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On the biological meaning of race

by Paul Grubach

In recent years a spate of books have been published which claim the concept of "race" in the human species serves no purpose. That is to say, there are obvious external physical differences between human populations, but these are only skin deep. For the most part, all mankind is, in a biological sense, virtually the same. One of the most important of these works is the very recent GENES, PEOPLES AND LANGUAGES by L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, a prominent population geneticist. 1 The arguments he advances are important, as they are used by those in positions of influence to deny that there are any significant genetic differences between the races. Cavalli-Sforza Cavalli-Sforza begins by admitting that, yes, human groups do vary strikingly in a few highly visible characteristics, such as "skin color, eye shape, hair type, body and facial form--in short, the traits that often allow us to determine a person's origin at a single glance (p.9)." He further admits that these traits are at least partly genetically determined, and that they evolved in the most recent period of human evolution as a response to the various environments that the human groups are exposed to. In his own words: "...there are clear biological differences between populations in the visual characteristics that we use to classify races (p.9)."

According to Cavalli-Sforza, these biological differences are only minor, as the remainder of mankind's genetic makeup is supposedly almost the same in all races. He states: "It is because they are external that these racial differences strike us so forcibly, and we automatically assume that differences of similar magnitude exist below the surface, in the rest of our genetic makeup. This is simply not so: the remainder of our genetic makeup hardly differ at all." 2

He advances the following arguments to bolster this conclusion. First, there is much genetic variation WITHIN each race, but little BETWEEN races. Once again, we let him speak: "The main genetic differences are between individuals and not between populations, or so-called 'races.' Differences of genetic origin among the lattter are not only small...but also superficial, attributable mostly to responses to the different climates in which we live. Moreover, there are serious difficulties in distinguishing between genetic and cultural differences, between nature and nurture (p.viii)."

His argument boils down to this. Small genetic differences between groups translate into only very minor observable differences between them. This is not necessarily so. Very small genetic differences between two racial groups can lead to dramatic, observable results. Consider the example of sickle-cell anemia, a severe hereditary disease that afflicts a large percentage of Black Africans, and a significant percentage of Black Americans, but is virtually absent among American whites. 3 According to an authoritative biology text, LIFE ON EARTH, "The sickle-cell condition is under the control of a single gene." 4 If a person has a "double dose" of the gene, he dies in childhood or suffers from chronic anemia. If endowed with only a "single dose" of the gene, the person shows signs of anemia only under conditions of stress, but also, displays significantly greater resistance to malaria than those lacking the gene. Thus we see that a small genetic difference--brought about by only one gene--between two racial groups leads to significant differences between them in resistance to malaria and susceptability to anemia.

This could very well hold true for many behavioral characters as well. Two groups, A and B, can share 99% of the same human genes and characteristics. They can be virtually identical. Nevertheless, if the 1% variation occurs in a characteristic that helps determine success in a certain endeavor, say mathematics, then group A might produce 90% of the mathematicians, group B only 10%.

There is a egregious example of how a small genetic difference between two different ethnic groups will have dramatic military consequences. The respected LONDON TIMES reported that "Israel is working on a biological weapon that would harm Arabs but not Jews, according to Israeli military and western intelligence sources. The weapon, targetting victims by ethnic origin, is seen as Israel's response to Iraq's threat of chemical and biological attacks." 5

The article continues: "The intention is to use the ability of viruses and certain bacteria to alter the DNA inside their host's living cell. The scientists are trying to engineer deadly micro-organisms that attack only those bearing the distinctive genes." 6

A scientist involved with the Israeli facility that is sponsoring the project was quoted as saying the researchers "have succeeded in pinpointing a particular characteristic in the genetic profile of certain Arab communities, particularly the Iraqi people." 7

One wonders if Cavalli-Sforza would dare tell the Arab people who are targeted by such a weapon that "genetic differences between you and the Jews are of little consequence."

Furthermore, some population geneticists admit that the data "...which indicate much more genetic variation within than among human races, may be misleading." 8 Cavalli-Sforza may have measured many particular gene frequencies which are similar in all races, but failed to measure many of those gene frequencies which do vary widely between the races.

Cavalli-Sforza puts forth another argument in an attempt to convince his readers the genetic differences between the races are only superficial. Because the division of humanity into separate groups had occured so recently in human history, there was not enough time for the evolution of significant biological differences. "It is impossible," this population geneticist claims, "to generate much diversity in such a short period of time, which convinces us once and for all that the superficial racial differences we perceive between people from different continents are just that (p.xii)."

He appears to have contradicted himself, for in another part of the book, he writes: "We could ask if sufficient time has passed since the settling of the continents to produce these biological adaptations [i.e., the biological differences between the races such as skin color, etc.]. The selection intensity has been very strong, so the answer is probably yes (p.12)."

If the selection intensity has been strong enough to produce such glaring differences in skin color, eye shape, hair type, body and facial form in a short amount of evolutionary time, then why couldn't the selection intensity have also been strong enough to produce significant mental and behavioral differences as well?

Are there racial differences? Furthermore, one does not need long periods of time (in geological terms) for significant biological differences to evolve. Biologist Richard Goldsby: "Given the inefficiency of race formation when neither selection nor isolation is absolute, just how many generations might be necessary for the differentiation of a parent populatioin into clearly recognizable racial varieties? The answer comes from studies of race formation in the house sparrow. The founding population of sparrows was introduced into America in 1852. From an East Coast zone of entry, succeeding generations have spread west to California, south into Mexico, and north into Canada. Populations of sparrows can now be found in damp coastal areas of Louisiana and in the dry, hot deserts of Arizona. Today, one can demonstrate that different geographical populations of sparrows show characteristic differences in color, wing length, bill length, and body weight. Using these differences as guides, more than a dozen racial varieties of sparrows can be identified...Before the results of this study were published a few years ago, evolutionary theorists assumed that more than 1,000 generations would be necessary for racial differentiation in birds. The discovery that all these races of sparrows evolved within one hundred generations came as a bombshell.

IT IS CLEAR THAT IN NATURE EVOLUTION AT THE RACIAL LEVEL CAN BE EXTREMELY RAPID. In a human population one hundred generations cover a time span of about 2,000 years. These studies suggest that given a reasonable degree of isolation and selection pressure, relatively short periods may be required for the elaboration of some racial characteristics in man (emphasis added)." 9

The irony of it all is that the pet evolutionary theory of leftist and a believer in the genetic equality of all mankind, Stephen Jay Gould, may very well explain the evolution of significant genetic differences between the races in a relatively short amount of evolutionary time. His theory, "Punctuated Equilibria," postulates that a species changes rapidly as it comes into existence (i.e., diverges from the parent species), but quite slowly thereafter. 10 Why then couldn't human races have changed very quickly and very significantly in a short amount of evolutionary time as they came into existence? If, in one hundred generations, races of house sparrows evolved which have substantial genetic differences between them, then isn't it also possible that in hundreds of thousands or only tens of thousands of years races of humans could evolve with substantial genetic differences between them?

Cavalli-Sforza claims the classification of humans into races is based on arbitrary criteria, totally dependent on the whims of the classifier. As a consequence, "Different anthropologists come to completely different tallies of races, from 3 to over 100 (p.27)." He continues: " is immediately clear that all systems lack clear and satisfactory criteria for classifying (p.29)." Ultimately, Professor Cavalli-Sforza concludes that it is wise "to abandon any attempt at racial classification along the traditional lines (p.29)."

Cavalli-Sforza has also noted that "It is very useful, and I think essential, to examine all existing information (p.20)." But he clearly ignores significant scientific evidence which contradicts his beliefs. The psychologist J. Philippe Rushton classified human populations along somewhat traditional lines--people of east Asian ancestry (Mongoloids, Orientals), people of African ancestry (Negroids, blacks) and people of European ancestry (Caucasoids, whites)--and found that these classifications have much predictive and explanatory power. On more than 60 variables--such as brain size, intelligence, reproductive behavior, etc.--Mongoloids and Negroids define opposite ends of a spectrum, with Caucasoids falling intermediately, and with much variability within each broad grouping. 11 Let it suffice to say the evidence that Rushton and others have amassed strongly suggests these findings are to a significant extent due to biological differences between the races. 12

Cavalli-Sforza defines "race" as "a group of individuals that we can recognize as biologically different from others (p.25)." Granted, the classifications of human populations along these lines is difficult and problematic, but that does not mean that scientists should cease trying. The classification of all types of biological beings, from bacteria to men, is difficult and problematic, but that does not stop scientists from making the attempt. As knowledge progresses, better and better classification schemes are created.

As Cavalli-Sforza rightly points out, there are no "pure races" of humans, only populations that tend to be separated by intergrading zones rather than by sharp lines of demarcation (pp.12-13). And here is where we can provide Cavalli-Sforza with a practical and scientific definition of "race" that can be used to classify human populations.

Psychologist Rushton concludes: "In sum, race is a biological concept. Races are recognized by a combination of geographic, ecological, and morphological factors and gene frequencies of biochemical components. However, races merge with each other through intermediate forms, while members of one race can and do interbreed with members of other races." 13

In short, we must, as Cavalli-Sforza advises (but fails to heed), examine all the existing evidence, and realize that it is the unique ensemble of all the aforementioned characteristics--gene freqencies, and physical and geographical characteristics--which differentiate races, not just a few arbitrary chosen traits.


1. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, GENES, PEOPLES, and LANGUAGES (North Point Press, 2000). Hereafter, all page numbers in this essay refer to this book.

2. Quoted in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, 13 April 2000, p.61.

3. Richard A. Goldsby, RACE AND RACES (Macmillan, 1977), pp.10-11, 96-101.

4. Edward O.Wilson and Thomas Eisner, LIFE ON EARTH (Sinaurer, 1978), p.651.

5. SUNDAY TIMES OF LONDON, 15 November 1998, p.1.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Daniel L. Hartl, A PRIMER OF POPULATION GENETICS (Sinauer, 1981), p.81.

9. Goldsby, pp.88-89.

10. For a discussion of Punctuated Equilibria theory, see Douglas Futuyma, EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY (Sinauer, 1979), pp.127-128.

11. RACE, EVOLUTION, AND BEHAVIOR (Transaction Publishers, 1995), p.xiii, passim.

12. Ibid. The following are just two more of the many works one could cite to support this statement. R.J. Herrnstein and C. Murray, THE BELL CURVE: INTELLIGENCE AND CLASS STRUCTURE IN AMERICAN LIFE (Free Press, 1994); Roger Pearson, ed., SHOCKLEY ON EUGENICS AND RACE: THE APPLICATION OF SCIENCE TO THE SOLUTION OF HUMAN PROBLEMS (Scott-Townsend, 1992).

13. Rushton, p.96.

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