“Race” and What It Really Is

I recently read a book entitled “The Myth of Race” by Jefferson M. Fish, PhD.  I found it to be one of the best books that I’ve read for some time, at least in terms of science written so that the average person can follow well. It’s also interesting and enjoyable to read. The premise of the book is simple – in the human species, “race” does not exist in a biological sense. This is something that is inherently obvious to people who travel the world and study different cultures, such as anthropologists, and has been a scientifically established and well understood fact since the late 1960’s. And yet, we seem to be fairly stuck in the idea that people are separated into groups determined by how they look. But, as was so well established in the book, how people are categorized by physical traits is quite different depending on where you are in the world. You might even remember that the categories in the U.S. census have changed several times over the years. It turns out that “race” is more of a cultural thing than biological.

The physical traits that we attribute to any given “race” tend to change in gradients towards, and away from, the highest and lowest concentrations of that trait in populated areas. This is true all over the world and is well illustrated and explained in the book. Further analysis shows that even intelligence is correlated much more to environmental factors, such as poverty and systemic oppression, than to any visible physical trait. That certainly blows holes in some people’s ideas doesn’t it?

So why is “race” still such a big factor in our general discourse and why haven’t we, as a culture, embraced what our scientists have been telling us for so long? The author helps to define some very intriguing theories about why the idea started in the first place, describing the economic utility in categorizing people differently among other things. But the most prominent theory introduced in the book has to do with something called memes (you may have read about the concept in Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene”). A meme, very inelegantly defined, is an idea or way of thinking that sticks in our heads and spreads easily to other people. I’m sure that you can think of several things like that right off the top of your head. And that brings me to the next book that I’m tackling entitled “The Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore. I’m only just beginning to read this book but I can tell already that it’s a good one. I suspect that it’s a bit outdated and much has been learned on this topic since the book was published (in 1999) but I believe that this is a good place to start.

While this article might have the feel of a book report, I’m really trying to get some clout behind a concept that I’ve been trying to articulate for years. It is really true that “we are all the same people”. Obviously, I only just touched on the topic and can’t really do the book, or the concept, any real justice here so, if you are interested in getting an education about the subject of “race” from a scientific viewpoint, I strongly recommend this book at least to start with. I’m sure at this point that there are many books that can explain this topic well and if you find another good one, I will happily take suggestions.

Lastly, I want to point out that this knowledge in no way minimizes the horrible atrocities visited upon any group of people who look different from their oppressors. In light of the facts noted above though, it certainly does put it all into a very different perspective doesn’t it? And doesn’t it make us think differently about how to move forward from here? What would a culture look like if everyone knew that we really are all the same people and that physical traits are quite irrelevant in the big picture? If the biggest difference between people is culture, that can then be embraced as something desirable and even beautiful, IMHO.