Creating meaningful differences

As an anthropologist, I want to make three points about race:

  • Race is a critically important issue—politically, economically, socially and morally. It is real. It is important to state this at the outset because what I say next may sound as if it goes against accepted wisdom on race, which is often phrased in terms of biological difference. Race is not a significant biological feature that differentiates human beings from each other or other species.
  • Evidence from five million years of human evolution tells us that all humans share a common ancestry as a species, which is defined as a population that can successfully reproduce fertile offspring and pass along its genetic inheritance to the next generation. Evidence also points to the fact that human populations have been on the move and migrating for eons and mating with each other.
  • So while there may be variations in factors such as blood types, immunity to certain environmental hazards, etc., that distinguish one geographical population from another, all of us are born with the capacity to be human.
  • There is no such thing as a pure race. Being born into the human species means that an individual possesses the equal capacity to learn and operate in a culture. Culture is shared and learned, not inherited genetically.
  • Variations in human populations that may be socially and politically critical are often based on perceived differences in physical features that you can see (skin color, hair, body type, etc.). We call these phenotypic characteristics. Scientific evidence indicates that the phenotypic differences and genetic variation within groups that are identified as races are larger than between groups. In other words, human populations are more alike than different.

These features may be perceived as socially significant, but the evidence about how they figure into the mosaic of evolutionary adaptation to different environments is complex. Phenotypic features are not associated with intelligence, or the capacity to create and learn culture.

—Donna Kerner, William Isaac Cole professor of anthropology