Re: Identifying Race

Gary Goodman (sap@TANK.RGS.UKY.EDU)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 23:29:40 EDT

Pauline Escudero Shafer (American Indian Studies) back on the 31st wrote
a moving letter, but one that pointed out the problem of using the word
"race" when really what we mean is ethnic culture or traditions.

I feel compelled to re-run something I wrote on this:

"Race is a well-known word for its vagueness..."
--Careton S. Coon, 1965

The Biology of the Matter

"...we are one species, one people. Every individual on earth is a
member of Homo sapiens sapiens, the geographic variations we see among
people are simply biological nuances on the same basic theme. The human
capacity for culture permits its elaboration in widely different and
colorful ways. The often very deep differences between those cultures
should not be seen as divisions between people. Instead, cultures should
be interpreted for what they really are: the ultimate declaration of
belonging to the human species."
-- Richard E. Leakey and Robert Lewin, Origins, 1977

Since "race," biologically speaking, generally is regarded as meaning
either a subspecies, or a variety -- there is ONE and only one genuine
"race" of humans on this planet. Homo sapiens sapiens.

That's really about all there is to it folks, scientifically.


ONE species of human beings.

ONE race/subspecies/variety of human beings presently inhabiting the

A few observable physically distinctive sub-subspecies or large
populations of no universal acceptance by science, corresponding to the
amount of variation one could find in individual plants of the same
variety or breed, grown in areas or communities somewhat isolated from
each other, but within a common general climatic zone, for a few
seasons. Or we see within domestic-bred varieties of plants and

And haven't we "domestically" selected ourselves? If a toy poodle and a
Great Dane had been bred by a vanished society who left no trace so when
we came upon these two dog breeds in the wild, would we hesitate to
list them as separate species? See the problem of the term "species"?

Genetically speaking then, there is the human race -- and no other.

* * *

RACE: Biologically (and ONLY biologically) this is regarded as meaning
either a variety or subspecies: genetically discernible divisions with
common inheritance of sets of phenotypic variations within that species.
It can mean an infraspecic taxonomic grouping of organisms equivalent to
a microspecies; or simply to mean the descendants of a common ancestor.
or refer to a population, or breed.

A "human race" supposedly refers to a specific designation of a human
population or isolate within the species Homo sapiens sapiens, that is
distinguished by apparent phenotypic differences that are ecologically,
geographically, ethnically, religiously, or socially distinctive, and in
turn genetically correlated. Whereas in all other species, these
distinctions are chromosomically and physiologically distinguished into
clearly separated groupings of the members of the species, this is in
truth not so with the human species currently, and rarely, or to a very
limited extent in the past 30 - 100 thousand years since Homo sapiens
sapiens evolved as a distinct (sub) species.

So, by the general standards of evolutionary, biological, and genetic
taxonomy: On the Planet Earth, circa the year 2000 Common Period, in the
genus of Homo, there is but ONE human species and ONE human race; that
of Homo sapiens; in which, IMHO, there have been three generally
accepted subspecies or varieties ("races") -- two or three extinct or
absorbed: archaic Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens archaic), the Neanderthal
(Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), and modern man -- Homo sapiens sapiens
-- us.

(This ignores Cro-Magnon, but that is a very sticky wicket really as
whether C-M was just an early version of H. sapiens sapiens, or late of
archaic H. sapiens, or what? Or if it truly deserves a separate status.)

But ALL part of the same species: Homo sapiens -- "thinking man" (don't
I wish!). And today the SAME RACE: H. sapiens sapiens.

"Race is supposed to be a strictly biological category, equivalent to an
animal subspecies. The problem is that humans also use it as a cultural
category, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate those two
things from each other."
-- John Marks, Yale anthropologist (in "Discovery Magazine,"
November, 1994)


With humans the term "race" has come to be used for everything BUT what
it usually means elsewhere. When a word of multiple meaning is used
deliberately in a misleading way, the fallacy known as Equivocation.

This is a favored tactic of "Creation Scientists" with regards to the
word "theory" to confuse the hypothesis meaning with the meaning of
"theory" as a collected system or study. This allows them to ignorantly
(or maliciously) deride Evolution as being "but a theory."

So too racial thinkers and racists have sought to blur the various
distinctions of meaning of the word "race," seeking to creating a
significant biological difference out of geographic and environmental
variations of trivial external characteristics of appearance and
biochemistry. Not only those this allow the propagation of falsehoods of
innate and unchangeable genetic differences between ethnic groups of the
one and only human race, but also nonsensical arguments that these
correspond and correlate to inherent psychological and behavioral

Ignoring that again and again these very tests show the cultural factor
renders these results NON-genetic.

Closer examination shows these arguments to be often just plain silly.
Certainly unscientific, and generally unhistorical as well. For example,
since they are unable to show a significant and measurable genetic
separation between these supposed "races," they have been forced to
infer some preposterous theories for origins of the supposed "races"
that simply are not supported by the existing and verified evidence.
They have confused social/ethnic distinctions with genetically
variations; racial discrimination with biology.

In the NON-biological sense "race" can be used for national groupings,
like "the Irish," the "French," the Japanese." Some like the Japanese,
in general may be of a relatively homogeneous genetic makeup, so
physically resemble each other, but most do not, nor do they share any
behavioral aspects other than those culturally acquired.

"Race," can refer to a grouping of languages, suck as the: "Indo-Aryan,
" (or "Indo-Germanic," or "Indo-European,") from which most European and
Near-Eastern languages descend.

Culturally, "race" can mean a religious-ethnic group, like the Jews, the
Muslims, the Arabs, and so forth -- many purely hypothetical -- and with
the edges blurred between. We see this used among Amerinds and African
tribes and super-tribes in this manner. Or even by people of various
geographic regions of genetically quite mixed inheritance, but linked or
unified by some tradition or set of beliefs.

At best, since there is biologically but a single human race, we must
drop down below a variety, into terms of little generally accepted
meaning with regard to humans especially, to place the classifications
generally termed "human races." This is an infraspecial taxonomic
classification not quite officially recognized: the Sub-variety (or
perhaps a "microspecies" or Jordanon): signifying populations with minor
regularly recurring variations within an isolate that can be generally
passed along, only within selected and separate interbreeding groups of
that isolate due to physical (or in the case of humans -- cultural) barriers.

That scientifically questionable classification is where one could, with
at least a token of biological validity, place the three to nine to over
one hundred different "racial" types various ethnologists and physical
anthropologists since the days of Comte de Buffon (George Louis Leclerc)
who should really find something better to waste their time on) have
come up with. Can't get too mad at the physical-ethnologists for still
talking about "races," since that is what their (near-pseudo) science is
supposed to be about. Though most now at least recognize that the minor
physical variations are not firmly fixed to groups and can serve as
indicators of the geographic region at least some of the individual's
ancestors MAY have come from.

Perhaps it is time to specify ETHNOLOGICAL RACES or perhaps
ENTHNOGRAPHIC RACES when we mean something like 'African' or European'
or 'Amerind' or whatever one's favorite set of labels. ETHNIC GROUPS for
super-tribes and nations.

BTW a good list on these very subjects, especially from the sociological
and historical POV, is RACE-POL.

Send SUBSCRIBE in the body of the message to:

Thanks for your patience, but hey, it's summer -- gotta expect re-runs
-- right?

Gary D. Goodman

Pentad Communications
McDaniels/Hardinsburg, KY


"There are no biological units corresponding to the socially defined
-- Paul R. Ehrich and S. Shirley Feldman, The Race Bomb, 1977