Science and Race

The study of race from a scientific perspective has always been controversial.

In the 19th century, studies of skull structure were used to “prove” that different races were at different rungs on the evolutionary ladder – the “inferior” races being more ape-like.

Some scientists believed that Africans were a missing link between apes and “true”  (i.e. European) humans; this resulted in  Africans being placed in zoos.

In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen J. Gould contends that the results of some of these studies were falsified to fit with society’s preconceived notions of white racial superiority.

Today, we know that it is impossible to distinguish physical differences between races because race cannot be defined scientifically. Tens of thousand of years of human migration and interbreeding throughout the world means that it is impossible to divide humanity into a few genetically distinct “races”.   Studies of the human genome prove this.

A recent genetic study has revealed that three hunter-gatherer populations in Africa show evidence of interbreeding with an unknown group of hominin that diverged from humans and Neanderthals between 20,000 and 80,000 years ago, further evidence that when it comes to sex, humans don’t always stick to their own kind.

There are small, genetically isolated human populations in which certain medical conditions and diseases are more prevalent than in the general human population, but these groups are usually thought of as being too small to be considered separate races.

Race is, in fact, a concept that is defined by culture, and racial definitions vary from culture to culture. Definitions of race differ according to culture.

A person who is considered mixed race in one culture may be thought of as black, white or Asian in another.  This can be very important when laws treat people defined as mixed race differently than people defined as being purely of one race.

“Hispanic” is a racial term used in the United States to categorize people with a wide variety of genetic backgrounds whose ancestors spent some time in Latin America.

In America, people of South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) ancestry have sometimes been classified legally as Asian and at other times as white.

Having been born in America myself, I was raised to think of South Asians as white; the Asian race consists of people whose ancestors are from East Asia. (Yes, Americans do realize that the Indian subcontinent is part of Asia.)

When I moved to the UK, I was surprised to find that people from South Asia are considered non-white.

Because today’s scientists realize that race cannot be defined scientifically, they no longer study the differences between races or attempt to create a hierarchy of races.

Now, scientists are examining our attitudes toward race and trying to understand how and why these attitudes develop.

Evolutionary biologists looking at race focus on the human tendency to form large social groups and to divide human beings between members of one’s own group and outsiders (us vs. them).

They look at antecedents to racism in other primates.  A 2011 study shows that macaques spend a longer time looking at photos of unfamiliar macaques than at photos of macaques in their social group.  The researchers who performed this study interpreted the results as meaning that the macaque subjects viewed the strange macaques as more threatening than the macaques that they knew well.

Chimpanzees take the tendency to prefer members of their own group to outsiders to extremes; male chimpanzees within a troop will sometimes form a coalition that works together to attack and kill members of another group.

Nevertheless, even if humans have inherited a tendency toward racism, we are not necessarily destined to be racist.

Studies examining the neurobiological bases for racism in humans have found that when someone looks at a photo of a member of another race, activity increases in the amygdala, which is associated with fear and with learning to be afraid of things. (Racism can be encouraged by social conditioning.)

However, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) are also activated.

The ACC is associated with error detection and dealing with conflicting information; it is activated during the Stroop test.  The ACC may be activated when people are presented with photos of members of other races because they experience conflict between an instinctive or learned fear of people who are different and the knowledge that they should treat all people equally.

The DLPFC is believed to play a part in regulating behavior.  While the amygdala may be signaling someone to behave negatively toward a member of another race, the DLFPC prevents them from acting on that behavior.

Thus, our human brains allow us to overcome our primate racism.

Implicit Association Test

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is supposed to determine whether people have racist feelings, and if they do, how intense these feelings are.

During the IAT, subjects separate words (such as “happy” or “disgusted”) into positive and negative categories by clicking on one of two keys on a computer keyboard.

At the same time, they click on the same two keys to separate photos of human faces into two racial groups.

Test results seem to show that the majority of people are inherently racist, as they are more likely to associate negative words with members of the group that they do not identify with.

Before I took the IAT online myself, I was warned that it was likely that I would discover that I was at least slightly racist, and if I couldn’t deal with it, I shouldn’t take the test.

In fact, my results showed that I have no preference for one race over the other. – Apparently, this is unusual.

One flaw in the test is that it may actually prime people to identify a particular race with good or bad qualities.

When I took the test (which was designed for Americans and identified people as either European-American or African-American),  I first had to click on one key if I either read a “good” word or saw a photo of a European-American and click on another key if I  read a “bad” word or saw a picture of an African-American.

Although the categories are later switched – African-Americans and good words get one key, while  European-Americans and bad words get another – by that time the test may have already primed the subject to associate African-Americans with negative qualities and European-Americans with positive ones.

Some studies have shown that changing the names of the racial categories on the IAT can affect the outcome of the IAT.

Additionally, people who score as very racist on the IAT often show no signs of racist behavior.

5 thoughts on “Science and Race”

  1. History shows us that even if race differenciation is not possible then other differences are used. For example different religions among people of the same race in the same country. Wars have been fought over what would seem to be trival differences. It would be interesting to know what these same tests showed when religious symbols are used with people of the same race. There might be an underlying social and/or biological need to identify with a particular race or religion.

    • By religous symbols I mean head wear, pendants, and any other devices used by people to identify their religion. Typical social cues. Do we react differently to the same person wearing a Star of David pendant or a cross, for example.


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