crania americana

I took part last week in a discussion at the Royal Institution in London entitled ‘What does science tell us about race and racism?’. The other participants were geneticist Aoife McLysaght, sociologist Heidi Mirza, and the writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, who chaired the event. None of us gave a formal talk as the evening was more a free-flowing conversation. But here are roughly the points I was trying to make about the complex relation between scientific research and the reality of human group differences. For a longer discussion of these issues see my lecture ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’ and my book Strange Fruit.



The character of race in scientific research is ambiguous because the peculiarity of the human condition. What we call ‘races’ are social categories but social categories can have biological consequences.



There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ human population. Migration; intermarriage; war and conquest; forced assimilation; voluntary embrace of new or multiple identities whether religious, cultural, national, ethnic or racial; any number of social, economic, religious, and other barriers to interaction (and hence to reproduction); social rules for defining populations such as the ‘one drop rule’ in America – these and many social other factors impact upon the character of a group and transform its genetic profile. That is why racial categories are so difficult define scientifically.



Yet, while there may be no such thing as a ‘natural’ human population, many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially – by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, geographic locality and so on – are not necessarily arbitrary from a biological point of view. Members of such groups often show greater biologically relatedness than two randomly chosen individuals. Such groups may have been ghettoized by a coercive external authority, or have chosen to self-segregate from other groups. Hence they are inbred to a certain degree and can act as surrogates, however imperfectly, for biological relatedness. Categories such as ‘African American’ or ‘Ashkenazi Jew’ may be significant in medical research not because they are natural races but because they are social representations of certain aspects of genetic variation. They can become means of addressing questions about human genetic differences and human genetic commonalities.



But while race and ethnicity can be surrogates for biological relatedness, they are not necessarily good ones. We all know, for instance, that sickle cell anaemia is a black disease. Except that it isn’t. In the USA, the presence of the sickle cell trait may help distinguish between those with, and without, African ancestry. But not in South Africa. In South Africa, neither blacks nor whites are likely to possess the trait. Sickle cell is not a black disease, but a disease of populations originating in areas with high incidence of malaria. Some of these populations are black, some are not. There are four distinct sickle cell haplotypes (a haplotype is a set of linked genes) two of which are found in equatorial Africa, one in parts of southern Europe, southern Turkey, and the Middle East, and one in central India. The majority of people in Africa do not suffer from sickle cell disease. Most people know, however, that African Americas suffer disproportionately from the trait. And, given popular ideas about race, most people automatically assume that what applies to black Americans applies to all blacks and only to blacks. It is the social imagination, not the biological reality, of race that turns sickle cell into a black disease. And such social imagination can be medically detrimental. Many groups that have a higher incidence of sickle cell – such as those with a Mediterranean background, for instance – may be ignored because it is seen primarily as a black disorder. At the same time viewing  sickle cell as a black disorder has led to widespread discrimination. It was a weapon wielded by colonial administrators in Africa and racist politicians in the USA to brand black people as unhealthy and unclean. Until the 1980s,  both the US Air Force and many commercial airlines banned black pilots with sickle cell for fear of the effects of the disease.



The importance occasionally of group differences in medicine does not reveal the reality of race. Indeed, what we popularly call races are generally least suited to genetic research. That is because the degree of biological relatedness in what we call races is barely greater than in a randomly chosen group of people. Races are, however, socially significant and a major way by which we divide up our societies. Researchers and clinicians often use race as the basis by which they divide up the population for social reasons. The irony is that in order to study human genetic diversity, scientists need socially defined categories of difference. The real question we have to ask ourselves today is not so much why people imagine race to be a valid biological category as why so many believe it to be a valid social category, and why society continues to define people by race.



The real debate about race is not whether there are any differences between populations, but about the significance of such differences. The fact that a BMW saloon is of a different colour to a Boeing 747 is of little significance to most people. The fact that one has an internal combustion engine and the other a jet engine is of immense consequence if you want to travel from London to New York. But if you are a Yanomamo Indian living in the Amazon forest, even this difference may not be of that great an import, since it is quite possible that you will be unable – or will not need – to use either form of transport. If we want to understand the significance of any set of differences, in other words, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Significant for what? And in what context? One of the problems of the contemporary debate about race is that these two questions get too rarely asked.


Buy the book

strange fruit


‘Three cheers for Malik’s rationalism’
Ian Hacking, New Scientist

‘Malik is a formidable enemy of fuzzy or wishful thinking. What sets him apart from the plain-speaking polemicist is the impressive breadth of his research and his critical grasp of scientific methodology. Few targets escape the reach of his forensic intelligence.’
Andrew Anthony, Observer

Buy the book from the Pandaemonium bookstore, of which there is both a British and a US version.


The top image is from Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana. The cover image is a detail from Nature’s 2001 cover about the Human Genome Project.


  1. I was thinking about this a while ago after watching a doco about neanderthal people how their subsequent extinction. Turns out people now believe they were bred out of existence by a long process of interbreeding with homo-sapiens.

    Black African people contain little to no neanderthal DNA… So I got into a chain of thought thinking perhaps a predisposition for racism is built into anglo peoples on the genetic level.

    Just a thought. Likely total jibberish. 🙂

  2. @ unsimplelife: I agree, it’s total gibberish! 🙂

    A few ‘simple’ scientific facts cut through most of the gibberish. DNA analysis of one drop of blood can identify the person, their ethnicity and ancestry to a very high degree of accuracy. One can also identify the likelihood of a long list of disorders and vulnerabilities that a person may be susceptible to. These tests are now fairly straightforward and readily available to the public.

    However, at this time it is still impossible to predict in any meaningful way, the intelligence of a random person by intensive genetic testing, even though there is supposed to be a familial component to intelligence.

    Conclusion: it seems that cultural and ethnic differences are superficial and do not identify any core differences, if there are any, between individual humans. Our emotional reactions based on such differences cause a lot of trouble.

  3. Grainne

    Just because most people struggle with the difference between a higher propensity towards something and a innate characteristic does not devalue the distinction. Saying men have a higher propensity to violence than women is not the same as saying all men are violent (and no women). Nor does it make the observation trivial or wrong. Black Africans have a higher propensity to sickle cell anemia compared to white Europeans. Women have higher propensity for breast cancer, smokers for lung cancer, people with downs syndrome for alzheimers etc. Etc
    Sometimes race is a useful lens.

    • I fear you’ve missed the point. Whether or not ‘Black Africans have a higher propensity to sickle cell anemia compared to white Europeans’ is a moot point. A few small populations of sub-Saharan Africans suffer from sickle cell. A few small populations of Europeans (from around the Mediterranean) do so too. It makes little sense to see the black African/white European distinction as a useful way of distinguishing between those who may and those who may not possess the sickle cell trait. The distinction between black Africans and white Europeans is important, of course, in a social context. That is why it is often used as a surrogate for biological relatedness in a scientific and medical context. But the fact that it is does not tell us anything about the reality or the usefulness of race as a biological concept.

      • I have a good example.

        Black Americans have higher rates of lead toxicity than white Americans. Race doesn’t cause this. Rather, because of a history of racial biases, American blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high rates of heavy metal pollution, because of economic segregation from redlining, housing loan practices, and sundown towns. This is, of course, also related to toxic dumps and bypasses more likely being located in poor minority areas, because of racially biased decisions of those in power.

        Race, as perception of physical appearance, is an indicator of social conditions in a racially obsessed society. This leads to health issues that correlate to race. So, in a racist/racialist society, race sadly becomes useful for generalizing about health conditions. However, this is just to say that some races are more likely to have forced upon them particular unhealthy conditions, especially those related to poverty along with lack of economic opportunity and mobility.

        If we then use those rates of health problems to justify our racial obsession, then that simply creates rationalizations and self-fulfilling prophecies. We make the racial disparity of problems real by treating races as real.

    • Noor

      Men don’t have an inherent tendency for violence, whether as a generalization or not. What testosterone does is decrease aversion to risk (in general) so that, coupled with social factors, is likely why.

  4. “Sometimes race is a useful lens.”

    But usually it’s not.

    Particular populations from Southern Europe and other non-African areas have a propensity to sickle cell anemia. This includes; Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Italy; the Arabian Peninsula; India; and Spanish-speaking regions in South America, Central America, and parts of the Caribbean.

    American blacks, however, don’t have a particularly high propensity for this, about 1 in 400 or 1 in 500. Compare that to Jamaica where it is about 1 in 150. It’s true that the trait is carried by +10% of American blacks, but that is much lower than for other populations: 25% in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; 31% in Parthenon, Greece; 38% in Southeast India and 40% in Central Africa.

    One in five American blacks have more European than African genetics. One in twenty American blacks has no detectable African genetics whatsoever. There are more American whites than American blacks with African genetics. Without a genetics test, there is no way to know the actual genetics of an individual.

    This is the problem with racial categories.

  5. damon

    I find the social aspects of race far more interesting then any scientific ones.
    I´d be interested to hear of Kenan´s views on what the situation in South Africa was now, socially between the different peoples. And how quickly (or not), racial divisions have been breaking down. When I was there ten years ago, the divisions seemd to be huge. Culturally and socially, as well as economically.
    In the US where I´ve just been, race is still a great divide there still from what I could see.
    You still have defacto segregation in many areas. It would be difficult I think, for a white family to move into a street in the poor part of north Miami that is predominately black for example.

  6. Very interesting article. It would be fascinating to examine the rates and drivers of racial merging; how quickly diverse ethnic groups have merged, under what pressures, and how this has changed over human history. Could we argue that as the human population grows and is forced together into a higher popluation density, there is an increase in interracial marriage? Or is the opposite true; do different races cluster together more tightly when surrounded by different cultures and races?

  7. Kenan,
    If you have not already read it, I recommend that you read “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in AmerIcan Life” by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields. You might reconsider some of your categories as a result.


    • I agree. That is a useful book to consider. I’ve shared some from it in posts on my blog. Here is a small sampling of what the authors discuss:

      “Confronted with the intellectual arguments against the concept of race, my undergraduates react by grasping for another word to occupy the same conceptual space. “I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘race’ after your class . But I don’t know what else to call it,” is a characteristic response. At the suggestion, “Why not ‘ancestry,’ if that’s what you’re talking about?” they retreat into inarticulate dissatisfaction .”

      “Sometimes the fog of racecraft rolls in at the last minute, as a derailing non sequitur to an otherwise logical argument. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that scientists who conducted an epidemiological study of asthma among schoolchildren in South Bronx produced damning evidence about environmental pollution caused by heavy truck traffic. Their study identified the particle emissions, cited the location of major highways, and, through resourceful data collection, drew conclusions about the children’s exposure, in specific neighborhoods, at different hours of the day, to “very high fine particle concentrations on a fairly regular basis.” The correlations emerged: “Symptoms, like wheezing, doubled on days when pollution from truck traffic was highest .” It would seem as clear as noonday that class inequality had imposed sickness on these American schoolchildren. Yet the article’s summary tails off into confused pseudo-genetics. To a list of contributors to high asthma rates that includes heavy traffic, dense population, poorly maintained housing, and lack of access to medical care, the article adds “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with high rates of asthma.” Racecraft has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes. Susceptibility to filthy air does not depend on the census category to which the asthma sufferer belongs. And even if that susceptibility is (to whatever degree) genetically determined, Dr. Venter’s account of his own asthma stands as a reminder that “genetic” is not equivalent to “racial” or “ethnic.”

      “Some of the oddest racecraft moments come when scientists yoke modern genetics to folk notions. In the controversy over Dr. James D. Watson’s remarks in London, some of his defenders charged his critics with a “politically correct” retreat from science, insisting that good science requires a free marketplace of ideas . Researchers must be free, they implied, to salvage the old bio-racist ranking of superior and inferior races, regardless of the collapse as science of its core concept, race. But it is doubtful that those foes of political correctness would wish to rehabilitate that part of bio-racism that once identified inferior white races.”

      “As Stuckert (1976) has pointed out in an ingenuous statistical extrapolation from historical records, by the time of the 1970 U.S. census, some 24% of all persons listed as “white” might reasonably have been presumed to have had African ancestors, while more than 80% of all “blacks” would have had non-African ancestors. Transformed into numerical values, this means nothing less than that the overwhelming majority of all Americans of African ancestry – i.e. about 42 millions at the time – had not been counted into the black population (which then stood at 22 millions), but classified as white. Put differently, there were (and surely still are) almost double the number of “white”Americans of African descent as “black” ones (cf. Palmié 2002).”

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