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The Myth of Human Races
By Alain Corcos
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2015 Alain Corcos
All rights reserved.
RACE IS A SLIPPERY WORD
The term "race" is one of the most frequently misused and misunderstood words in the American vernacular.
Peter L Rose
Peter I. Rose is indeed correct. Race, as applied to human beings, is vague and ambiguous. In common speech, it has a whole range of meanings. To focus on the issue, dictionaries offer little help. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives numerous and contradictory definitions of the word "race":
1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
2. Mankind as a whole [as in the human race].
3. Any group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographical distribution.
4. A genealogic line, lineage, family.
5. Any group of people more or less distinct from all others: the race of statesmen.
6. Biologically: (a) plant or animal population that differs from others of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits: a subspecies; (b) or a breed or a strain of a domestic animal.
7. A distinguishing or characteristic quality, such as the flavor of wine.
8. Sprightliness, style.
These definitions are at variance with one another For instance, definitions 1 and 3 do not agree. One is a biological definition, the other a social definition. Definitions 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8 are taken from literary usage but have no validity in scientific or social science community. Definition 6 comes closest to the one used in this book. But, as we shall see later, much confusion about race has to do with how great the difference in the frequency of hereditary traits must be between two populations before we can label each of them a distinct race.
Race is a slippery word because it is a biological term, but we use it every day as a social term. In the mind of the public at large this leads to great confusion. Social, political, and religious views are added to what are seen as biological differences. All are seen as inheritable and unchangeable defining characteristics of one or another "race" of people.
However, most of the differences between groups are in fact cultural. People are of different national origin; they have different religions; they have different political views; and they speak different languages. These differences can be modified as shown by the fact that every day many of us change nationalities, religions, or political views. Most of us can learn language other than the one our parents taught us.
Race also has been equated with national origin. For example, writers and historians once spoke of the Roman or English races. However, no Roman race conquered much of the Mediterranean world, but rather people sharing Roman ideas of government, law, language, and military discipline. Among the Roman elites, there were many citizens who were not from the city of Rome or even from the Italian Peninsula, for that matter.
Similarly, there is a country called England, but there never was an English race. England was invaded by successive waves of peoples, many of whom differed from other invaders in physical appearance. Hence, no one can point to an English man or an English woman because, among the English, as among other Europeans, there are fair-skinned people, dark-skinned people, tall and short people, long-headed and round-headed people, people with long noses, people with broad noses.
Race also has been equated with religion. For instance, Jews are considered by many as belonging to a separate race. The history of the Jews is well known and reveals that originally they were nomadic people, a grouping of pastoral tribes the members of which spoke a Semitic language. They emigrated from the desert border of southern Mesopotamia to Palestine between the seventeenth and twelfth centuries BCE. On several occasions, they were expelled from the place they took as their homeland: a sojourn in Egypt terminated by the famous Exodus; the Babylonian captivity; the conquest by Rome. Thus, even before they were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire following the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (70 AD), there were many occasions for breeding with other people of the Near East. Even if the Jews were originally a homogeneous group, which is unlikely, there has been extensive interbreeding with others from antiquity to the present day.
What Jews have preserved and transmitted is a rich body of religious and cultural traditions and modes of conduct. The only valid criterion for determining membership in the group is confessional (adherence to the Jewish faith). Jews are a religious body, not a separate biological human group.
Race has been equated with language, as in the case of "Aryan race." Historically, there was a common Indo-European language, called Aryan, from which Sanskrit, ancient Greek and Latin, and the majority of languages that are spoken today are derived. However, use of derivatives from that common root language does not mean that individuals speaking it look alike or hold similar religious beliefs. People do not speak Chinese, French, or English because of their biological inheritance but because their parents taught them the language, i.e., because of their cultural inheritance. In other words, whatever shape of mouth or vocal cords we have, we learn to speak the language that is spoken around us when we grow up. No matter what the color of our skin, shape of head, or the texture of our hair, we will acquire the language we hear in our homes or schools.
Though it is illogical to use religion, language, or nationality as a basis for inventing races, we continue to do so today. Many still regard Jews, Arabs, Mexicans, French, and Germans as being of different races. It may be more appropriate to consider some or all as ethnic groups, whose members share a common cultural background. Ethnicity is a social term. Race, on the other hand, is a biological term which can be used meaningfully only when applied to plants and animals, but never to human beings.
Even in biology, race is a slippery word. To understand why, we must understand how scientists use it and a related term, "species." Both race and species are used as categories for classification to reduce the vast array of diverse forms of animals and plants to manageable groupings for identification. However, there is a fundamental difference between what scientists mean when they identify a race and when they identify a species. Members of a species can breed with others of the same species but not with individuals belonging to different species. This gives the species a biological continuity and an exclusive membership. Species are real units in nature. Races, which are subdivisions of a species, differ from species in that their boundaries can never be fixed and definite because a member of one race can interbreed with members of an other race. It is, therefore, a capital error to believe that races have the same biological reality as species have. A species is a natural grouping of organisms, while a race is an artificial one whose definition is very vague and has changed with time without becoming clearer or more useful. This is especially true when applied to humans.
Race has been defined anthropologically as
"... a great division of mankind, the members of which show similar or identical combinations of physical features which they owe to their common heredity." (Seltzer 1939)
or genetically as
"... a population which differs significantly from other human populations in regard to the frequency of one or more of the genes it possesses.".
The genetic definition seems at first more precise than the anthropological, because the frequency with which a gene occurs in a population can be calculated. However, it is important to realize that describing races on the basis of such frequency differences between populations presents a serious problem. For example, one wonders how great differences between two populations must be before they can be defined as distinct races. The frequency of a gene can run from 0 to 1, 0 meaning that a given gene is absent from a given population, 1 meaning that every member of the population has that particular gene. If the frequency of a particular gene was 1 in one population and 0 in another, we could argue that we have two distinct races. But in fact we have never been able to find such an example.
Both of the above definitions of a race, the anthropological and the genetic, are vague. They do not tell us how large divisions between populations must be in order to label them races, nor do they tell us how many there are. These things are, of course, all matters of choice for the classifier. It is no wonder that there was so much confusion among scientists when they attempted to classify humanity into distinct races.CHAPTER 2
RACE CLASSIFICATION: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK
If an Arab and a Jew, standing completely naked in front of a large mirror, were to look at their bodies they would find that they were as alike as two peas in a pod.
Fernand Corcos (circa 1948)
What Fernand Corcos, my uncle, meant was that the two hypothetical men were more alike than they were different. As a matter of fact it would have been impossible for anyone, except the two of them, to know which one was a Jew and which one was an Arab; their "differences" would be purely cultural, not physical. My uncle could have made the same comment about the Serbs and the Croats: If they were fighting in the streets without their clothes on and without saying a word, they would be unable to recognize one another as "enemies."
Physical differences among other groups of human beings may be more varied than the differences between Jews and Arabs, or Serbs and Croats. For instance, we might be able to tell the difference between an Eskimo and a Watusi or a Bengali and a Swede; to deny these striking differences would be foolish.
But within an "obvious" difference there may lurk a subtle commonality. Good scientists know they should not always believe what they see; often, it is critical to go beyond direct observations, to look for interpretations which, though they may seem to deny the observations, not only explain them, but other things as well, things which at first appeared to have nothing in common. Humanity is diverse; to understand this fact, all you need to do is spend a few minutes sitting in the terminal of an international airport. There we can observe people of different skin colors, statures, hair forms and facial characteristics. Some people have dark brown skin, others have light skin; some have straight or wavy hair, others curly hair; some have prominent and thin noses, and others broad and flat noses; some have thin lips, others have large or everted lips. Some are tall and others short. Some have long heads, others round heads, and still others, intermediate heads. However, as we look longer and more carefully we begin to see that some individuals have more similarities with one another than they do with many others. In other words we can begin to see groups of individuals within the larger group. A sense of some kind of order begins to emerge from what we first saw as random and chaotic.
Since some of us are "more alike" than others, it seems only natural to attempt to place those who are similar into groups generally described as races. That is what scientists tried to do in the past. At first, they used indicators such as skin color, shape of eyes and noses, and so on. In the process, race became the framework for categorizing other ideas about human differences.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of classifying. Grouping objects, events, ideas, or organisms is often helpful. It permits us to talk or to write about them in terms of their common traits, as well as their uniqueness. But for classification to be meaningful in the world of science, any member of one group has to be unequivocally distinguishable from a member of another group. We have no problem distinguishing a bird from a fish. Birds have feathers, most of them fly. No fish has feathers and none can fly. Hence, such classification is helpful. In the same vein, no mallard duck ever looks like a Canadian goose. Scientists are therefore justified in calling some birds mallard ducks and others Canadian geese.
A successful classification then provides us with an efficient tool to memorize the characteristics that an individual of a described group or class has. All we need to do is to remember the characteristics of the groups.
At first glance, sorting humanity into more or less clear cut groups seems easy. If we think of a baker in France, a fisherman in Vietnam, and a peasant on the west coast of Africa, we have no problem imagining three men of different physical types whose ways of life are different, whose languages are not the same, and who follow different religions.
Similar distinctions were made in the past. Ancient Egyptians, for example, represented four types of people on the tombs of their Royal Dynasties: The first were black skinned with curly hair; a second type had a tinted creamy yellow skin and slanting eyes; another was light skinned, with blue eyes and blond beards; the fourth type, the Egyptians themselves, were people with reddish skin.
The division of mankind based on skin color is an old one. The first modern "scientific" classification schemes of this type did not appear, however, until the eighteenth century. At that time European thinkers were compelled to order nature into a mechanically logical system. Carl von Linn, the Swedish naturalist who originated the taxonomic classification system, divided humanity into four distinct groups: American or red, European or white, Asiatic or yellow, and African or black. The chief distinction made by Linne was skin color, but temperament, custom and habits were also taken into consideration. Here is his exact description of his four groups:
A mericanus or red
Tenacious, contented, free, ruled by custom
Europeanus or white Light, lively, inventive, ruled by rites
Asiaticus or yellow Stem, haughty, stingy, ruled by opinion
Africanus or black
Cunning, slow, negligent, ruled by caprice
Linné, in other words, linked physical traits, skin color, and behavior. This procedure is widely practiced today. When we see someone who is physically different from us, we expect that person to act and think entirely differently than we do. But, of course, such assumptions are wrong and no biological evidence exists that links behavioral and physical traits.
Georges Buffon, a French contemporary of Linne's increased the number of human groups from four to six. Buffon's groups included Laplanders, Tatars, Southern Asiatics, Europeans, Ethiopians and Americans. The German Johann Blumenbach, proposed to divide mankind into five groups: Caucasians, Mongolians, Malays, Ethiopians and Americans. Both Buffon and Blumenbach were fully aware of an element of artificiality that existed in their schemes for dividing mankind into groups, but most of their followers did not.
Throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, there were numerous attempts to classify mankind; all emphasized skin color, hair type, nose type and skull shape. Some classifiers recognized as few as three races, others more than thirty. These race classifications schemes all varied according to their originators' views, not only in regard to the group to which a particular population of human beings should be ascribed, but also in regard to the number of groups into which humanity should be divided. The extreme difficulty of classifying mankind was stressed as early as 1787 by Samuel Stanhope Smith, who wrote: "The conclusion to be drawn from all this variety of opinions is, perhaps, that it is impossible to draw the line precisely between the various races of man, or even to enumerate them with certainty and that it is itself a useless labor to attempt it."
Smith was absolutely right. Racial classification of human beings is impossible because humanity is diverse and distinct lines of demarcation between groups do not exist.
The difficulty in classifying mankind lies in the following: To serve as "racial" criteria, physical characteristics such as a particular pigmentation, hair texture, or eye shape must be present in the whole race in some fashion peculiar to that race alone. But no physical characteristic has ever been found to fit this criterion. No matter how many groups we propose, we always find people who do not fit any one of the groups. Human diversity is so great that all attempts to divide mankind into "racial" groups have failed. Why did earlier anthropologists get into such trouble when they tried to describe human races as separate and distinct groups? There are two reasons. First, they assumed that each race was created pure, i.e., that all members of any one race were all essentially alike in all characteristics. Second, they assumed that humankind as it exists today is the result of the mixing of races. Both assumptions are wrong.
Excerpted from The Myth of Human Races by Alain Corcos. Copyright © 2015 Alain Corcos. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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