The Science of Racism
Shanaz Tejani-Butt, Ph.D.
The common perception that race is an essential characteristic that determines human intelligence and hierarchy, was based on a now discredited 19th century model developed by Dr. Samuel Morton. The Human Genome Mapping Project, initiated in 1990 and completed in 2003, concluded that all humans are 99.9% genetically identical!
In the first half of the 19th century, Dr. Samuel Morton (also known as the father of scientific racism), divided humans into five races, each depicting separate conception and hierarchy. Based on the skulls that he collected and examined, Morton claimed that whites, or “Caucasians,” were the most intelligent, East Asians or “Mongolians” were “ingenious” and one step down, followed by the Southeast Asians and Native Americans. Blacks, or “Ethiopians,” were at the bottom of his race list . Given that Morton’s assessment came long before the discovery of the DNA, scientists had no idea how traits were passed on from one generation to the next. They attempted to classify human beings based on the variations in skin color, hair color, eye color, facial anatomy, and blood groups. Identification of race was based solely on visual cues that distinguished one individual from another and not by some biological differences. Many of the horrors of the past few centuries can be traced back to Morton’s legacy and his notion that one race is inferior to another. Unfortunately, racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our communities, and our identities even in the 21st century.
Homo Sapiens – One Lineage of Humanity
No biological evidence has been found to link human behaviors with “racial” features. Our human species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa. The most recent fossil from Morocco suggests that anatomically, modern human features began appearing ~ 300,000 years ago, and for the next 200,000 years or so, we remained in Africa, with some movement of groups to different parts of the continent to establish new populations. Humans evolved in the last 100,000 years from a small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and inhabited the world .
During the short course of Homo sapiens history, visible external traits, commonly used to distinguish one race from another (skin and eye color, width of the nose), are controlled by a
relatively few number of genes, which change in response to extreme environmental conditions . For example, populations living close to the equator developed a darker skin to protect against ultraviolet radiation, while people living in northern latitudes developed a paler skin, to be able to produce vitamin D from the pale sunlight .
The popular classifications of race are based chiefly on skin color, with other relevant features including height, eyes, and hair. Though these physical differences may appear, on a superficial level, to be very dramatic, they are determined by only a minute portion of the genome. It is important to emphasize that the evolution of skin color or other such physical traits did not influence other traits such as mental abilities and behavior. In fact, science has yet to find evidence that there are genetic differences in intelligence amongst various populations.
The Human Genome Project
The human genome consists of ~ 3 billion base pairs of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and constitutes the entire set of human chromosomes . According to Drs. Francis Collins and Craig Venter, who jointly spoke at the White House on June 26, 2000, the entire sequence of human genome confirms unanimously that there is only one race – the Human Race, as the project confirmed that human beings are 99.9 % identical genetically .
The human genome is not uniform. Except for identical (monozygotic) twins, no two humans on this earth share the same genomic sequence. Further, the human genome is not static. Both delicate and drastic changes can occur at a relatively high frequency. Some of these changes may be beneficial as they get passed on from parent to child; eventually becoming a normal occurrence in the population. Other changes may be damaging, resulting in decreased mortality or decreased fertility. Over the past 5-6 decades, advances in genetic science has transformed biology and medicine, and even altered our understanding of human history .
Since the human genome has been mapped, debates within the scientific community about the definition of race, populations or ancestry have increased. When you look at the human genome, you cannot find race; but populations of people around the world who have different patterns of disease. For example, genetics plays a role in the unequal distribution of some diseases-associated-alleles (alleles are different forms of a gene) for certain recessive disorders such as sickle cell anemia in Africans and Tay-Sachs disease in the Ashkenazi Jews. However, sickle cell disease
began in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Europe, India, and other regions where malaria is widespread. Individuals whose red blood cells are sickled (oblong shaped), were found to be more resistant to malaria, suggesting environmental adaptation followed by migrations of these people to different parts of the world. Similar population grouping, survival, and migration phenomena may explain Tay-Sachs disease to be common in people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Geographic origin, patterns of intermixing and migration are strong determinants of population characteristics; not race .
Research examining the question of human diversity was conducted by looking at the distribution of 4,000 alleles (different “flavors” of a gene), across seven major geographical regions. For example, all humans have the same genes that code for hair. However, it is the different alleles of the same gene which result in hair appearing in various colors and textures. The results of the study indicated that more than 92% of alleles were found in two or more regions, and almost 50% of the alleles investigated were found in all seven major geographical regions. The observation that most of the alleles were shared over multiple regions of the world, points to the similarity of all people around the world, an concept that has been supported by several studies [8, 9].
The study also looked for “trademark” genes to determine if separate racial groups existed. If this was indeed the case, “trademark” alleles and other genetic features characteristic of one group but not present in any others would have been uncovered. However, this well-known Stanford research  reported that only 7.4% of over 4000 alleles studied were specific to one geographical region. Furthermore, even when region-specific alleles did appear, they only occurred in about 1% of the people from that region; not robust enough to be considered “trademark” genes. Thus, this study did not find any evidence that the groups, commonly referred to as “races” had any distinct, unifying genetic identities [8, 9].
Explaining Race through Scientific Lenses
There is no doubt that knowledge of the human genome has made great strides in improving our understanding of the origin of the human species, the relationships between populations, and the health tendencies or disease risks of individual humans . Hopefully, this knowledge will help decrease health disparities.
While the scientific consensus is that humanity is more similar than dissimilar, the long history and recent events of racism is a gloomy reminder that throughout history, a mere 0.1% of genetic variation can provide sufficient justification for all kinds of discriminations and atrocities. One would expect that advances in human genetics and the evidence of negligible differences between “races” would stop racist arguments. However, scientific findings are often ignored, or misinterpreted by extreme political groups as they promote their racist agendas . While the human genome contains significant insights into our biology to unite us as a species, it can also be divisive if used without proper understanding. Therefore, it is extremely important to recognize, appreciate and clarify what our DNA says about what it means to be human beings.
Albert Einstein, in his theory of relativity, described a four-dimensional universe in which observers viewing an event could see it differently . Einstein’s theory of relativity has important implications in our deliberation about race; both from a scientific and social aspect: what we see depends on where we stand. However, where we stand will not only define our thoughts, words, and action, but will also define and reflect our collective moral and spiritual consciousness.