as Republican and who believe that the Republican party is better for blacks, still vote Democrat:
      http://thealternativehypothesis.org/index.php/2016/09/02/non-whites-of-every-stripe-vote-democrat/

      There’s literally no way to get their vote. Even if you totally persuade all blacks that Republicans are better for blacks, they will still probably vote Democrat. This is the primacy of race.

      Don’t pretend to me like I’m the one who has to prove anything. The failure of the multiracial program in the United States in manifest. You’re the one who needs to justify post-racialism to ME, not the other way around.

      You think there’s no genetic component to race differences in economic outcomes mirrored in standardized test scores? Show me that evidence. You think that rich blacks, high IQ blacks, voting for third world policies has zero genetic component to that – then YOU can show ME that evidence. Because all I have to do is point to what’s happening, clear as day, out there. And my genetic hypothesis predicts everything perfectly fine. I am vindicated, overwhelmingly, every day.

      What’s the per-capita GDP of Burkina Faso? Black. What’s the per-capita GDP of Peru? Brown. What’s the per-capita GDP of Austria? Nordic. What’s the per-capita GDP of Spain? Mediterranid.

      You show me the path for the GOP to get 51% of the blacks, to get 51% of the mesoamericans.

      • RootlessCosmopolitan

        “Even if you totally persuade all blacks that Republicans are better for blacks, they will still probably vote Democrat. This is the primacy of race.”

        How does this make any fucking sense?
        If people really do vote based on ethnic tribalism (really contested and that other article isn’t entirely convincing, it shows that black people that want smaller government and think it’s giving too much to black people are by far most likely to identify as independent, most likely libertarians) then by tautology they would vote for the republican party if they did think it was better for them.

        Your argument is absolutely self-defeating.

        Fact of the matter is if the republican party wants to get more black people to vote for them then they need to stop presenting themselves as so fucking racist by being in cohorts with white supremacists. Maybe then you could have your small government and property rights or whatever else

        • Ryan Faulk

          It’s not about what you think makes “any fucking sense”, it’s about how blacks actually think and what the data actually shows. I linked the article, the data is undeniable. There is zero chance for the GOP to get black votes, it’s all about race.

          I get it, you like to sit back and imagine that if blacks think XYZ, and republicans think XYZ, so long as republicans act a certain way, they’ll get a good chunk of the black vote.

          But that doesn’t matter because:
          1 – The republicans will be “racist” no matter what they do because legacy media will find any little event they can to push the “GOP ‘racist'” narrative, and because blacks are actually really stupid they will believe all of it.
          2 – Even if by some miracle the blacks were convinced that the GOP wasn’t “racist”, well, all the data shows that they wouldn’t vote republican anyway.

          And “supremacist” is not a real term. If you want to virtue signal and slander, sure, call things “supremacist”. But the GOP has bent over backwards cucking to blacks and have gotten nothing for it.

          • RootlessCosmopolitan

            What I said didn’t make sense was your very claim you dumbass.
            You said that if you persuaded black people that the republican party is better for black people, they still wouldn’t vote for it.
            But using the same very logic you employ regarding ethnic tribalism in voting, that is obviously not consistent.
            You clearly don’t have a grasp on logic.

            No the “legacy media” doesn’t have to push that narrative if it is eminent from the discourse the party members espouse, all that is required is an examination of what they say privately – something that (maybe ONLY) can be accomplished without referring to a television.

            Your second point is clearly a non-sequitur.

            I don’t know how you can claim that supremacist is not a real term when half of this website is filled with attempts at making white people look better in comparison to black/brown people. Obviously you can’t make judgments about facts but it’s clear to anyone observing from the outside what kinds of value statements you are inferring from the data, and I really don’t mind calling a spade a spade.

    • Bleiz

      The purpose of the article was to demonstrate that races exist, and I think he’s done that brilliantly.

      As for your question, there are many advantages to categorize human beings, one of them being predicting genetic diseases.
      Some races are particularly suceptible to some diseases and others nearly immune.

      Could we just be honest with ourselves? The elephant in the room is Hitler and people are scared of the whole race thing and rather not talk about it to make sure Hitler 2.0 doesn’t use that to fuck the world up again.

      • CenaFoura

        I think crime propensity is also another valid statistic to keep, for different races, it is a valid form of describing a person. And we see the media bias against white christians in particular males. And this comes from the islamomarxist mix with satanic freemasons and atheists, and then the race paradigm changes, because all people from all races are christians.
        It’s like the arab christians in palestine to collude with the muslims against Israel.

  • CenaFoura

    There is no such thing as racism should be the thing to point out to race deniers, who even while they deny race accuse whites of being racist, because some fundamentally flawed narrative spouts the lie that only whites are racists, while the blacks and browns are in fact guilty of the vilest racism. Race exists and not all civilisations and cultures are equal. White people still create the most advanced humanitarian and diverse societies in the world.

  • Thought criminalberg

    great stuff