Races among humans are artificial, perverse constructs generated by misapplying the taxonomic category subspecies or by arbitrary socio-political construction.

The subspecies, as a biological category, was formalized by Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-Century “father” of taxonomy. Linnaeus and contemporary racist theorists popularized human subspeciation using morphology and “demeanour” to divide us into a handful of “races”.  Homo sapiens europaeus was described as “white, sanguine, muscular”; Homo sapiens afer as “black, phlegmatic, relaxed”.

Racialism – the beginnings

‘Racialism’ was probably employed by the earliest humans.  Post-Linnaean racialism was further misused to identify a multitude of ‘racial’ groupings sharing a common language, religion, culture, class and/or national affiliation.  Within the “First People”, the Southern African KhoiSan, the pastoral Khoi (khoi literally means “People”) regarded morphologically similar, hunter-gatherers as “San” (“Others”).  The ‘San’ (perhaps the earliest genetically-definable modern humans), in turn, have no collective name for themselves and are highly diverse linguistically and genetically – self-identifying as more than ten ‘nations’.

World-wide, over 200 ‘races’ have been recognized. Within Haiti alone, local people employed more than 100 different racial terms. In extreme instances, ‘races’ in power used their ‘superiority’ (and inferred threat) to ’justify’ their hyper-oppression and even genocide of the ‘others’.

Regardless of the number of  races ‘recognized’, the primary purpose of human ‘taxonomy’ is to denigratee ‘others’.

This is unjustifiable: biologically, culturally, educationally or socio-politically.

Nature: biology

Since World War II, there has been widespread agreement that human races have no biological basisHomo sapiens evolved once, in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and cannot be subdivided further. So, pioneer Pan-Africanist Robert Sobukwe hit the racial ‘nail’ on the head in 1959: “There is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race”.

Genetics: Humans all share the same set of genes.  The DNA of any two human beings is 99.9% identical.  In stark contrast, genetically distinct populations of our nearest living relative, the Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes – confined to Central Africa and sometimes less than a mile apart – are more genetically distinct than humans that live on different continents.

There is greater genetic variation within human populations confined to a given continent than between populations from different continents. For example, within KhoiSan-variation exceeds that among populations form throughout much of ‘non-Africa’, and many Brazilian “whites” have more African ancestry than some US “blacks”.   In short, we are all genomic ‘kissing cousins’.

If ‘genomists’ were forced to ‘discover’ geographically distinct groups from randomly-sampled humans, only a handful of African ones would emerge.  The rest of non-African humanity would fall within one or other of these groups. In short, non-African modern humans are genetic ‘paleo-refugees’.

The major human genomic groups are not Asians/Africans/Europeans/Native-Americans!  Studies claiming the opposite (e.g. newsman Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History) and that societal differences reflect differential evolution in intelligence, impulsivity, manners, xenophobia, etc. are a “mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles”.

‘Racial genomists’ confirmed ‘racialization’ because they first separated the studied-humans by geography and ‘race’, avoiding individuals that don’t easily fall into these categories. Afterwards, they searched for the few rapidly-evolving, adaptively neutral, bits of “junk DNA”  that can discriminate amongst them.  This ‘strategy’ may recover some traditional racial groups.  But they are fabrications based on ‘cherry-picked’ samples.  Furthermore, if one pursued this genomic strategy to the extreme, humans could be ‘racialized’ much, much more finely – providing the apartheid-kindred with results that they could have used to ‘justify’ “separate development”.

Genetic genealogy

This genomic capacity has been exploited by a growing, aggressively-advertised, genetic ‘ancestry’ industry. One can even get a ‘certificate’ indicating your ancestors’ geographical provenance and your geographic (read: racial) genetic makeup. As far as I can understand, this makes some sense as a probabilistic, forensic scientific statement. But, the accuracy of the ‘diagnosis’ depends inter alia on the markers used and the scale of geographical coverage of the comparative material. One thing is certain: this ‘genetic astrology’ is not legally actionable evidence of ‘racial’ or genealogical identity. For example, markers derived from one source (e.g. mitochondrial DNA) might place ‘roots’ in one area and suggest a certain ‘racial signature’, and those from Y-chromosomes others.

A noteworthy example of human genetic ‘connectedness’ is the finding that millions of Americans may be descendants of the 4th century Irish King, Niall of the Nine Hostages. During an Oprah Winfrey Show, eminent African-American Harvard historian and ardent ‘genome-genealogist’ Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. announced that he and an Irish-American police officer (who arrested him for trying to gain entry to his locked home) are among them!

Also based on this ‘diagnostic capacity’, some 21st century ‘decolonist’ researchers, e.g. South Africa-based philosopher, Achille Mbembe, seem to advocate the biological rehabilitation of human races.  Mbembe maintains that: “ongoing re-articulations of race and recoding of racism are developments in the life sciences, and in particular in genomics” and allow delineation of human races, making them “amenable to optimization by reverse engineering and reconfiguration”. This assertion is based on the above-mentioned blatant misuse of forensic genomics.

Morphology (overall anatomical form) and Physiology:  Humans vary strikingly in whole-organism ‘appearance‘.  Potential diagnostic features include, inter alia, tolerance to alcohol, body odour, earwax, cold adaptations, eyelid folding, head hair structure, height/mass, high altitude oxygen metabolism, HIV resistance, microbiomes, menarche, pigmentation, steatopygia, prevalence of sickle-cell anaemia and other genetically-based diseases, ability to sense bitterness, toxin tolerance and osteology (especially of the cranium). But, such physical and physiological variations tend to change clinally (geographically gradually), rather than abruptly, and are generally inherited independently of one another. Furthermore, the clinal variation in one trait generally does not parallel that of others and those of genetic markers.  In short, they are ‘discordant’; rendering any attempt to establish lines of division among human populations both arbitrary and subjective.

For example, skin pigmentation results from natural selection operating differently in different parts of Earth.  As early as the 14th century, the Islamic sociologist Ibn Khaldun proposed that dark skin in humans was an adaptation to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa.  Modern research ties this to protection against melanoma-inducing sunlight in lower latitudes, and selection for lighter pigmentation at higher latitudes to allow production of vitamin D in the skin. Indeed, darkly pigmented skin can be rapidly lost evolutionarily and regained (over as few as 100 generations, or about 2500 years) depending on the ultra-violet radiation in areas ultimately ‘colonized’ by dark-skinned humans that emerged from Africa.

Nurture: culture, sociality and politics

Some South African humanities scholars, e.g. University of Cape Town sociologist Xolela Mangcu, media personalities (Eusebius McKaiser), NGO leaders (Andile Mngxitama) and politicians (Julius Malema) advocate continuation of official and de facto use of ‘race’. Their goals are to socially justify material redress, ‘affirmative action’ or even violence to offset past or continuing socio-economic oppression and to effect ‘Afrocentric’ educational and political “decolonization”.

‘Race’ is re-conceptualized from a social perspective based on “self-identification” according to shared attributes including pre-colonial nationality, history, language, religion, myths, behavioural norms, values, traditions, common expressive symbols, etc. Radical South African university student/staff ‘protesters’ (fallists) have even taken on the mantle of ‘race’ to justify the establishment of quota ‘race’-based academic appointment policies and the creation of racially exclusive associations.  Extreme fallists employ racial defamation, illegal intimidation, vandalism, destruction and extreme violence to ‘topple’ real or imagined, ‘white’ supremacist/capitalist “hegemonies”.

‘Racialist philosophy’

To give racialism academic/legal ‘credibility’, based on the premise that racism and ‘white supremacy’ remain engrained in the institutional fabric of society, social scientists and legal ‘scholars’ developed Critical Race Theory (CRT) “a [Eurocentric] collection of critical stances against the existing legal order from a race-based point of view”. CRT attacks the very foundations of South Africa’s internationally acclaimed Constitution, the non-racial, academic-freedom ‘dream’ of legendary UCT Vice Chancellor T.B. Davie and its implementation by subsequent VCs Stuart Saunders and Mamphela Ramphele. CRT advocates assert that the “values” underpinning constitutional law and academic freedom have no enduring basis in principle and are mere social constructs calculated to legitimize “white supremacy”.  They amount to nothing more than ‘false promises’. In effect, CRT seeks racial emancipation by replacing broadly consensual systems of law with racial power.

UCT is currently advertising a professorship restricted to “black South African” applicants proficient in “critical theory” and has, without advertisement and apparently approval by Senate, formally recognized the racially-defined Black Academic Caucus as a structure on par with other long-standing societies.

Debunking a menacing myth

Nowhere are the fallacy and nefarious actions of this racist philosophy better exposed than by UCT’s (and arguably Africa’s) greatest ‘racial scholar’, Crain Soudien, in his final public address as an employee at UCT in 2015. According to Soudien, human ‘races’ have no essence/ontological-status: biologically, culturally, socially or politically. He elaborates on this in his book Realising the Dream: “Race is an invention” … “only being framed in opposition to whiteness” … “an ideological smokescreen” … “viscerally inscribed in our heads and in our bodies”.  In short, racialism is a relational concept, having no inherent reality in the absence of an antithesis – whiteness, blackness or some ‘otherness’.  To get a handle on the even harder-to-demonstrate “whiteness”, I could refer Mangcu et al. to Rachel A. Dolezal and/or Dylann Storm Roof or, better still, Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University and author of The History of White People.”

To my mind a nonsensical use of the racial term ‘black’ is that proposed by Black Consciousness advocate Steve Biko (and implemented at UCT) to socio-politically ‘encompass’ dark-skinned African (‘Bantu’ sensu Verwoerd), Asian and ‘coloured’ South Africans. The only common ‘character’ of this subset of humanity is their ‘non-whiteness’ defined by long-gone segregation/oppression-based Apartheid Laws.

Regardless, of how ‘racial’ identity is allocated, assigned or assumed, in the end, the favoured ”group” will use its ‘status’ to dominate/victimize the “other(s)”.  To allow the rehabilitation of ‘race’-motivated rule in post-Mandela South Africa defaces the non-racial Constitution for which he was “prepared to die”.  Nevertheless, realizing Desmond Tutu’s dream of a Rainbow Nation requires the ruthless eradication of racialism’s inevitable spawn – racism, its ‘sister-isms’ and xenophobia.  That cannot be achieved by the emerging ‘neo-racism’ advocated by Wade, Mbembe, Mangcu et al. and extreme fallists.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.
  • Bruce

    An interesting subject. Perhaps you could write a series explaining it in detail for us that don’t have degrees in subjects concerning genetics and pigmentation? I for one would look forward to that. Please do so?

  • Teresa Williams

    If races don’t exist, then how can forensic pathologists all around the world determine the race of dead people from bones alone?

    • Gillian Benade

      Depends on the definition of “race”. Forensic pathologists examining bones is just the first step in answering the question of the person’s identity. To figure out what they looked like when they were alive.

      • Teresa Williams

        When a dead body is found, and the identity of the person is unknown, the first step in determining the identity is to figure out race, age, height and sex. Then police can check their record of missing persons to see if they have a match. The forensic pathologist can tell, with a high degree of accuracy, *just from the bones*, what race the individual was. Facial reconstruction is done in just a tiny fraction of cases, as it is very expensive. The bones alone are all that’s needed to determine race – primarily facial/skull bones, but also, as I understand it, knee bones. Proportions are also important: some races have short legs and long torsos, which are very distinctive.

        I think it’s a bit silly to thunder on about there being no such thing as race, when billions of people can identify different races at a glance. What’s wrong with having different races anyway? Whatever happened to “celebrating diversity”?

        • Gillian Benade

          I agree with your first paragraph.

          We need to dig deeper than what we can classify “at a glance”. I can identify different breeds of dog at glance.

        • Tim Crowe

          When forensic scientists give ‘racial’ assessments, they are probablistic, educated guesses assuming that there are racial stereotypes. They are not done at a glance and they may be wrong. Indeed, first, glance-based inpressions are often misleading. The bottom line is that each bit of evidence has its own ‘story’ and the combined stories do not confirm superficial assessments. That’s why different racial human taxonomists recognize different numbers of races.

          • Teresa Williams

            They have tables that indicate probably, yes, and they produce surprisingly accurate results. Bottom line is that race can be determined by bones – race is not a “construct”.

            Tim, you’ve been spending too much time in the racially toxic atmosphere of UCT. Racial diversity is not a *bad* thing. Racism and racial hatred are bad, but the fact of the existence of races isn’t bad. You need a break from that awful atmosphere you work in.