By Robert Boyd
WASHINGTON- Thanks to spectacular advantages in molecular biology and genetics, most scientists now reject the concept of race as a valid way to put human being in separate groups.
Contrary to widespread public opinion, researchers no longer believe races are distinct biological categories created by differences in genes that people inherit from their parents.
Genes vary, they say, but not in ways that correspond to the popular notion of black, white, yellow, red or brown races.
"Race has no basic biological reality," said Yale Unversity biologist Johnathon Marks, "The human species simply doesn't come packaged that way."
Instead, a majority of biologists and anthropolgists, drawing on a growing body of evidence accumulated since the 1970's, have concluded race is a social, cultural and political concept based largely on superficial appearances.
"In the social sense, race is a reality; in the scientific sense, it is not," said Michael Omi, a specialist in ethnic studies at the University of California in Berkeley.
Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, an eminent genetics professor at Stanford University, said: "The characteristics that we see with the naked eye that help us to dictinguish individuals from different continents are, in reality, skindeep. Whenever we look under the veneer, we find that the differences that seem so conspicuous to us are really trivial."
Scientists concede people do look different, primarily based on the invironments in which their ancestors lived, and they agree that, as a social concept, race matters a great deal.
The color of a person's skin, the texture of his hair and the shape of her eyes can be sources of love, pride and partnership of fear, hatred and injustice.
Many government policies including housing, schools and voting rights - treat "minorities" differently than whites. Resentment over "affirmative action" is a buring political issue in this year's U.S. elections.
American educators, police and the military routinely ask for racial identification. The U.S. Census Bureau officially classifies every American by race, altough its categories are widely criticized.
The idea that races are not the product of human genes may seem to contradict common sense.
"The average citizen reacts with frank disbelief when told there is no such thing as race," said C. Loring Brace, a Unvirsity of Michigan anthropologist. "The skeptical layman will shake his head and regard this as further evidence of the innate silliness of those who call themselves intellectuals."
The revised concept of race also reflects recent scientific work with DNA, the complex molecule that contains the genes in every living cell.
"We are beinning to get good data at the DNA level," said Yale geneticist ,Kenneth Kidd, who studied minute variations in the genes of people from 42 different population groups around the globe. "The DNA data support the concept that you can't draw boundaries around races."
It is suggested that physical traits such as skin color, eye shape and susceptibility to disease vary gradually between neighboring populations, producing almost imperceptible shadings.
Only when people travel rapidly over great distances - as when slaves were brought from west Africa to North America, or a Londoner jets to Tokyo do the differences become distinct.
This is especially true in North America, which is occupied by immigrants from widely scattered zones of Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as indigenous peoples who populated the continent at least 10,000 years ago.
"When you sharply juxtapose populations that have been separated so long, of course they look different," said John Moore, head of anthropology at the University of Florida. "But it doesn't last long. Soon they fall in love, marry, have kids, and everybody looks the same. Look at Puerto Rico."
The new understanding of race draws on work in many fields.
"Vast new data in human biology, prehistory and paleontology ... have completely revamped the traditional notions," said Solomon Katz, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist.
This is a switch from the scientific dogma of the 19th and much of the 20th century. During that period, most scientists believed humans could be sorted into a few (usually three, four or five) inherited racial types distinguished primarily by skin color.
As recently as 1985, anthropologists split 50-50 when one of their number, Leonard Lieberman of Central Michigan University, asked in a survey whether they believe in the existence of separate biological races.
A dwindling number of scholars still cling to notions of genebased racial superiority.
In his controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, political scientists Charles Murray asserted that African-Americans inherit lower intelligence than persons of Asian or European descent.
In response to the uproar over The Bell Curve, the American Anthropological Association adopted a statement declaring that "differentiating species into biologically defined 'race' has proven meaningless and unscientific as a way of explaining variation, whether in intelligence or other traits."
A leading holdout is Canadian geneticist Phillipe Rushton, who continues to claim that crime and violence are biologically determined tendencies.
"Among humans, three major races of Monogoloids, Caucasoids and Negroids are typically considered, " Rushton writes in the February, 1996, Journal of Current Anthropology ."Genetic research has built a strong case for the importance of heritable factor (genes) in personality, psychopathology, violent crime and other social variables."
"Rushton is dead wrong," snapped Moore, who reflects the majority view.
In part the new consensus is an effort by scientists to stop misuse of race to justify the evils of racism.
"Misconceptions about race have led the forms of racism that have caused much social, psychological and physical harm, " said Katz, based on outmoded biological concepts of race.
Madeleine Hinkes, a forensic anthropologist who identifies soldiers' bodies for the U.S. Army , said, "When we remove the most obvious racial cues, such as skin color, hair and eye shape, the remaining evidence can be ambiguous."
Some diseases strike certian populations but the variations don't correspond with traditonal notions of race.
Sickle-cell anemia has been regarded as a "black" affiction because about 25 per cent of those decendened from west Africans have a gene that can causethe painful blood disease. Yet light-skinned populations in India and the Middle East have the same percentage of the sickle-cell gene.
Most scientists accept the evolutionary theory, based on DNA evidence, that modern humans oringinated in equatorial Africa about 200,000 years ago where our progenitor' genes were programmed to produce dark skin - as protection from the tropical sun's cancer-linked ultraviolet rays.
Africans who later migrated north into Europe benefited from more sunlight, rather than less, because ultraviolet rays also make vitamin D, preventing rickets and other diseases.
By a flip of the genetic dice, some newcomers had a variant gene that gave them slighty lighter skin. These migrants tended to get more vitamins, live longer and have more children - a trait they passed the their descendants.
The trend continues for generations after generation, eventually producing Anglo-Saxons Swedes and other fair-skinned northern Europeans.
"Skin color genes are turned off and on very quickly in evolution," Moore explained. "People can go from black to white, or white to black, in 10,000 years."
The farther you go from the equator, north or south, the paler people look. "There is no hint of a skin-color boundary," said Brace.
Reprinted with permission of Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.
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