Professors Šešelj, Barrier
Human Variation and the Concept of Race
When we think of race, the first thing we probably think of is skin color. After all, races are separated by their biological differences, and the easiest way to indicate biological difference is through skin color, right? This may seem intuitive to some of us, but this concept of race has had many negative repercussions, the biggest one of them being racism. Although the concept of race is something that we take for granted nowadays, in fact “many social scientists dismiss race as a cultural construct, not a biological reality” (Gravlee 2009). So if race is just a social construct, then what accounts for the differences among humans that we see, skin color being the most prominent? Although right now race may be considered a social concept (there is much debate on the topic), this doesn’t mean that there is no variation among Homo sapiens. Skin color is an easy example to use, because it is the most noticeable characteristic of a person. Although we should hesitate to categorize and, for example, put all dark skinned people into the African or African-American box, it is important to note that skin color can tell us about a person’s ancestry.
‘ What gives our skin color is melanin (namely eumelanin), a pigment that is produced by melanocytes in the epidermis. Melanocytes react with UV radiation to produce more melanin, meaning that more UV radiation (which is found in sunlight) equals more melanin production, which equals darker skin. Of course, our skin only produces pigment when it is being exposed to sunlight, and gradually loses the pigmentation when the source of radiation is gone; this is known as getting a tan. However, after thousands and thousands of years of being subjected to the same climate conditions, one’s skin will gradually change to reflect that climate. So people with darker skin probably have ancestors that inhabited areas with higher levels of UV radiation (Jablonski 2006). Although Africa is not the only place in the world to have high levels of radiation, it is certainly the largest example. Many parts of Africa experience higher levels of radiation that other parts, so it makes sense that people with darker skin would have ancestors that originated in those high radiation areas. So we can see that, at least concerning skin color, there are genetic causes of variation among humans. But are those genetic causes enough to categorize an entire group of people? We know that there isn’t a single quality that can identify a single “race”, so we must stick to grouping people together that share similar qualities. The problem we face is that there is more variation within groups than there are between groups (Gravlee 2009). So how do we decide which traits are important enough to be identifiers for an entire “race”?