1970s >> 1970 >> no-785-january-1970

Do races exist?

In biology the word race is used as a synonym for sub-species which is a sub-division of a species. So biologists talk about races of plants and other animals besides Man. Applied to mankind, a race would be a sub-division of the species homo sapiens. It is worth emphasising here that all human beings are members of the same animal species. All men and women, whatever their different physical characteristics, are members of one vast human family. We really are, as the saying goes, brothers and sisters under the skin.

Obviously human beings do differ one from another in their physical characteristics and so, for purposes of scientific investigation, can be classified into groups based on those characteristics which are common to a number of them. Some biologists call these groups races. Others prefer to avoid this word altogether, on the grounds that its constant misuse in politics has made it unsuitable as a precise, scientific term; they want to use some other term like ethnic group.

Given, then, that there is nothing wrong in principle with classifying mankind into sub-groups on the basis of common characteristics, the problem arises of how many such groups there should be. Or, if you believe in using the term, how many races are there? This is a question on which biologists are not agreed, never have been agreed and never will be agreed. There are two reasons for this.

First, dividing mankind into sub-groups is a matter of scientific convenience so as to understand better Man as part of the animal kingdom. There are thus grounds for proper disagreement as to which system of classification is the most useful. Indeed, as knowledge advances, one system may become outmoded and need to be replaced with another.

Second, the same human beings can be included in different groups depending on which physical characteristics you use to define the group—for instance skin colour, or hair, or bone structure, or blood group.

This second point brings out once again the essential unity of mankind from the point of view of biology, and shows that in the course of Man’s existence on this earth as a separate species there has already been considerable intermixing of people with different characteristics. Indeed, this intermixing has been such that it is utter nonsense to talk of “pure races”.

The plain fact of the matter is that it is now quite impossible to draw hard and fast lines between groups of human beings. Any lines biologists feel they must draw are necessarily imprecise and always changing.

Racists argue that the groups into which they classify mankind not only have distinct physical characteristics but also differ in intellectual capacity. There are, according to the racist, superior and inferior races.

But what are the facts? Despite repeated attempts to get such evidence, nobody has been able to show any innate connection between a person’s intellectual ability (which in any event is not just a matter of biology since the mind is a product of society too) and some physical feature like the colour of his skin. The full range of intellectual ability seems to exist in all the groups into which biologists have ever divided mankind. Experience has shown that members of all these groups are capable of absorbing modern culture—reading, writing, operating machines and so on—in a comparatively short period of time. The difference which now exist between human beings as far as their level of civilisation is concerned are not the result of different natures but the result of living and having lived in different environments. There are no superior or inferior races.

What the study of human differences brings out is, oddly enough, not how different human beings are but how alike they are. It points to the conclusion that there is really only one race: THE HUMAN RACE.

Adam Buick