Scientists Find Race Differences May Be Biologically Meaningless

By Robert Lee Hotz 1995, Los Angeles Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

Scientists Find Race Differences May Be Biologically Meaningless


Robert Lee Hotz 1995, Los Angeles Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


FOR CENTURIES, Americans have classified themselves and their neighbors by the color of their skin.

Belief in the reality of race is at the heart of how people traditionally perceive differences in those around them, how they define themselves and even how many scientists say humanity evolved.

Today, however, a growing number of anthropologists and geneticists are convinced that the biological concept of race has become a scientific antique - like the idea that character is revealed by bumps on the head or that canals crisscross the surface of Mars.

Traditional racial differences are barely skin-deep, scientists say.

Moreover, researchers have uncovered enormous genetic variation between individuals who, by traditional racial definitions, should have the most in common.

Some scientists suggest that the people can be divided just as usefully into different groups based on the size of their teeth or their ability to digest milk or resist malaria.

All are easily identifiable hereditary traits shared by large numbers of people. They are no more - and no less - significant than skin tones used to popularly delineate race.

"Anthropologists are not saying humans are the same; but race does not help in understanding how they are different," said Leonard Lieberman, an anthropologist at Central Michigan University.

The scientific case against race has been building quietly among population geneticists and anthropologists for more than a decade.

This month, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences is expected to vote formally on whether races really exist. The American College of Physicians is urging its 85,000 members to drop racial labels in patient case studies because "race has little or no utility in careful medical thinking."

Even if accepted, recent scientific findings on race cannot be expected to do away with centuries of social and political policies.

Many social scientists, medical researchers and public health experts routinely make race-based comparisons of health, behavior and intelligence - even though many of them acknowledge such conclusions may be misleading.

As a result, the creation of racial and ethnic categories for public health purposes is becoming increasingly contentious, experts say. U.S. Census officials also are snarled in an effort to redefine how people can best be classified. `Race Pretty Useless'

"No one denies the social reality of race," said anthropologist Solomon H. Katz at the University of Pennsylvania. "The question is what happens to the social reality when the biological ideas that underpin it vanish?"

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza said he finds "the term race pretty useless scientifically."

Cavalli-Sforza, a Stanford Medical School scholar, is one of the world's leading geneticists. He is part of a global effort to identify the thousands of genes that make up the human biological blueprint and to explore its unique genetic variations.

Cavalli-Sforza, 72, has compiled a definitive atlas of human genetic diversity. The "History and Geography of Human Genes," which draws on genetic profiles of 1,800 population groups, is the most comprehensive survey so far of how humans vary by heredity.

Fourteen years spent surveying the global genetic inheritance has convinced him and his colleagues that any effort to lump the variation of the species Homo sapiens into races is "futile. …

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