Is race a social construct?

Posted in Tradition / Race on Thursday, October 15, 2015 by Joel Höglund

The existence of different human races has been a controversial question in the public discourse the last couple of decades. Here we will look at the two main positions and try to understand race in a biological sense.

Race as a social construct

First it would be helpful to understand what these two definitions actually mean. The idea that race is only a social construct means in essence that the perceived differences between human populations are due to differences in culture, environment, education and upbringing. People may identify as Blacks, Whites, Asians or other races, but these groups have about as much base in biology as an identity of being a Christian or a hockey player. If pressed, most proponents will admit that genetic differences might exist, but if so, they are so minor that they can have no importance at all.

This is as good a representation of the view as I can give. I would present the reasoning or scientific claims behind it, but I really don’t know of any. Inquiries into this are usually met with a scornful attitude and/or accusations of racism. Apparently this position is so self-evident that only the most vile creature could ever begin to question it.

Of course, in a way, race is a social construct, just as the concept of what the sky is or what life is. One might argue about when life begins (pro-life vs. pro-choice) or ends, if a spore is alive or not, where the sky ends and space begins. The fact that the concepts described by these words are "socially constructed" does not imply that they have no basis in reality.

Race as a biological taxonomy

To understand race as a biological concept it is useful to also understand what a species is. The classical definition is that all individuals that can produce fertile offspring together belong to the same species. Thus, two organisms that are unable to produce offspring at all are not of the same species. There are some cases where two different species actually may produce offspring, but who are infertile. As these hybrids can’t themselves procreate, this genetic mixture will not pass on to the next generation and thus the different species remain separated. One classic example of this is the horse and donkey, which are two different, but closely related, species. Together they can produce a hybrid offspring called a mule or hinny, which consequently is sterile.

As a result these biological barriers have established distinct species and not much in-between. A species may further be divided into multiple subspecies, or races. A straightforward definition of race is a group of individuals of the same species, with a common genetic history. This simply means that they have mated more with each other than with others, over a period of time. Usually this is due to geographic or ecological barriers. Geographic division only means that the populations are far apart and therefore won’t meet to have the chance to exchange DNA. Ecologically separated races on the contrary, may very well live in the same space, but will not mate due to differences in behavior.

What this means is that just as within a species, individuals within a race are more genetically similar to each other than to individuals outside. A vital difference is of course that there are no such absolute lines as between species. Individuals from different races can produce fertile offspring together.

Note that all the previous reasoning is not specific for humans but general to discussion of all species and races in biology. In human terms geographically divided races work in the same way as you’d expect for other organisms. It’s hard to mate with someone when there is an ocean between you. The ecological aspect could be viewed as softer barriers such as differences in language, culture socio-economic class and so forth.

Conclusion

I'll actually stop there and let you draw your own conclusions. If any of this was new to you, which of these two positions seem to make the most sense? What fits best with your previous knowledge? Is there any reason to believe that geographically divided races doesn't apply to humans, as it does to other species?

We'll return to this question in the future and discuss in detail the different human races and what the current science has revealed about them. For a more mainstream source on this topic, I would recommend A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History by Nicholas Wade. I haven't finished the book yet myself, but so far I've found that it describes the current science of race in a factual way. Don't let the mandatory excuses for the topic in the second chapter put you off, as it gets better.

Last updated on Saturday, October 24, 2015