Classification of Human Races
by George Weber
Some readers will turn to this Appendix in keen anticipation of sniffing out and then virtuously denouncing racism. Sorry to disappoint you. All you will get here is this possibly inadequate introduction to some facts you had not bothered to take on board before, plus one free quotation at the end.
It has recently been discovered that every single troop of chimpanzee or gorilla has more genetic variety among its few members than the entire living population of Homo sapiens has to offer worldwide. Genetically the differences between the human local variations (known also as "human races") are so minute that we could actually almost be clones of each other.
Humans are unique because
1. we are the only species of mammal with a world-wide distribution that has so little genetic variation among its members
2.no other living creature on earth even approaching half the body size of humans is anywhere near as numerous as we are today
The most likely reason for this remarkable state of affairs is that our ancestors must at least once have passed through a very severe genetic bottleneck, i.e. a time when the number of human individuals living worldwide dropped to less (perhaps much less) than ten thousand individuals. Today we number 6.2 billion - and rising.
One strong candidate for causing such a prehistoric human bottleneck is discussed on this web site in Chapter 5 "Through the Bottleneck" of our article on the eruption of Toba volcano 73,000 years ago.
Estimated number of Homo sapiens on earth since the beginning of the Holocene (the end of the ice age).
Back to the subject of the local variations that are also known as "human races".
The simplistic lists of human races you probably dreaded (or hoped) to find here were widespread and regarded as properly scientific until a few decades ago. You won't find any here since genetic research over the last 20 years has shown that there is no substance to them. The compilers of the old lists, in any case, could never agree on what set of features to use and how to weigh each feature in order to distinguish one "race" from another. Human nature being what it is, those traits carried by the classifying scientist tended to be regarded as the "highest". Classifications could be cobbled together according to taste, based on whatever were the favourite "racial attributes" of the moment. Debates raged whether the trait of blonde hair was more important than that of flat noses, etc. Skin colour usually figured as a major trait in such classifications - but only because this minor genetic trait (providing a natural protection against strong UV light from the sun in the tropics) could be easily spotted, even from afar. Convenient and therefore it must be important.
Really pernicious was a tendency to regard the traits carried by the majority of investigating scientists as "higher" (e.g. light skin, blonde hair) while others not widely shared in the then scientific community (e.g. dark skin, curly hair) as "lower". No need to go further into this distinctly inglorious chapter of scientific endeavour except to note the irony that lies in the discovery that all humans everywhere are much more closely related genetically to each other than any other species of mammal anywhere.
Genetics has shown, that members of some "races" in the old classifications have in fact more in common genetically with other races than some individuals within their own alleged race. Human races, as far as they exist at all, have been shown to be what in zoology or botany would be called "local variations". There is, it now appears, one human genetic race with local variations that are genetically unusually similar to each other.
Human local variations are clines. Webster's defines "cline" as "a graded series of characters (as morphological or physiological differences) exhibited by a species ... along a line of environmental or geographic transition." There is therefore no such thing as a pure race, only an imperceptible grading of countless combinations of characteristics averaged together into a set of countless combinations of characteristics averaged together. Such clines develop when populations mix little and stay resident in the same climate for long periods - as most populations seem to have done over long perios.
All human (and most other creatures larger than viruses) are complex mosaics of genetic traits inherited from parents. The genetic mix that is YOU is a mindbogglingly complex yet robust and adaptable system - a system that could keep huge numbers of researchers busy for a very long time.
Compared to the miraculous complexity of the genetic system we are all constructed from, the old concept of human "race" is not just simplistic, it is crudely primitive. As anyone who has travelled even a little knows, people in another country or climate can, on average, look more or less the same but different to yourself. An African in Peking will stick out, no question, as will a Swede in India. But sticking out in such circumstances only means that the outsider's genetic make-up differs slightly from the local genetic average.
To us, all sheep in a flock look alike. This is not so for the sheep who can recognize individual other sheep, even from a distance. Something similar works in humans: most of us look quite different to each other and most of us can recognize someone we know immediately from quite a distance, often long before we can recognize his or her face. Our human senses are adapted to recognize the tiniest differences by enormously enlarging them in our minds. We may think that the differences between us are huge but the fact when measured objectively, they are not.
For more on this and especially on that most over-rated and troublesome of all racial traits, skin colour, see Chapter 34, subchapter "4. Modern Human Races".
It is cultural differences (language, religion, habits of thought) that keep human groups apart and often in conflict, not genetics or that construct "race".
And now it is time for the promised quotation:
No one knows what a 'pure race' is, although anthropologists are apparently the only human beings who know that they do not know.
Earnest Hooton, 1937, in "Apes, Men and Morons", with acknowledgments to T.J. Gillin of Australia who has re-discovered this gem.
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Last changed 15 September 2002