race, one of the group of populations regarded as constituting humanity. The differences that have historically determined the classification into races are predominantly physical aspects of appearance that are generally hereditary. Genetically a race may be defined as a group with gene frequencies differing from those of the other groups in the human species (see heredity; genetics; gene), but the genes responsible for the hereditary differences between the traditional races are extremely few when compared with the vast number of genes common to all human beings regardless of the race to which they belong. Many physical anthropologists now believe that, because there is as much genetic variation among the members of any given race as there is between the groups identified as different races, the concept of race is unscientific and unsound and racial categories are arbitrary designations. The term race is inappropriate when applied to national, religious, geographic, linguistic, or ethnic groups, nor can the physical appearances associated with race be equated with mental characteristics, such as intelligence, personality, or character.
All human groups belong to the same species (Homo sapiens) and are mutually fertile. Races arose as a result of mutation, selection, and adaptational changes in human populations. The nature of genetic variation in human beings indicates there has been a common evolution for all races and that racial differentiation occurred relatively late in the history of Homo sapiens. Theories postulating the very early emergence of racial differentiation have been advanced (e.g., C. S. Coon, The Origin of Races, 1962), but they are now scientifically discredited.
Attempts at Classification
To classify humans on the basis of physical traits is difficult, for the coexistence of races through conquests, invasions, migrations, and mass deportations has produced a heterogeneous world population. Nevertheless, by limiting the criteria to such traits as skin pigmentation, color and form of hair, shape of head, stature, and form of nose, most anthropologists historically agreed on the existence of three relatively distinct groups: the Caucasoid, the Mongoloid, and the Negroid.
The Caucasoid, found in Europe, N Africa, and the Middle East to N India, is characterized as pale reddish white to olive brown in skin color, of medium to tall stature, with a long or broad head form. The hair is light blond to dark brown in color, of a fine texture, and straight or wavy. The color of the eyes is light blue to dark brown and the nose bridge is usually high.
The Mongoloid race, including most peoples of E Asia and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, has been described as saffron to yellow or reddish brown in skin color, of medium stature, with a broad head form. The hair is dark, straight, and coarse; body hair is sparse. The eyes are black to dark brown. The epicanthic fold, imparting an almond shape to the eye, is common, and the nose bridge is usually low or medium.
The Negroid race is characterized by brown to brown-black skin, usually a long head form, varying stature, and thick, everted lips. The hair is dark and coarse, usually kinky. The eyes are dark, the nose bridge low, and the nostrils broad. To the Negroid race belong the peoples of Africa south of the Sahara, the Pygmy groups of Indonesia, and the inhabitants of New Guinea and Melanesia.
Each of these broad groups can be divided into subgroups. General agreement is lacking as to the classification of such people as the aborigines of Australia, the Dravidian people of S India, the Polynesians, and the Ainu of N Japan within the traditional three race system. These exceptions highlight the problems associated with attempting to classify humanity into races and also challenge the validity of the notion of race when applied to human beings.
Race Classification and Racism
Attempts have been made to classify humans since the 17th cent., when scholars first began to separate types of flora and fauna. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was the first to divide humanity according to skin color. In the 19th and early 20th cent., people such as Joseph Arthur Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, mainly interested in pressing forward the supposed superiority of their own kind of culture or nationality, began to attribute cultural and psychological values to race. This approach, called racism, culminated in the vicious racial doctrines and anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany and was used to justify slavery and segregation (see integration) in the United States, apartheid in the Republic of South Africa, and European imperialism and colonialism generally.
See R. Benedict, Race: Science and Politics (rev. ed. 1943, repr. 1968); C. Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (1962); M. Mead et al., ed., Science and the Concept of Race (1968); S. M. Garn, ed., Readings on Race (2d ed. 1968) and Human Races (3d ed. 1971); J. C. King, The Biology of Race (1971); L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, The Origin and Differentiation of Human Races (1972); S. J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1981); I. F. Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (1996); A. Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (6th ed. 1998); G. M. Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (2002); M. Yudell, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century (2014).