Race as a “social construct”: trouble in Brazil

October 17, 2016 • 1:45 pm

As I’ve written somewhere (but can’t remember where), it always amused me that when I wrote an NIH grant application, I had to specify my “race” (black, Pacific Islander, white, Hispanic, etc.), but then, in the instructions, it said something like “These categories are taken to be social constructs only, and are not biological.”

That statement is palpably false, but comes from the Leftist ideology that if you even talk about races, you’re promoting racism. As an evolutionary biologist interested in human differentiation, I know that the human species isn’t divided into a finite number of well-differentiated genetic groups, but that groups can still be distinguished by combining information from different genes, and that those groups tend to be those that evolved in geographic isolation, telling us something about human evolution. And I’m interested in understanding some of that genetic differentiation, like the processes involved in leading to morphological differentiation in traits like skin color, body configuration, and so on. Is that due to natural selection, sexual selection, or maybe genetic drift? Why do evolutionists pay so much attention to geographic differentiation in animals and plants, but avoid talking about it in Homo sapiens?

The answer, of course, is the ideological view that if you study that kind of differentiation, you’ll be promoting racism. And indeed, that has happened in the past. But I maintain that one can study human geographic variation in a purely evolutionary way, and simply criticize those who try to co-opt that work to set up any kind of racial hierarchy or to promote bigotry. We are, after all, the animal species that most fascinates us.

So when people say “race is a social construct,” they’re simply wrong. The only sense in which they’re right is that the designation of a finite number of easily-distinguished human groups (“races”) is a futile exercise, because we have differentiation within differentiation, making the whole exercise purely subjective. (You can, for example, distinguish subgroups of “Caucasians” within Europe, distinguishing those of Scandinavian from Italian ancestry simply by their genetic differences.)

But that’s not what people mean, I think, by “social construct.” What I think they mean (since they are rarely explicit) is this: “There is no biological difference between human ethnic groups.” That’s just wrong. Or, more plausibly, they mean that groups designated by skin color alone as “races” show no other biological differences that co-segregate with skin color. But that’s not true, either. For one thing, skin color itself is based on genetic differences, ones that (as we’ll see tomorrow) probably evolved by natural selection. And skin color co-segregates with other physical characteristics, as in the group “African Americans.” Finally, there are genetic diseases, like sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease, that are more prevalent in some ethnic groups than others, and that is useful biology to know.

I’m writing this because reader Cindy called my attention to an NPR article describing how Brazil is now using skin color to determine who fits into various categories subject to affirmative action boosts.  Brazil has “race tribunals” to place people in “racial” groups, and the traits used can include more than just skin color.

The NPR story starts with Lucas Siqueira, who got a coveted government job in Brazil after scoring well on a test and identifying himself as “mixed race.” People looked at his Facebook page, determined he didn’t look “mixed race” but white, and they complained bitterly. The government put his job on hold. The story then gets really bizarre\:

. . . . in order to “prove” that he was Afro-Brazilian, [Siqueira’s] lawyers needed to find some criteria. He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. The last doctor even had a special machine.

“Apparently on my face I’m a Type 4. Which would be like Jennifer Lopez or Dev Patel, Frida Pinto or John Stamos. On my limbs I would be Type 5, which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyonce and Tiger Woods,” he said.

Like most people he has different skin tones on different parts of his body. But in none of these tests did he come out as lighter skinned.

He says the whole thing struck him as completely bizarre because identity, he says, is made up of more than just physical characteristics. [JAC: but to me, the important thing is whether discrimination is based on more than just physical characteristics.]

But this wasn’t just an isolated incident.

Mandatory for all government jobs

A few weeks ago, these race tribunals were made mandatory for all government jobs. In one state, they even issued guidelines about how to measure lip size, hair texture and nose width, something that for some has uncomfortable echoes of racist philosophies in the 19th century.

“It is something terrible. I believe this kind of strategy can weaken the support of society for affirmative action policies,” says Amílcar Pereira, an associate professor at the School of Education in the Federal University of Rio, who studies race relations. “These policies have huge support … the majority of Brazilian society supports affirmative action.”

I don’t know what to make of this. Clearly the Brazilian government is not construing race as a purely social phenomenon, since it’s based on differences that are clearly inherited (black couples have black children, and so on), and on not just skin color, but hair texture, nose width, and other traits that do co-segregate based on geographic origin.

In what sense, then, is race a “social construct” in Brazil? If race was purely a social construct with no biology behind it, then you could become benefit from affirmative action simply by declaring that you were a minority, which was what people were accusing Siqueira of. You can declare your gender, after all, so why not your race? But people don’t like the latter, as witnessed by the case of Rachel Dolezal, who declared she was black when she had no African-American genes and was of purely European descent. People wouldn’t accept that, and she was forced to resign as director the NAACP (a black organization) in Spokane, Washington.

But maybe this kind of physical measurement in Brazil isn’t so bad after all.  I say this because, historically, discrimination against people was based on physical characteristics—largely skin color, but also the biological co-segregates: hair texture, nose configuration, etc. If you want to remedy discrimination based on those traits, then you find out empirically how that discrimination works, which appearances result in discrimination, and then confer advantages to those with the traits most discriminated against. That’s a purely empirical approach to the problem, and although you can call it a “social construct” approach, you’d be distorting the situation, which involves real biological differences.

In the meantime, I’m still not quite clear what people mean when they say “race” is purely a social construct. As a biologist, I can’t find any interpretation of that claim that makes much sense. But in the meantime, I think we can recognize the biology behind racial classification while still working to dismantle the bigotry that goes along with it. After all, there are medical, scientific, and evolutionary questions that rest on the genetic structure of our species.

Lucas Siqueira: white or mixed race?


79 thoughts on “Race as a “social construct”: trouble in Brazil

  1. In the meantime, I’m still not quite clear what people mean when they say “race” is purely a social construct.

    I’m also not sure that the people who say that know what they mean either.

      1. And thanks, too. I was under the impression that it meant something completely different and had been using it in my completely wrongheaded, idiosyncratic definition, as “I agree” i.e. “I’ll subscribe to that notion.”

    1. It’s done so you can click the radio button “Notify me of new comments via email.”, and see what others are saying when at the moment you have nothing to add. I’m responding to your inquiry for exactly that reason.

  2. My opinion, frequently repeated:

    I’d say race is purely a social construct in the sense that while populations differ in various allele frequencies and attendant phenotypic traits, societies choose which of these differences to recognize as indicating “race” and on how to treat differently those supposed to belong to various races. Consider, for example, that a single known “black” ancestor of any remove was, in the antebellum south, sufficient to render one “black”.

    I don’t think the denial that there are human races is a social construct either, i.e. a product of political correctness. Races (as opposed to local genetic differences) have no biological basis, as you seem to acknowledge. They just can’t be properly defined or delimited, and they are a poor way to characterize the pattern of human geographic variation. I also don’t think that any human populations, with the possible exception of the extinct Tasmanians, can truly have been considered isolated. Reduced gene flow, perhaps. But most loci studied seem to have pretty broad clines in distribution, not just attributable to recent dispersal. Some differences may be due to selection, others simply to diffusion from a point of origin.

    You may be aiming at a strawman. I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone claim that there are no genetic differences between populations.

    Oh, and social constructs shouldn’t be ignored, and I doubt anyone is arguing that they should. They can certainly cause problems that are in need of remediation.

    1. Exactly, there are no biological “races”–that doesn’t mean that there are not population groups that vary by geography and biology. The American Anthropological Association explains this concept clearly. Social construction is not a leftist delusion, it is empirical reality. If Coyne would dial back his mocking scorn, and save it for real targets like theism, that would be welcome.

      1. Pretty sure that “population groups that vary by geography and biology” is a legitimate definition of races. Maybe the AAA wants to use some special definition of “race” for Homo sapiens, but human exceptionalism is a non-starter for many biologists.

        @John Harshman: genetics isn’t biological?

        1. I thought I had explained exactly why “population groups that vary by geography and biology” is not a legitimate definition of races. You might contribute by explaining why my explanation is invalid.

          Yes, genetics is biological. Why do you ask?

    2. John, I agree with your argument. I was having a similar argument with someone over at Sandwalk recently. He was taking the position that saying that races were a social construct was denying that genetic differences between human populations existed. I asked him how many races he thought there were, maybe 1000? And he said quite possibly.

      Which means that the concept of “race” he has is vastly different from the social concept of race that society has constructed. And I think that it is the latter that we are talking about. We are not viewing the North Swedes and the South Swedes as different “races”, while we could quite possibly tell them apart using genetic markers.

      1. For “race” to be meaningful the differences would have to be deep: brain structures, mental abilities, etc. Homosapiens have only been around for 200,000 or so years, to short a time for such differences to develop.

    3. Always a pleasure to read your comments, John.
      I haven’t seen anyone who denies that genetic differences between populations exist either, but I’ve met plenty who brand saying so as racist (or inevitably leading to racism). In effect, they’re arguing that genetic differences are real but we can’t say they are. Of course, they won’t say *that* either because they realise how silly and patronising that sounds…

    4. I’ve been reading this book called Domestication that has had me looking up articles on wikipedia. I hesitate to even ask this (that’s interesting in itself, now that I think about it), but during the course of reading this book I’ve often wondered if something analogous to what the author calls landraces wouldn’t have applied to humans (until recently). I have no idea what the origin of that term is, but he uses it fairly extensively to describe how cattle, dogs, and cats differed around the world, despite being in the same species.

      I think most peoples folk intuition is that people whom ancestors come from various geographical regions do differ in some ways, whether or not biologists have got an air tight definition or categories or not. It seems like the thing being contested is the definition of race. Some define it expansively, and then say it doesn’t exist. Others define it in a limited fashion, then say of course it exists. Then there are racists, of course, who define it expansively and then say it does exist.

  3. “He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. ”

    What happened to all those perfectly usable color bars that were all over the American south not too long ago? Seems we missed out on a vital export.

  4. When it determines qualification for jobs or provides a boost if you qualify, that is enough to make one pay attention. Such as when it assists in climbing the ladder within companies.

    I recall one place that it is down to genetics to determine percentages and that was in Hawaii to specify just how much Hawaiian a person was. There is one remote Island where they only allow Hawaiians to live.

  5. I’ve always thought ‘race is purely a social construct’ was referring to many social bigotries that have little or no basis in genetics. Thus its a social construct that African Americans are dumb or that Asians are good at math. I don’t think anyone is really claiming the ability to metabolize alcohol or dairy is a social construct – or that such abilities don’t correlate with genetic background.

    Put another way, there are both real and fake (socially constructed) racial characteristics. Through intent or coincidence or a bit of both, most of the fake ones cause social inequity while most of the real ones do not. Thus while its fair to say that race is biologically real, the most socially damaging perceptions about race all tend to fall into the ‘socially constructed’ category.

    But maybe this kind of physical measurement in Brazil isn’t so bad after all.

    I think its bad. The problem (IMO) is that in the past these measurements suffered from a strong confirmation bias. A measure of skin tone was not an objective measure of skin tone, but an eyeball assessment combined with the assessor’s prior information about the victim and what race they ‘ought’ to be (Belgians assigning all wealthy natives to the ‘Tutsi’ racial group springs to mind). Introducing more objective measures of physical characteristics now won’t necessarily result in giving an advantage to people historically disadvantaged (and may give advantages to some people whose parents, grandparents etc. were not historically disadvantaged). IOW, its just as bad a proxy measure now as it was back then, even though what it’s being used as proxy for has changed.

    I think Prof. Peirera is exactly right; this will undermine the legitimacy of affirmative action programs. Both because the technique hearkens back to some of the most egregious racist practices of European colonial powers, and also because the technique will produce a lot of results that will not actually do what affirmative action is intended to do (i.e. give support to people whose ancestors were unfairly disadvantaged).

    On top of all this, we can already see in this story how money corrupts the process. Who can get the nice civil servant job? The person with enough money to pay five doctors to come up with the conclusion that he or she is from a racially disadvantaged group. I’m not casting aspersions on Mr. Siqueria – it sounds like he had no idea what he was getting into – but corrupt wealthy individuals could easily read his story as a playbook for how to manipulate a doctor-measurement-based affirmative action system.

    1. Another likely problem is “inertia.” It is not all that uncommon for a child of mixed heritage to have physical characteristics, like skin color and hair, that differ significantly from all of the other members of their family including their parents. For example, there are people that could pass for caucasian but that come from predominately black families. Those people grow up in the same environment, a product of all of the disadvantages accrued from generations of prejudice and racism, as the rest of their family. Including a lack of opportunities for the same level of healthcare, education, etc.

      Such people might have a bit of an advantage over the other members of their subculture, particularly later in life, but it seems very unlikely they would be as uninhibited as people from the dominant subculture (for example comfortably middle class caucasians in the US).

  6. I think race is a “social construct” in the sense that it takes people based on existing genetic differences arising from the geographical isolation and categorizes them in a biologically imprecise classification called “race,” using just a handful of salient morphological differences, even though the people sharing these select few morphological traits may not actually be descended from the same geographically isolated groups, and even though they may otherwise have more in common genetically and phenotypically (other than this handful of salient morphological characteristics) with other racial groups than they do with the “race” into which they are so classified.

    The old de jure system in this country of legally classifying people as being “negro” based on the “one drop rule” — and of lumping people of African descent and people of south Asian descent (and others) into the category “colored” — was certainly a form of “social construct.”

    1. I’d agree and tease out the debate a little: ‘Social Race’ is a social construct which may be used for good or ill and is only loosely correlated with varying precision to genetic differences.

      Biological demes are local populations of polytypic species that actively interbreed with one another and share a distinct gene pool – and are only loosely correlated with varying precision to Social Races.

  7. Unfortunately, the “race is a social construct” (more properly, I am referring to here a “socio-cultural” construct) becomes all too true on an operative level when people (frequently the very liberals and progressives who cry that they’re “color-blind”) re-inscribe the same pernicious stereotypes, positive or negative, that they claim to have evolved beyond; so they ‘just assume’ that if a person is, say, black or Latino (sometimes also certain South Asian ethnic groups), whatever their hue or other physical characteristics, they must therefore come from a disadvantaged background, are poorly educated, less intelligent, come from a dysfunctional family, etc., etc., then treat these people according to those dictates and pathologize them if they refuse to conform.

    The “race tribunals” sound ominous. What would all the folks who’ve had Kim Kardashianesque artificial lip-plumping (not to mention butt augmentation — also something that could be measured by racialy, at least stereotypically, or should I say steatopygiously)? What about people who go to tanning salons and use other Rachel Dolezal-like means of darkening their skin?

    And whatever Rachel Dolezal’s race is, I think she has mental problems that need to be treated.

  8. I’m a historian, although not one who works much or at all with race. I don’t have much to say about Brazil, but between the two versions of “race as social construct,” the first one (discrete categorizations of race) seems like a much better fit to what my colleagues believe than the second (“no biological difference”). I don’t doubt that many believe the second part as well, but not because of social construction. Social construction is, literally, the stuff that society makes up rather than the things that would remain true in its absence. Race, as biological differentiation, is not the same thing as the race that social scientists and humanists study. History shows that these two ideas have common origins, but they’re clearly two distinct notions now.

    For example, Irish immigrants to the United States were usually not considered “white” in the early 19th century, but they became white over the course of the century. That’s a change of race in the social sense. No one would seriously argue that there was an accompanying shift in genetics.

    1. I have a birth certificate issued in Toronto that states my mother’s “race” as French and my father’s “race” as English.

      My mother’s mother was Irish and her father was Metis (mixed French, Scots, Mohawk and Algonquin) which was the reason my mom was called the “olive-skinned girl” by her teacher and called a Wop by her classmates.

      My mitochondrial DNA seems to confirm the maternal lineage and my Y-DNA seems also to point also to Ireland, though the name is probably Norse (Kolbjorn).

      Could a distant paternal ancestor have been a Viking slave captured in a raid upon an Irish village?

      Has it always been so, that wherever humans meet they will mix whatever their genetic lineages?

      What we measure as race seems to me to result from geographical distances and geographical barriers that have only recently been overcome combined with slow genetic drift and sexual selection.

      What is social is not race itself, but racism that would seek to erect barriers to mixing.

  9. Parra et al. Color and genomic ancestry in Brazilians. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 100:177 (2003) found no correlation between color and African ancestry in Brazil.

  10. I think the view that race is a social construct is a reaction against the different ways in which racial *categories* have been defined and the problem of categorizing individuals who don’t fit neatly into those categories. There may be clusters of allele variations that define particular populations into groups that could be called “races”, but individuals don’t always completely align with each of their groups, and you can’t always categorize individuals purely on the basis of their physical characteristics.

    I saw a news item about this the last time I was in Brazil a few years ago. There’s been so much population mixture that drawing lines around particular “races” is very problematic.

    1. Popular categories are a bit suspect too.
      The US census considers Pakistanis and Japanese people to be the same ‘Asian’ race, but count Iranians as Caucasian.
      So ethnic Baluchis from either side of the Iran/Pakistan border become a different race for the purposes of bureaucracy.

      I’d say thats definitely a social construct.

      1. Any time you try to group things into categories you get borderline cases. And if the thing has more than one attribute the attributes don’t track each other at the edges. It’s built in to the nature of reality.

        That doesn’t mean all categories are completely invalid, just that caution is required in interpreting them.


  11. The most common supposed trait of race is skin color, which is directly tied to the intensity of ultraviolet light dependent on latitude. Put another way, someone’s skin color lets us know his or her ancestry relative to the equator. But while we see the color, we don’t see other traits that are distributed without regard to race. For instance, Belgians and Ugandans have very different skin color, but when it comes to the distribution of the ABO blood group, they are closer to each other than either are to the Chinese.

    University of Michigan anthropologist Loring Brace has observed that such variations are distributed along geographic gradations know as clines. Attempting to categorize groups by skin color, hair texture, and facial features requires ignoring unseen differences that cross racial boundaries. While melanin follows a predictable pattern north and south, other clines spread out from specific points.

    There are no distinct, non-overlapping genetic groups, and members of what are called races do not share the same genetic sequence. In fact, there is more genetic variation among Africans than in all other world populations combined. The Human Genome Project has taught us that people who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.

    1. “There is more genetic variation among Africans than in all other world populations combined.”

      Interesting! Shows that the bottleneck of the out-of-Africa migration is still traceable, and has not been fully compensated by interbreeding of migrants with local archaic populations.

    2. In fact, there is more genetic variation among Africans than in all other world populations combined.

      True, but that is mostly pygmies vs everyone else: Fig 3, and “The genetic distances between Africans and the non-African groups are significantly larger than those among E. Asians, Europeans, and Indian.”

  12. What is meant, or should be, by the description of race as a social construct is that the judgments of value, competence, and/or worth of individual or groups based on racial difference are not fixed by the nature of their race but by socially constructed notions of what biological race means. Historically, race = relative worth. Race as a biological concept is true. Race as a cultural concept is a means to relations of power and dominance. I’d call your view biocultural.

  13. I think that it is better to use a race-blind (and culture-blind) procedure than affirmative action. We use anonymous written exams when possible, and I like this. You literally do not “see color” if all you have is the text written by the applicant, with a ciphered number on top.

    1. If discrimination is widespread in a society, those written tests are not color-blind at all. Different idiomatic expressions develop in different social groups. And there are often different levels of government spending on education in areas where the discriminated-against groups dominate; this too can be revealed in written tests.

      1. Subtle differences in language may have place in some circumstances. As for the poor education in minority-majority regions, I think that the task of the entrance examinators is not to try to make up for past discrimination by giving extra scores to poorly prepared candidates from the discriminated group.

  14. I’m from Brazil. Like many other people here, I find racial profiling abominable. I am also of Jewish descent, which makes me quite sensitive to any kind of discrimination, like the ones my parents went through in Europe long time ago. Affirmative action based on race is a huge mistake, more so in Brazil, where most people, with the exception of recent immigrants are mixed race.
    Racial discrimination, positive or negative, is discrimination, and as so is wrong.
    Why is so hard for people to follow Martin Luther King teaching about non discrimination?

  15. Race is both a biological reality (though an elusive one, especially around the edges) and a cultural construct. For example, Barak Obama is an F1 white x African black hybrid. In the U.S., does he get to choose whether to be considered black, white, or something in between? He does not. He is black, by our U.S. standards. This is a cultural reality. In that sense, race is a cultural construct.

    1. I brought that up many times to my liberal fiends (honestly, though, I don’t have conservative friends). They did not like that one bit and accused me of being racist. Odd, since they are applying very similar standards to racial identity as pre-Civil War Southerners did: the One-Drop rule. Obama’s background is well known to be of a black African father and a white American mother, raised by his mother and her white Kansas grandparents in a white, mid-western culture, mixed with a bit of Hawaii and Indonesia thrown in. Yet, he has darker than average skin for a white American, thus all decree him to be BLACK. Ok. fine, if that’s how HE wishes to identify himself, I really don’t care, but it still creates a problem from a biological standpoint. And the question remains, do the liberals still insist that his black genes override his white genes? Or what about me, which of my races wins the Genotype/Phenotype Olympics, the Irish/Scottish/Welsh team, the Cherokee team, or the Jewish team? I know what I look like, I know what everyone assumes; they also assume I’m catholic…! This is why race is such a useless word. Genetics+culture+identity(self and perceived) is too complicated for people to accept though, so I guess we’re stuck with it for now.

  16. Brazil is now using skin color to determine who fits into various categories subject to affirmative action boosts.

    At least they’re trying for empirical data, flawed as it may be, whereas American racists just fake-it:

    From Steve Hsu
    Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade has a new book on elite college admissions. He is an author of an earlier study which quantified the advantages and disadvantages (”racial spoils”?) conferred by ethnic group at virtually all universities (with only a few notable exceptions such as Caltech). Already, some results from the analysis in the book have leaked out, and the numbers are not pretty — see below.

    Espenshade found that when comparing applicants with similar grades, scores, athletic qualifications, and family history for seven elite private colleges and universities:

    Whites were three times as likely to get fat envelopes as Asians. Hispanics were twice as likely to win admission as whites. African-Americans were at least five times as likely to be accepted as whites.


    “It sounds suspiciously like the quota system imposed on Jews early in the 20th century.”

  17. The “race is a social construct” crew have a bit of a point, in that racial norms vary across cultures, and as such are not based on biology alone. Where they go off the rails is by claiming there is NO biological basis or evidence for race.

  18. Years ago, Steve Jones did his Reith Lecture series, the Language of the Genes i think it was called, and his last lecture discussed race and genetics. It probably could use an update by now, but as I recall, it was a worthwhile way to spend some free time (it’s still available as a BBC podcast).

    If the PCC(E) is kicking around for new book topics, race and genetics would be an interesting (and controversial) one. It is certainly a topic that needs covering without preconceived notions based on opinion and ideology.

    1. Would take PCC a couple of years to write, and the rest of his life trying to battle the misquotes and explain that he didn’t say what he was alleged to have said and didn’t mean it in the way he was alleged to have meant it.


  19. I’d say this is most likely the Brazilian government’s response to people taking unfair advantage (cheating) on affirmative action measures.

    And affirmative action is an official expedient to try and correct inequalities generated by societal injustices. Like all* official measures, it needs to be applied with a measure of common-sense, lest it lead to absurdities or worse unfairness. That doesn’t mean it should never be tried.

    (*Such as the tax laws, which doubtless were written to be fair to businesses going through a bad patch and not with the intention of allowing Donald Trump to never pay taxes)


  20. If I saw Mr. Siqueira on the street in America I might think he was Latino, or of Southern European descent. Of course, Latinos are often mixed-race as well, but there’s a lot of racial variation in that category–you can be Latino and mostly of Spanish descent. Siqueira could therefore be considered, at a superficial first glance, as white.

    But Siqueira is indeed mixed-race: the NPR article divulges that he has a black grandfather and Indian grandmother, while his mother’s side is mostly Portuguese. But in a race-conscious society such as America or Brazil there’s a big difference between literally being mixed-race and obviously being mixed-race. If you can outwardly pass as white, do you experience less discrimination, making you less suited for affirmative action?

    Mixed-race is a much larger category than many people presume. Many African Americans, despite their skin tone, could be more accurately termed mixed-race, starting with our President. And yet he is usually called black. Perhaps that is a holdover of 19th century racism, whereby someone with one-quarter black ancestry would be still be considered black.

  21. I had my DNA sequenced by 23andme. The results were that my DNA is about ~80% African origin, ~20% European origin, and an extreme minority (~1.5%) south East Asian origin. Further complicating things is that my European DNA has some Scandinavian and Ashkenazi origin too.

    What race am I?

  22. You often remark that Jews are a religious group and not a race, or ethnic group. Then I (and others) often comment that Jewish is an ethnic identifier and not just a religious one. Usually, in the U.S., “Jewish” means Ashkenasi Jewish. Above, you mention Tay-Sachs disease as an example of a disease “more prevalent in certain ethnic groups.” The ethnic group it is more prevalent in is Ashkenasi Jews. So again, I wonder why you seem to make a point, when writing about Jews, of downplaying Jewish ethnicity.

    If you just don’t want to comment on this for some reason, and find these repeated comments annoying, just say the word and I will stop asking about it.

    1. If Jews are only a religious group how can such a thing as a ‘secular Jew’ exist? Any more than there can be a ‘Catholic atheist’?


    2. “You often remark that Jews are a religious group and not a race, or ethnic group”.

      Is that correct? As I understand it Prof. Coyne self-identifies as Jewish but emphatically not religious. That would surely imply that he recognizes Jewish ethnicity and considers ‘jewishness’ as referring to more than just adherence to Judaism.

  23. I will argue that when we speaking about race we speak about a social construct. Not about genetic differences. A social construct which at most can be based (or use!) morphological characteristics. Race is an ancient word, I think, before anyone could speak about genes or DNA. Race, in genetic terms, has not any practical value to speak about. Even blacks can be genetically different to a great degree between them but still mostly undistinguished blacks. Some blacks can be, genetically, more close to some whites than other… whites between them. OK, I have no scientific data for that, just logic. A still black child from a white/black marriage can be more close to whites than other blacks between them. So, I argue, practically speaking, there is no race in genetic terms. Only in morphological characteristics at most. Race, when it has a practical value (good or bad or whatever!), is a social or psychological concept.

    I have read somewhere that in Moorish Spain the lords there had a strong preference for blonde white women so many of them came out blonde and almost white finally! Also don’t forget that the Latin Spain before Moors had a Visigoth population (of German origin!).



    [Despite their superiority complex, the Arabs were not averse to marrying and having children with local girls. Back then, a typical Spaniard was blonde with blue eyes and, over the generations, as the Arab bloodlines became heavily diluted with European genes, few of the aristocratic heirs of Al-Ándalus had the trademark dark hair and eyes and olive complexion associated with the Middle East.]

  24. Take as an example Obama. Is considered black but why? Is half white and half black. But is considered black because it has darker skin not because of genetics that are clearly undecided on this matter!

    1. Whiteness and blackness depend on the presence or absence of melanin do they not? A (or many) genes code for the amount of melanin produced but NO genes code for the amount of “white” produced, as “whiteness” is just the ABSENCE of a coded for protein and not a product.

      So it is not strange or controversial at all why Obama is seen as black. He has more melanin than zero and enough that he looks “more black” than white.

      It is Obama’s chromosomes inherited from his black father that make him “black”.

      In somewhat opposite terms, it is like how few people would dispute that a formerly completely dark room (no lights, no window), is no longer dark as soon as any (even a very, very tiny, low wattage)flashlight is turned on. Almost everyone would say the room is now lit. One case represents the absence of something and the other, its presence.

      I don’t see why that is confusing or controversial at all.

      1. So according to that, a ‘white’ race doesn’t really exist, it’s just the absence of any distinguishing characteristics?

        But I *really* don’t think the average person arguing ‘white’ vs ‘black’ has that particular genetic quirk in mind.


        1. I was getting at why people see blackness if there is some black, as opposed to whiteness.

          Given equal amounts of “light” (photons) and “dark” (“not-photons?”) (not actually even possible by definition)people see light because it is a thing.

          Given equal amounts of genes “for” white skin and black skin phenotypes, people see black because it is a thing.

  25. Most modern racial construct is still based on the world as it was two centuries (or more) ago.
    We in the West are still constantly shown images of the pooorest and most backward areas of the world (as if there has been no change)we rarely see the vibrant pulsing hearts of many great African and Asian cities, the New Towns springing up or the great efforts being made to modernise in the teeth of corrupt traditions.
    The world is by no means perfect and no doubt the reason for drawing attention to poverty etc is benign, however, there seems to be a lack of balance. Equal good might be done by cheering on the remarkable progress that has actually being made, concentrating on the present and the future and not the past.

  26. “You can declare your gender, after all, so why not your race?”

    Which is even more bizarre than declaring your race (which for most of us involves some mixing). Except for hermaphrodites or people with no sexual organs, gender (unless one goes by the wingnut redefinition of feminists) is quite evident. There is really no room for ambiguity.

    Of course you should be able to pretend to live as the other gender, but it doesn’t change who you are.

    1. A lot of what makes you what you are is not intrinsic, but rather how other people, in particular the dominant society, perceive you, and what they project onto you from what they see. As a Southerner in North I perceived this quickly and adapted. It was an option open to me and I took it. I am a strong supporter of affirmative action.

    2. I think you are referring to biological race. Gender is the set of social norms surrounding biological race, and as such are social constructs. So I would say it might be possible to declare ones gender but declaring ones sex is problematic in most circumstances.

  27. *Attitudes towards* human racial characteristics (which are variable, etc., of course) are socially constructed like money or whatever. However, the characteristics are not.

    I might add that some people have claimed that research into racial differences will feed racism because the society itself is such and so will use them ‘for ill’. This is just a specific version of a more general argument made to avoid or “allow a veto” for any research perceived to “affect” a group.

    In my view, because basic science is neutral, one should “just” work to remove the ambient problems and also ensure that the technologies (**) that result from the science are designed with non-harmful values of the relevant kind.

    (**) Technologies include economic, cultural, political, etc. policies designed in the light of scientific evidence.

  28. First, let us stop using the phrase “social construct”. It is not useful, it is contaminated by postmodernism and it leads to too many misunderstandings.

    When mainstream biologists and major anthropological organizations reject race realism, they are not making the claim that all continental populations are biologically identical.

    Instead, they state that:

    – traditional racial categories does not fit with the pattern of human genetic variation as revealed by scientific research. Dr. Coyne is so close to getting this in the first part of this post. So close.

    – when looking at ~650 000 SNPs and ~400 microsatellites, the vast majority of the total human genetic variation occurs within continental groups, not between them (Li et. al 2008, Rosenberg et. al 2002). This is not based on Lewontin, but modern, high-throughput research. Thus, races (whether strict or fuzzy) is not a good way to think about the global pattern human genetic variation.

    – genes that have undergone recent positive selection between populations are typically related to the immune system, morphological traits, DNA repair, insulin regulation, ethanol metabolism etc. rather than biological traits focused on by race realists, such as intelligence and athletic ability (Barreiro, 2008).

    – Studies that are based on PCA graphs are wrongly interpreted as evidence of population structure when it is largely an effect of geographical distance and various sampling decisions such as density. Even the authors of such PCA analyses agree that genetic clusters do not correspond to “biological races” (Serre and Pääbo, 2004; Rosenberg et. al 2015; Weiss and Fullerton, 2005).

    – Although genes related to disease risk are more common in some groups than others, they have a very low predictive probability because the specificity is so low (i.e. most members of a group does not have the disease). In other words, race is a very weak predictor and has led to the failure to detect some of these diseases (such as hemoglobinopathies, thalassemia and cystic fibrosis) in other populations because group status is believed to have a higher predictive value than it actually has (Yudell et. al, 2016). Instead, focus on finding out if the individual has the genetic risk factors in question instead of relying on very weak proxies such as group status is more useful.


    Barreiro, L. B., Laval, G., Quach, H., Patin, E., & Quintana-Murci, L. (2008). Natural selection has driven population differentiation in modern humans. Nat Genet, 40(3), 340-345.

    Li, J. Z., Absher, D. M., Tang, H., Southwick, A. M., Casto, A. M., Ramachandran, S., . . . Myers, R. M. (2008). Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation. Science, 319(5866), 1100-1104.

    Rosenberg, N. A., Pritchard, J. K., Weber, J. L., Cann, H. M., Kidd, K. K., Zhivotovsky, L. A., & Feldman, M. W. (2002). Genetic Structure of Human Populations. Science, 298(5602), 2381-2385.

    Rosenberg, N. A., & Kang, J. T. L. (2015). Genetic Diversity and Societally Important Disparities. Genetics, 201(1), 1-12.

    Serre, D., & Pääbo, S. (2004). Evidence for Gradients of Human Genetic Diversity Within and Among Continents. Genome Research, 14(9), 1679-1685.

    Weiss, K. M. and Fullerton, S. M. (2005), Racing around, getting nowhere. Evol. Anthropol., 14: 165–169.

    Yudell, M., Roberts, D., DeSalle, R., & Tishkoff, S. (2016). Taking race out of human genetics. Science, 351(6273), 564-565.

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