Today I would like to make one thing clear: there is no such thing as race. Join in with me this time. There is no such thing as race. ‘Race’ as we commonly refer to it in our current language usage only describes superficial differences in skin colour and other superficial physical features and not even consistently at that. In this post, I’m going to discuss points raised in a talk given by the science writer Kenan Malik this year as part of the British Humanist Association’s Voltaire lecture series. Finally, I will discuss the responsibility that a rational humanist community has to reject and fight racism.
The talk Kenan Malik gave was entitled The Guilt of Science? Race, Science and Darwin. He discusses the history of ‘race science’ and how it developed through the ages. I won’t aim to reproduce his lecture here but I will discuss some interesting points. As any researcher knows it’s not just the data that is important, it’s also the questions one asks. Scientific research is as much influenced by the attitudes and commonly held assumptions of the day as it is the idea of a logical progression from one piece of knowledge to the next. Early scientists used their limited tools of observation to categorise and rationalise their experiences of other cultures. It occurred to them that the Linnean system of biological classification could be applied to humans. Darwin’s theory that species arose from natural selection pressures during evolution meant that humans could be firmly placed in the animal kingdom among the other primates so why not classify different kinds of humans? Travellers to different continents found the people they encountered to be so strange and alien with their different cultures, languages and looks that they assumed them to be entirely different creatures. They were entirely mistaken.
As the adage goes, if you prick us, we all bleed the same. The discovery of DNA and the ongoing expansion in the understanding of the human genome demonstrates quite clearly that race is an entirely unsupportable concept. If you look at DNA samples taken from people from all over the world you will not find any clear boundaries or markers that separate one distinct group of humans from another. But, you may say, there are known differences between groups of people. For example, what about the predominance of sickle cell anaemia among the african population? This is an interesting case in point.
Early studies in the USA showed that sickle cell anaemia was particularly common among African Americans. This led to the assumption that sickle cell was an especially african condition. This wasn’t the full story though. It turns out that a great proportion of the African American population came (or more accurately, was taken) from certain regions of Africa. These were areas where malaria was a particular danger. Carrying a single sickle cell gene is a good defence against malaria, but carrying more than that creates a condition which shortens your life expectancy. In other areas of Africa where malaria is not a threat, the population does not carry this gene. Similarly, in areas on other continents where malaria is a problem, the population will tend to carry the sickle cell gene.
This illustrates an important point, we’re not looking at ‘races’, we’re looking at populations. There is no white race, or black race or any other hue or characteristic, there is only the observation that populations that settle in the same area will tend to develop genetic similarities if left long enough. We could have cut this entire article short if we’d just raised the question of what happens if a child has a parent deemed to be of one race and a parent deemed to be of another. What ‘race’ would that child be? And what does race mean exactly if you can mix it up and blur the lines completely so easily?
The answer is that race means nothing. It is a concept that derives from social prejudices against people from another culture or appearance from one’s own. If you’re going to discriminate on skin colour and slight differences in facial features then you may as well discriminate on eye colour or the shape of people’s ears. While there may be populations who share some characteristics after some relative geographical isolation, there is no real difference between one human being and another.
So how does this relate to Humanism? Humanism believes in using reason and compassion to guide our actions and create our world. Racism is an ignorant superstition that has no place in our world and causes great harm. We need to make clear that it is not acceptable, and to educate those who believe otherwise. Some of us are confronted with the fact of racism on a daily basis in our personal lives, and for those of us who are lucky enough not to be, we need to educate ourselves about the reality of racism. There is clear evidence for racism. Look at the data on victims of violence or harassment, the justice system, education, poverty, representation in business, the media and politics. Where we see discrepancies and irregularities, we need to stop, investigate why it is happening and think about what we can do to change it.
Superstitions aren’t always religious or obvious to everyone.