Humans, it seems, were predisposed to make sharp distinctions between in-group and out-group before there were any races at all—indeed, races may have evolved partly as a response to that predispositionby Richard Dawkins / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Race” is not a clearly defined word. “Species” is different. There really is an agreed way to decide whether two animals belong in the same species: can they interbreed? The interbreeding criterion gives the species a unique status in the hierarchy of taxonomic levels. Above the species level, a genus is just a group of species whose members are pretty similar to each other. No objective criterion exists to determine how similar they have to be, and the same is true of all the higher levels: family, order, class, phylum and the various “sub-” or “super-” names that intervene between them. Below the species level, “race” and “sub-species” are used interchangeably and, again, no objective criterion exists that would enable us to decide whether two people should be considered part of the same race or not, nor to decide how many races there are. And of course there is the added complication, absent above the species level, that races interbreed, so there are lots of people of mixed race.
The interbreeding criterion works pretty well, and it delivers an unequivocal verdict on humans and their supposed races. All living human races interbreed with one another. We are all members of the same species, and no reputable biologist would say any different. But let me call your attention to an interesting, perhaps even slightly disturbing, fact. While we happily interbreed with each other, producing a continuous spectrum of inter-races, we are reluctant to give up our divisive racial language. Wouldn’t you expect that if all intermediates are on constant display, the urge to classify people as one or the other of two extremes would wither away, smothered by the absurdity of the attempt, which is continually manifested everywhere we look? But this is not what happens, and perhaps that very fact is revealing.
People who are universally agreed by all Americans to be “black” may draw less than one eighth of their ancestry from Africa, and often have a light skin colour well within the normal range for people universally agreed to be “white.” In the picture on the next page of four American politicians, two are described in all newspapers as black, the other two as white. Wouldn’t a Martian, unschooled in our conventions but able to see skin shades, be more likely to split them three against one? But in our culture, almost everybody will immediately “see” Colin Powell as “black,” even in this particular photograph which happens to show him with possibly lighter skin than both George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.