Is Race a Social Construct?

People mean a lot of things when they say “social construct.” Mostly they mean “made up.”

Luckily for us, Google is very helpful:

I may be abusing the word "luckily"

Dear Google and the NY Times: Not only is that not the biological definition of race, it’s not even the biological definition of SPECIES. This is not what laymen mean when they speak of race, not what racists mean when they speak of race, not what blacks or whites or Hindus mean, and definitely not anyone who actually studies human biology and genetics.

The simple folk definition of “race” is “a group of people who look kinda similar and come from the same large area of the world.” This, of course, absolutely exists. Most people in the world look a lot like their neighbors, especially if they live in their ancestral homeland and their country hasn’t been invaded lately.

Now, the exact details of how you racially classify people–are Hindus Caucasian? How about North Africans and Iranians? What about mixed-race people?–are socially constructed. This mean that a word like “black” may mean something different in Russian than it does in the Dominican Republic than it does in the US.

This does not change the underlying reality–the humans referred to as “black” still possess the quality of looking similar to other people from their ancestral part of the world. Reality does not disappear just because people sometimes disagree on exactly how to use words to define it.

The scientific, biological definition of race gets a little more complicated, since it matters whether we are talking abut chromosomal races, fungal races, or humans. A couple of definitions:

Geographical race
A distinct population that is isolated in a particular area from other populations of a species,[9] and consistently distinguishable from the others,[9] e.g. morphology (or even only genetically[4]). Geographic races are allopatric.[7]
Physiological race
A group of individuals that do not necessarily differ in morphology from other members of the species, but have identifiably different physiology or behaviour.[10] A physiological race may be an ecotype, part of a species that is adapted to a different local habitat, defined even by a specific food source.[11]

Notice that neither of these include, “possessing a gene or cluster of genes common to everyone in the race but to no one outside of it.”

But if you don’t like the Wikipedia, here’s what Biology Reference has to say:

The biological definition of race is a geographically isolated breeding population that shares certain characteristics in higher frequencies than other populations of that species, but has not become reproductively isolated from other populations of the same species. (A population is a group of organisms that inhabit the same region and interbreed.) Human racial groups compose a number of breeding units that in the past remained geographically and perhaps temporally isolated, yet could interbreed and produce viable offspring within the species Homo sapiens sapiens.

The Biology-Online Dictionary has some more definitions.
These races are real things, even if biologists disagree about exactly which race a mushroom should belong to.
The reality on the ground:
There are few truly isolated groups in the world, though the Onge (and most likely the Sentinelese) actually fit the NY Times’s wacky definition of a “race” due to thousands of years of isolation on tiny islands in the middle of nowhere:
Click for full size
From Haak et al.
The Onge are the peach stripe between the olive brown section and the purple section.
Major groups in this dataset, running from left to right (excluding the ancient skeletons at the far left):
Light Green: Brazilian rainforest dwellers who may be most closely related to Melanesians
Light Pink: Aztecs and their relatives
Brown: Canadian Indians
Rose: North-East Africans
Dusty Blue: Bantus
Light Blue: Pygmies
Magenta: Tanzanian hunter-gatherers
Orange/Blue/Teal: Europeans
Orange/Purple/Teal: Middle Easterners
Olive Brown: Inuit (Eskimo)
Peach: Onge
Purple: PNG/Australia (Melanesians and Aborigines)
Light Green/Teal: India
Yellow/Red: East Asia
Yellow: Taiwan
Red: Siberia
Some of these groups have very mixed ancestries; people from eastern Canada or the middle of Eurasia, for example. Others are quite distinct–there is no doubt that the Eskimo and Pygmies are genetically distinct, physically distinct, geographically distinct, behave differently, and do not generally marry each other.
We may argue about whether Turks should be considered “Europeans” or “Middle Easterners,” or perhaps say that all orange people should be grouped together, or all teal or blue, but here geography does its job: Europeans look genetically like other Europeans; Indians look genetically like other Indians; Middle Easterners look like each other (except for Bedouins,) etc.
We may also argue about how many races we want to distinguish–people usually determine races based on whichever people are around, but obviously the world is more complicated than this. Americans generally think of “African Americans” as part of a broader race that includes all Africans, but we have distinguished here between 5 different groups, some of which are quite distinct–the ancestors of today’s Pygmies and Bantus, for example, split apart about 100,000 years ago, whereas the ancestors of today’s Bantu’s and Koreans split about 70,000 years ago (as far as we know.) Most African Americans are genetically Bantu (with a bit of European admixture,) not Pygmy. We might in a folk-sense refer to both of these groups as “Africans” or “black,” but genetically (and behaviorally) they are distinct.
Of course, you do not have to call them “races.” Most people studying human genetics use terms like “population,” “ethnic group,” “ethny,” or “clade” instead, but the practical meaning is the same.
But the idea that groups that are genetically, physically, behaviorally, or geographically distinct or distinguishable from each other do not exist is pure nonsense.

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