Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Debate on Race: A Problem of Semantics Rather Than of Biology

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Debate on Race: A Problem of Semantics Rather Than of Biology

Article excerpt

The author surveys the history of the race concept, and suggests that much misunderstanding has arisen due to semantic confusion. To understand the significance of race in the study of man it is necessary to remember that the essence of the concept is heredity, and that the emphasis should at all times be placed on lineage and descent groups rather than on geographical populations.

Key Words: Race, speciation, species, sub-species, geographical races, gene pools, breeding populations, descent groups, phylogenetic continua, population genetics, DNA, Linnaeus, Darwin, Max Weber

Charles Darwin recognized the existence of human races and was fully aware of the antiquity and significance of human racial differences. His cousin, Sir Francis Galton, with whom he regularly corresponded, had carried out extensive research in the Middle East and Africa, and had already expatiated on the remarkable differences between the various populations which inhabited the world in his day. Although he was not aware of the genetic mechanisms subsequently revealed by Mendel, Darwin realized that the principles which governed speciation amongst plants and animals also governed the human animal. But conscious in advance of the resistance that his exposition of the evolutionary roots of mankind was likely to attract, in 1857 wrote to the co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, saying:

You ask me whether I shall discuss `man.' I think that I shall avoid the subject, as so surrounded with prejudices; though I fully admit it is the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist. (Letters of Darwin to Wallace)

Later, however, in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) he made it very clear that human race differences were in his opinion very substantial, commenting on

... the enormous range of man, which is a great anomaly in the class of mammals, if mankind be viewed as a single species.

...diverged into distinct races, or as they may be more fitly called, sub-species. Some of these, such as the Negro and European, are so distinct that, if specimens had been brought to a naturalist without any further information they would undoubtedly have been considered by him as good and true species. (1871/1874, p.929)

In chapter seven of that work he also wrote:

... the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other - as in the texture of hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatization and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotions, but partly in their intellectual faculties.

The reality of evolution, as revealed by Darwin and Wallace's virtually simultaneous discoveries, is now universally accepted amongst scholars. But the opposition these early investigators of evolution faced from religious critics has been replaced by an equally widespread resistance by present-day egalitarian ideologues to research aimed at exploring the history or extent of group differences between the modern races of man. Indeed, in extreme form, we see strenuous efforts to deny even the reality of race. It may not perhaps always be due to careless scholarship that when reference is made to Darwin's epochmaking Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) in current literature, the second part of the title he gave to this work, "or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life," is seldom mentioned. But the fact remains that many graduates of today's universities have never even heard of the full title, and that in current literature the term "race" is used in so many different ways that the "debate on race" is bedeviled by semantic confusion. …

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