Re: Definition of Race

Gerold Firl (
15 Feb 1995 13:04:36 -0800

In article <3hh4pv$> (Phil Nicholls) writes:
>In article <>,
>Gerold Firl <> wrote:

>>That depends on how the variation is distributed. If human variation is
>>randomly distributed, as you say, with genetic clusters on different
>>parameters failing to cluster with each other, then yes: the way a "race"
>>would be defined would depend on which genetic variable was being
>>considered. But if the variations do cluster together, forming distinct
>>peaks in the spectrum of total human variability, (as clearly *does* occur
>>with many physical characteristics, visible to the eye), then the folk
>>concept of race is, as human subspecies, is valid. It all depends on the
>>data. This question will be answered by lab tests, not by wishful

> Almost all of the characteristics that folk racial taxonomies use are
>not distributed in discrete clusters. They are distributed as genetic
>clines. In other words, skin color shows a continuity of distribution.

Don't all species which have continuously distributed subspecies show
genetic clines? If the ranges of the subspecies are contiguous, then there
will be intermediate forms at the boundaries. In the case of humans, who
have moved around a lot lately, this complicates any attempt at
classification, but I don't see it invalidating the racial distinctions
between human subspecies.

Consider the sub-saharan races of africa: the negroes, with their homeland
in west africa (possibly centered around the niger delta); the
nilo-sudanese, with their homeland in the southern sudan and northern rift
valley savanna (note the adaptation for distance - very gracile body type);
the pygmies, with their homeland of the equatorial rainforest (again, note
physical adaptation to their environment - consider the rainforest antelope
the size of a rabbit); and the san of southern africa, now restricted to
the kalahari after the recent expansion of the negroes and, to a lesser
extent, the nilo-sudanese into much of the territory formerly held by the
san. (As recently noted, the san may be an extremely archaic lineage, or a
recent mix of african and asian, possibly resulting from contact with the
malagasy colony.)

The zoological division of the sub-saharan indigenous peoples into these
four races is not based on skin color, though there are differences there
too, but on a comprehensive, organic, consistant suite of physical
adaptations found throughout these groups. With only minimal exposure to
the typical appearance of these races, it is very easy to recognise the
genetic background of an individual descended from one of them.

It has been suggested that even though each of these races are easily
distinguished by eye, they are not really races, because there are numerous
"hidden variables" which are distributed among the entire sub-saharan
population in ways which are totally unrelated to the "racial" (as
determined by visible characteristics) grouping described above. This is
the claim I question. I have seen data on blood types which, as I recall,
does satisfy the non-racial distribution: it is wildly scattered throughout
populations without any visible correlation to ethnicity. (I believe the
data I saw was of italian blood types.) However, it is not clear to me how
significant this is. If blood types vary wildly between and within races,
then maybe blood types are simply uncorrelated to the previous evolutionary
history of breeding isolation and local adaptation which produced
sub-speciation. If blood types are devoid of adaptive significance, then we
may be seeing the result of genetic drift, superimposed on the results of
divergant evolution in the characteristics which do have adaptive
significance, or in which the drift occured *after* isolation.

>Divisions of that continuum are arbitrary.
> They certainly do not correspond to subspecies.

Again, it depends on how finely we want to differentiate within
populations. We are not particularly concerned about the subtle geographic
variations within some species; we are concerned about humans. For
instance, the immumological marker HLA-B27 is found in 50% of the Haida
people of the pacific northwest, while it is seen in only 1% of japanese.
This gene predisposes for ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis. A
fine-scale differentiation of human groups can be very valuable. And while
calling the haida a "race" would be taking the concept of the subspecies
far beyond common zoological practice, I don't think there is any question
that the pygmies, by all customary criteria, are a human subspecies. If you
don't think so, I'd like to hear your reasoning.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf