The Science of Race and the Metaphor of Color

Updated on October 7, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Expository essay writing in history, philosophy, politics, and spirituality keeps the mind sharp and satisfies its thirst for knowledge.

The Principal Varieties of Mankind

Engraving by the British artist John Emslie (1839-1913)
Engraving by the British artist John Emslie (1839-1913) | Source

The Science of Race

Early in the nineteenth century, Samuel Morton, a Philadelphia doctor, who was considered an important scientist, formulated the theory of "race" based on his collection of skulls. Measuring the skulls, Morton called his procedure "craniometry" and claimed that this procedure determined that there are five races, and each race represented a different level of intelligence: 1. Caucasians (white) stood at the top of Morton's hierarchy, 2. Mongolians (yellow) came second, 3. Southeast Asians next (olive), followed by 4. Native Americans (red), with 5. Ethiopians (black) bringing up the rear and the lowest level of intelligence.

Morton's racial classifications along with their intelligence markers that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom found favor with promoters of slavery in the United States before the American Civil War (1861-1865). According to Paul Wolff Mitchell, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, "[Morton's race theory] had a lot of influence, particularly in the South."

Morton's pernicious legacy stemmed from the lack of scientific knowledge at the time regarding human DNA and how physical characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next. Upon Morton's death in 1851, Charleston Medical Journal in South Carolina lauded the doctor for "giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race."

Nearly two centuries later, through the many gains in scientific knowledge, scientists have debunked Morton's theory, and currently he is considered to be the "father of scientific racism":

To an uncomfortable degree we still live with Morton’s legacy: Racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods, and our sense of self. This is the case even though what science actually has to tell us about race is just the opposite of what Morton contended. (Elizabeth Kolbert. "There's No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label.")

The Human Genome

In June 2000, at a historic announcement in a White House Rose Garden ceremony, scientists Francis Collins and Craig Venter revealed that "the completion of a draft sequence of the human genome" had been accomplished. This project's purpose is to aid in understanding the nature of human biology in order to assist public health and medical professionals in preventing and treating diseases.

On that day Venter and Collins emphasized that their work confirmed that human genetic diversity cannot be captured by the concept of race and demonstrated that all humans have genome sequences that are 99.9% identical. …Venter said "the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis." (Michael Yudell's "A Short History of the Race Concept")

Scientists Call for Race Categories To Be "Phased Out"

Regarding the concept of race, Michael Yudell, professor of public health at Drexel University claims,

It's a concept we think is too crude to provide useful information, it's a concept that has social meaning that interferes in the scientific understanding of human genetic diversity and it's a concept that we are not the first to call upon moving away from. (Megan Gannon's "Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue")

As Professor Jan Sapp, Biology Department at York University, Toronto, has stated, "Science has exposed the myth of race." In his review of two recent books on the issue, Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, and Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan, Professor Sapp offers the following summary of the two works:

Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, many social scientists and geneticists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept. The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs. Still, the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population. ("Race Finished" in American Scientist)

Many contemporary scientists are insisting that "racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity" and are calling for categories on race to be "phased out."

The scientific community, including those associated with the Human Genome Project and other geneticists point out that most of the US population are immigrants from various "homelands." Thus, describing groups of people becomes a complex task. And they insist that "race"—that is, grouping folks as Caucasian, Asian or African—is not scientifically useful:

the most immediately obvious characteristic of "race' is that describing most of us as Caucasian, Asian or African is far too simple. Despite attempts by the US Census Bureau to expand its definitions, the term "race" does not describe most of us with the subtlety and complexity required to capture and appreciate our genetic diversity. Unfortunately, this oversimplification has had many tragic effects. (Ari Patrinos' "'Race' and the human genome")

Thus, these scientists are calling for the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to assemble a group of experts in biology and social science to study the issue and formulate a better concept for addressing the useless racial category that interferes with research in genetics.

Skulls from the collection of Samuel Morton

Skulls from the collection of Samuel Morton, the father of scientific racism, illustrate his classification of people into five races—which arose, he claimed, from separate acts of creation.
Skulls from the collection of Samuel Morton, the father of scientific racism, illustrate his classification of people into five races—which arose, he claimed, from separate acts of creation. | Source

The Metaphor of Color

The poetic device, "metaphor," is employed mostly by poets in their poems. A metaphor says that one thing is another very different thing for literary effect, for example, Robert Frost’s speaker in his poem, "Bereft," claims: "Leaves got up in a coil and hissed / Blindly struck at my knees and missed." Frost is metaphorically saying that leaves are a snake. But no human being has ever insisted that "leaves" are the same as "snakes," yet that is exactly what has happened to the metaphor of color.

Science is showing more and more clearly that there is only one "race"—the human race, and in this writer's humble opinion, after the metaphor of color has been correctly interpreted, it becomes obvious that there is only one skin color: brown, ranging from light brown to dark brown. The various skin "colors"—white, yellow, red, olive, and black—are only exaggerations of the actual shades, hues, and tones of human skin. This exaggeration functions in the current vernacular as a metaphor.

Human skin is never literally "white," "black," "red," "olive" or "yellow." From so-called "white Caucasians" to supposedly "black Africans," the range of skin tones may resemble the color of winter grass to a deep chocolate, but no human being ever appears with skin that can be described literally by the prevailing metaphor of colors.

Skin Color: An Insidious Classification

Influenced by Samual Morton's 5-race theory, the current race count hovers around at least three races: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. But identifying members of each of these so-called races becomes impossible. The most insidious quality used in the attempt to classify according to race is skin tone: black, white, yellow, red, olive. Yet, as I have suggested, there is not one single individual on this planet whose skin color is black, white, yellow, red, or olive.

The skin color of all human beings, that is, members of the only true scientific race—"human race, homo sapiens"— is brown: from light brown, metaphorically called "white" to dark brown, metaphorically called "black." And all shades, hues, and tones in between, some of which are metaphorically called "yellow" and even "red" and sometimes "olive." Even the lightest skin tone is not literally "white," and the darkest "skin tone" is not literally black.

The Equator and Skin Tone

The closer the individual lives to the Equator the darker the skin tone. This is common sense. The stronger the sun's rays striking the skin, the more melanin is made by the body. Melanin protects the skin from the sun:

Melanin, the skin's brown pigment, is a natural sunscreen that protects tropical peoples from the many harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays. (Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History)

Clearly, not all Caucasoids are "white," that is, light brown; not all Negroids are "black," that is, dark brown. The Mongoloid skin tone also exhibits a wide range of brown hues, none yellow or red. The metaphor of color has served only to segregate and denigrate groups of people. In time, perhaps science will prevail and the metaphor of color will be interpreted to be what it is, only a metaphor.

Race Confused with Religion and Nationality

The terms, "race" and "racism," have virtually lost meaning in current parlance. However, "race" refers only to the major three classes and their subclasses: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. But as already noted, these categories of race have been debunked as non-scientific.

"Religion" refers to spiritual traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the various branches that have grown from these major categories.

"Nationality" refers to the region of the earth an individual inhabits, particularly the nation or country. Yet we often hear "the Jewish race." "Jewish" refers to a religion, not race. We hear that some "whites" are "racist" against Hispanics. But "Hispanic" refers to nationality, not race.

Jews and Hispanics may be of any of the race classes. A Negroid individual may be Jewish, if Judaism is his religion, for example, the late famous singer/actor Sammy Davis, Jr. was a black man of the Jewish faith. Also any individual will be Hispanic, if he is a native of Spain or Latin America.

Sources

Professor Rick Kittles, PhD: The biology of race in the absence of biological races

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    5 days ago from U.S.A.

    You’re welcome, James! Have a great day.

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 

    5 days ago from Chicago

    Ashley Montagu is a man! Bog whoops!! LOL Thanks for that and for the stimulating conversation.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    5 days ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks, James, for continuing this discussion.

    1. The article at https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/a... is behind a paywall. I don't make enough money from HubPages to afford buying that article. Does it exist anywhere else on the Net for free?

    2. "The fact remains that Montagu was followed by those in her field of anthropology after 1950…"

    Ashley Montagu is a man: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQpUvInXNF0

    3. "Anyway, I do not care if there is or isn't such a thing as race that is identifiable through bones, DNA, genomes, etc. All I have ever cared about is the truth. That is why I am against Political Correctness wherever I find it because it insists on telling lies and not telling the truth."

    We certainly agree on that. But political correctness is based on identity politics, and identity politics perpetuates those labels such as race, gender, and class, separating humankind into groups. The left needs those groups in order to pander for votes among them.

    Ashley Montagu was writing at time before the Democratic Party had begun pandering to blacks and before Democrats began claiming that the two major political parties had switched sides, that is, at a time when Democrats openly supported segregation, Jim Crow laws/Black Codes; therefore, I cannot see how the left would have ever embraced Montagu's views on race. And especially now after sinking deep into political correctness and identity politics, the left is more dependent than ever on keeping racial divisions. There is no way the left could be calling half the country "racist" without the existence of "races." They have done the same thing with sex, by applying the term, "gender," which originally pertained only to noun classifications in language: masculine, feminine, and neuter in Latin and German." With 58 different "genders," the Democrats have 58 new marginalized minority groups to pander to.

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 

    6 days ago from Chicago

    Sorry about that. I messed that up by giving you the same link twice. I actually had not read about this on the internet but in a book recently, how 'race doesn't exist' became the PC thing to say, even in science, whether or not it is true. I tried to find relevant links but was in a hurry as I had pressing matters that day.

    The fact remains that Montagu was followed by those in her field of anthropology after 1950 not because there was no such thing as race - no new discoveries had been made - that can be determined by skulls, genes, DNA, et al., but because philosophically they wanted there to be no such thing as race because of the Holocaust. 'Race divides us' was their mantra so let's do away with it. The same philosophy underlies the "let's do away with borders, they divide us" and "let's do away with religion, it divides us."

    You said it perfectly well in your last comment here: "It seems that the scientists may be calling for a new, more useful term than "race" because the term "race" has become so loaded with negative connotations, including both inferiority regarding some "races" and superiority regarding others."

    That is exactly it. It is loaded with connotations that are what? Politically incorrect. It is politically incorrect to say that human beings and groups of human beings differ because of their genetics period. 'Society' is what makes everyone different. At the same time, the same people claim special rights for those who are 'born that way.'

    Anyway, I do not care if there is or isn't such a thing as race that is identifiable through bones, DNA, genomes, etc. All I have ever cared about is the truth. That is why I am against Political Correctness wherever I find it because it insists on telling lies and not telling the truth.

    Anyway, I have belabored it enough. Here is the link I meant to give you last time: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/a...

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    6 days ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, James. Your first two URLS lead to the same article.

    1. Jon Entine's "DNA Links Prove Jews Are a 'Race,' Says Genetics Expert"

    The title of Jon Entine's piece, "DNA Links Prove Jews Are a 'Race,' Says Genetics Expert," is misleading. The subtitle even refutes the main title: "medical geneticist Harry Ostrer insists the 'biological basis of Jewishness' cannot be ignored." There is nothing in the article that proves Jews as a "race," and the following paragraph completely demolishes the claim: "Like any cluster — a genetic term Ostrer uses in place of the more inflammatory “race” — Jews throughout history moved around and fooled around, although mixing occurred comparatively infrequently until recent decades. Although there are identifiable gene variations that are common among Jews, we are not a “pure” race. The time machine of our genes may show that most Jews have a shared ancestry that traces back to ancient Palestine but, like all of humanity, Jews are mutts."

    If Ostrer is claiming that Jews are a race, why would he then insert a different term "cluster" instead of "race." Then by elaborating on the "mixing" that has occurred throughout history, he shows that Jews are a mixed as the general population. The fact that we are all "mutts" is the main reason that we cannot be divided into distinct "races," at least, the way I understand the issue.

    The following dictionary.com definition shows that "race" is already being phased out as a scientific term:

    Anthropology.

    --(no longer in technical use) any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics.

    --an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.

    --a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture: Her parents wanted her to marry within her race.

    --a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.

    2. Nicholas Wade's "What Science Says About Race and Genetics"

    Nicholas Wade: "Analysis of genomes from around the world establishes that there is a biological basis for race, despite the official statements to the contrary of leading social science organizations. An illustration of the point is the fact that with mixed race populations, such as African Americans, geneticists can now track along an individual’s genome, and assign each segment to an African or European ancestor, an exercise that would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality."

    Not necessarily. Remember that the older definition of "race" included the claim that each race was "supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics." Notice that assigning those genomes is always to some location, Africa or Europe, not to a distinctive "race."

    It seems that the scientists may be calling for a new, more useful term than "race" because the term "race" has become so loaded with negative connotations, including both inferiority regarding some "races" and superiority regarding others. For the general population to understand the science of genetics a new term may be needed, even when the focus in on groups that were once called a certain "race." Perhaps, "cluster" is a better term.

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 

    6 days ago from Chicago

    I was speaking of Ashley Montagu, who formed the UNESCO 1950 statement that there is no such thing as race, a statement that was made in reaction to the Holocaust - to racial killing.

    https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/dna-links-prove-jew...

    https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/dna-links-prove-jew...

    https://time.com/91081/what-science-says-about-rac...

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    7 days ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you for your comment, James. I would like to see your sources for these claims.

    1. "analysis of genomes from around the world establishes that there is indeed a biological reality to race. Each segment of your individual genome can now be assigned to an African, European, or Asian ancestor, which would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality."

    It seems to me that the sources I have referenced in my article as well as the following claim refutes that: "With very rare exceptions, all of us in the US are immigrants. We bring with us a subset of genes from our homelands, and for many Americans, often first-generation but more commonly second-generation, the plural noun 'homelands' is appropriate. From this perspective, the most immediately obvious characteristic of 'race' is that describing most of us as Caucasian, Asian or African is far too simple. Despite attempts by the US Census Bureau to expand its definitions, the term 'race' does not describe most of us with the subtlety and complexity required to capture and appreciate our genetic diversity. Unfortunately, this oversimplification has had many tragic effects. " https://www.nature.com/articles/ng2150

    And "Geneticists have abandoned the search for “Indian” or “African” genes, for example, and few if any accept racial typologies." https://genome.cshlp.org/content/12/6/844.full.htm...

    2. "Leftists have spread the false idea that there is no such thing as race because, in their view, race has no social value and its existence as a category is destructive."

    Again, please point me to a source for this claim.

    The left cannot do without "race." They pander to all minorities and have pandered to blacks for decades. Without race, how could the left now be condemning as "racist" the existence of everything from milk to white dogs?

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 

    8 days ago from Chicago

    I appreciate your excellent article. There is much truth in it. However, analysis of genomes from around the world establishes that there is indeed a biological reality to race. Each segment of your individual genome can now be assigned to an African, European, or Asian ancestor, which would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality.

    If you find a 100-year-old skull in your yard any forensic pathologist can tell you with a few simple measurements if it is Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid. Each of the three principle races—African, Asian, and Caucasian—has an identifiable set of genes that affect not only skin color, hair texture, and the shape of the eyes and nose, but also metabolism, and brain function. Approximately 15% of your genes are related to your race, so it is not inconsequential matter.

    The idea that race is nothing but a social construct is politically correct, of course. But not true. By the way, how it came to be that 'there is no such thing as race' became the politically correct view is a fascinating story, which has its origins in a single Jewish anthropologist who gained much influence after the Holocaust. The idea was latched onto by social scientists to support their presupposition that genetics cannot possibly be the reason human societies differ.

    Leftists have spread the false idea that there is no such thing as race because, in their view, race has no social value and its existence as a category is destructive. The idea is that if we all believe there is no such thing as race—whether it is true or not—racism will go away, which would make the lie worth believing. As one progressive philosopher put it: "It is better for Americans to believe untruth than truth." Spread with that lie is the damning accusation that anyone who dares say race is real is a racist.

    Social Liberals want it both ways. They preach that there is no such thing as race. But they favor gigantic race-based preferences for those with more pigment in their skin.

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