The Science of Race and the Metaphor of Color
The Principal Varieties of Mankind
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
Ashley Montagu’s Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race
After earning a PhD in anthropology at Columbia University in 1936, widely noted scientist, Ashley Montagu, studied Australian aboriginal culture and in 1949 founded and chaired the anthropology department at Rutgers University. But he had written and published his seminal work, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, in 1942. The following excerpt from that work demonstrates Montagu’s reasoning for determining that race is a social construct rather than a scientific fact:
As far as research and observation have been able to prove, the chromosome number of all the human races is the same, and all of the five, seven, or ten races (depending on who we follow) are inter-fertile. The blood of all races is built of the same pattern of agglutinins and antigens, and the appropriate blood type from one race can be transfused into any other without untoward effect. Thus in spite of the questionable physical differences between groups of people, an imposing substrate of similarity underlies these differences.
Montagu’s work was so controversial at the time that academia turned against him, but his ideas have influenced succeeding generations of scientists. And even though “race” remains a strong influence, especially for bigots and those infantilized by identity politics, the world of hard science continues to unearth examples of the danger of relying on race as reality in distinguishing differences between and among human beings.
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.
- Elizabeth Kolbert. "There's No Scientific Basis for Race—It's a Made-Up Label." National Geographic. The Race Issue.
- Michael Yudell. "A Short History of the Race Concept." Gene Watch. CRG - Council for Responsible Genetics. July August 2009
- Jan Sapp. "Race Finished." American Scientist.
- Megan Gannon. "Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue." Scientific American. February 5, 2016.
- Ari Patrinos. "'Race' and the human genome." Nature: Genetics. November 2004.
- Ashley Montagu. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. AltaMira Press. 6th edition. November 26, 1997. Print.
- George M. Fredrickson. "The Historical Origins and Development of Racism." Race - The Power of Illusion. PBS.
- Washington University, St. Louis. "Genetically Speaking, Race Does Not Exist in Humans." EurekAlert! American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
- Abstract. "Evolution of human races at the gene level." US National Library of Medicine. 1982.
- Editors. "Modern Human Diversity - Skin Color." Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History. Site Last Updated: September 17, 2019.
Professor Rick Kittles, PhD: The biology of race in the absence of biological races
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes