Race and Genetics
On the surface, race seems like a legitimate way of categorizing human beings. Physical characteristics are passed down from parent to child, thereby recreating racial markers. However, the concept of race is generally rooted in ignorance. Race is an ephemeral construction, and genetic science is proving this to be so. If race were real, then there would be ways of tracing different races back to a few ancestors: such as an ancestral Polynesian, ancestral African, and ancestral Jew. As it stands, though, all human beings trace ancestry to the same basic gene pool from humanoid ancestors in Africa. This one fact alone is sufficient to debunk the concept that race “exists,” or is a form of biological determinism. There are other reasons to believe that race is not as real as was once thought. Race is not real, and the reasons are rooted in genetic science, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology.
Genetic science research is showing that the genetic anomalies that were once associated with race are actually distributed across geographic zones. For example, Adelman (2003) points out that the Tay Sachs disease was once believed to be a Jewish disease, but many Gentiles carry the Tay Sachs gene. Of course, that could be due to the fact that some Christians might have once been Jews and later converted. However, the same is true for Sickle Cell Anemia, which was once believed to be a genetic abnormality present only in African-Americans. New research shows that Sickle Cell Anemia is not present in the ancestral groups of former slaves, showing that there is no “racial” component to the disease. Instead, there is a geographic component, linked closely to anthropology and patterns of population migration. In the case with Sickle Cell Anemia, the gene is found in some Arab and Greek populations, which has led researchers to conclude that the disease was spread via old trade routes from Africa to the Middle East and Europe (Adelman, 2003). Human genetics are not race-based; belonging a preconceived racial category does not determine genetics. As Adelman (2003) points out, many people have dark skin, not just Africans. Superficial appearance traits are the root of the racial construct.
The argument for a genetic component to race comes from the most unlikely of sources, though: the Jews. In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer presents evidence linking together all Jews in the diaspora, Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi alike. The evidence is rooted in genetic science, and would seem to contradict what Adelman (2003) and the PBS documentary The Power of an Illusion discuss. Yet Ostrer’s ideas actually coincide with the prevailing conclusion that genetic markers are more closely related to patterns of population migration and geography than to clusters of pre-determined races. All human beings can from the same ancestral pool, meaning variations in appearance are not qualitatively different from variations in disease predilection. The two things do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, which is why some Gentiles have Tay Sachs genes and some Arabs have sickle cell anemia genes. Those genes are not transmitted via race but via patterns of population migration that have occurred since the first Homo sapiens.
“In accord with most geneticists, Ostrer firmly rejects the fashionable postmodernist dismissal of the concept of race as genetically naive, opting for a more nuanced perspective,” (Entine, 2012). Perhaps a more nuanced perspective is called for, because certainly genetics play a role in human health. Yet the most important facet of race is not skin color, hair color, or disease etiology. The most important facet of race is sociological and psychological. Race creates artificial categories of human being, and those categories are mistakenly believed to be immutable and deterministic.
Adelman, L. (2003). Race and gene studies: what differences make a difference? Retrieved online: http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-01-02.htm
Entine, J. (2012). Jews Are a ‘Race,’ Genes Reveal. The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved online: http://forward.com/articles/155742/jews-are-a-race-genes-reveal/?p=all