Re: Definition of Race

Rod Hagen (
Tue, 24 Jan 1995 10:18:35 +1000

In article <3fuanf$>, (R.
William Sowders) wrote:

> Hello,
> I need some help of professionals! I work for a k-12 school district and
> we are in the midst of a controversy with parents over the definition of
> "race" in our curriculum guides (1988). Although our middle school
> program focuses on "culture" as part of the geography course, the
> question of defining race always seems to crop up.
> We are trying to avoid having kids make comparisons of physical features
> with their classmates.
> What is the current thinking on a definition of race. I want to be
> correct, not just politically correct. Any advice you can give will be
> greatly appreciated.
> Please reply to:
> Thanks very much.
> Bill Sowders

I *strongly* recommend that you have a look at an essay by Stephen Jay
Gould, the eminent Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist,
entitled "Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History" which you will
find in "The Flamingo's Smile - Reflections in Natural History" (Gould,
1985). I think there is a US paperback edition published by Viking
On'Neil. It was originally published in the US by W.W.Norton.

Gould does an excellent job of debunking many of the less informed views
about biological aspects of race. Another of his books, "The Mismeasure
of Man" does an excellent job of debunking much of the nonsense which has
arisen in the last couple of hundred years about supposed differences in
intelligence etc.

Another avenue worth exploring involves the various statements etc by the
UN on the issue. (e.g the UNESCO meeting in Moscow, in 1964 - reported in
the International Social Science Journal, Vol XVII, No.1, 1965, UNESCO,

There is also material available on the WWW, both through the UN's own
site and through bodies such as the Centre for Indigenous Studies (sorry I
don't have the addresses at my finger tips).

For what its worth, my own general comments on race , as an anthropologist
who has worked in the area for a couple of decades, follow:

1) The term "race" is used in different senses by both the public and by
professionals. The uses often overlap and result in substantial
misunderstanding and conflict.

2) Race, as a term of biology - applied to the natural world generally,
focuses on minor genetic differences, resulting from population isolation,
and normally manifested in minor differences of colouring, behaviour, or
form. It is not a formal division within the standard bi-nomial
nomenclature of biology, which recognises divisions into genera, species
etc. In this system the term "sub species" is preferred.

Sub-species are somewhat arbitrary, subdivisions of "species", the
narrowest, formally defined division of taxa. Sub-species tend to be
defined in terms of recognisable, but minor, local characteristics of
populations within species. Genetic variation between sub-species is very
limited. When geographical boundaries between two sub-species break down,
the utility of the term disappears, as the two groups interbreed.
Generally the dividing line between "sub-species" is a very moveable
feast, as variation within any two "sub species" results in an overlap
between the genetic and phenotypic characteristics of the two groups. The
differences between sub species, then, are primarily statistical rather
than absolute.

In the terms of biology, given the (increasingly) extensive intermingling
of the people of the earth, the comparatively recent (in biological terms)
earlier isolation of the groups, and the absence of any clear genetic
separation the concept of human sub-species has little utility or meaning.
The genetic differences between human groups, beyond trivial matters such
as body coloration and the frequency of particular blood groups, is
extremely limited. The greater differences which exist are cultural or
environmental rather genetic in origin. Hence the concept of human
"races" is of little importance in biological terms.

3) Race, as understood by most people, is a socially derived concept based
on an over-estimation of the extent of biological differences betwen
different populations of humans. It is often used in an attempt to provide
a false legitimising "scientific" explanation of the diversity of human
cultures, and to justify heirarchical or discrimatory action aimed at
ensuring the dominance of one cultural group over another. For this
reason, when discussing differences between groups of people, the term
"ethnic group", which recognises the cultural rather than biological
differences between people, is preferable to "race" in almost all

Rod Hagen