Race and Biology: Are We Really So Different?

Updated on December 26, 2017
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Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

FreeImages.com / B S K
FreeImages.com / B S K

What is Race?

Human populations are generally categorized according to a particular race. The commonly held belief is that the different racial categories are easily identifiable, distinct groups and that each race has its own set of traits that makes it unique from all other races. This distinction between races has been used to separate and classify members of the human species for centuries, but is there a scientific basis for grouping humans into separate races?

The concept of race, and whether or not there is a scientific basis for racial categorization, is controversial in the scientific community. According to Cartmill (1998), proponents of the concept of race claim that race is “just one way of expressing the generally recognized fact that human genetic variation is correlated with geography.” They acknowledge that these racial groupings can be used to stigmatize and discriminate against certain groups, but insist that there is some benefit in acknowledging racial differences, such as doctors recognizing that certain diseases are more prevalent in certain populations. Biological anthropologists who oppose racial categorization, on the other hand, believe racial groupings to be “crude and misleading” in the way they deal with human genetic variation. There is too much variation within the so-called racial groups and too much overlap between them for race to be a useful way of categorizing humans (Cartmill, 1998).

The Origin of the Concept of Race

The concept of race as it is commonly understood today is a relatively recent idea. According to Audrey Smedley in a paper commissioned by the American Anthropological Association (1997), “’race’ as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered [Native American] peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.” Essentially, racial groupings, and the stereotypes and stigmas attached to them, were created in an effort by early American colonists to justify their treatment of the Native Americans and African slaves. European settlers created the idea of a natural, God-given racial hierarchy to rationalize conquering and enslaving people from different cultures. The superficial physical differences between these different populations provided easy markers to distinguish people belonging to different social statuses (Smedley, 1997).

FreeImages.com / Roberto Burgos S.
FreeImages.com / Roberto Burgos S.

Apparent Racial Differences and Physical Variation

Despite these apparent physical differences, compared to other species, humans have relatively little genetic diversity. According to the NCHPEG, modern humans likely evolved around 200,000 years ago in Africa before spreading out to the rest of the world. According to this theory, the entire human population was likely much smaller than it is today in the recent past, consisting of only a few thousand individuals who contributed to the present-day human gene pool. There is little genetic diversity between geographically separated populations of humans, and “about 85 to 90 percent of the genetic diversity present in the human species can be found in any human group (NCHPEG).”

One theory explaining why populations in different geographic regions have different skin colors has to do with natural selection. Populations in regions with more sun exposure tend to have darker skin, and populations in less sunny regions usually have lighter skin. This theory proposes that darker skin offers better protection from the harmful effects of the sun, while lighter skin allows the body to produce more vitamin D even with reduced sun exposure (NCHPEG).

Variations in any given physical trait can appear in any human population, and each trait is inherited independently of one another. Because of this, there can be a great deal of physical variation within a geographic population. The specific skin tone a person has does not guarantee they will have a particular hair texture, nose shape, eye color, etc. This biological fact makes any attempt to create divisions between racial groups based on physical characteristics arbitrary. No one physical trait is found in all members of any “race,” nor is any trait found only in members of any particular race (Smedley, 1997).

FreeImages.com / Anissa Thompson
FreeImages.com / Anissa Thompson


There is no scientific basis for classifying human beings into different races. The concept of race was created as a means of justifying the subjugation of specific populations in the early days of European colonization in the Americas. Humans as a species have relatively little genetic diversity and there is very little genetic diversity between different geographic populations. The concept of race is purely social, rather than biological.


Cartmill, M. (1998). The Status of the Race Concept in Physical Anthropology. American Anthropologist, 100(3), 651-660. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/682043

NCHPEG. (n.d.). Race & Genetics FAQ. Retrieved January 13, 2017, from http://www.nchpeg.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=142&Itemid=64

Smedley, A. (1997). AAA Statement on Race. Retrieved January 13, 2017, from AAA Statement on Race http://www.americananthro.org/ConnectWithAAA/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2583

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