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