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‘Race’: What Biology Can Tell Us about a Social Construct

  1. Jonathan Michael Kaplan

Published Online: 17 JAN 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005857

eLS

eLS

How to Cite

Kaplan, J. M. 2011. ‘Race’: What Biology Can Tell Us about a Social Construct. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 17 JAN 2011

Abstract

Although there exist human populations that differ in the proportions of particular alleles present, this fact does not support claims that ‘race’, as it is usually understood, is a biological rather than a social concept. Although there are differences in proportions of alleles in those races usually recognised in contemporary western social discourse (folk-racial categories), these differences are no more biologically significant than are the genetic differences that exist between populations that are not socially recognised as races (populations that do not correspond to folk-racial categories). This implies that whatever average genetic differences exist between the populations called ‘races’ in ordinary social discourse, those genetic differences are not what account for the folk-racial categories in use today. Despite recent research sometimes taken to imply otherwise, folk-racial categories – which remain of fundamental importance to people's life-prospects – remain social categories and not biological categories.

Key Concepts:

  • Many human populations differ from each other in the frequencies of particular alleles.

  • Many of these genetic variations between human populations can be explained by population structure.

  • Contemporary socially identified racial categories (folk-racial categories) can be mapped (albeit only roughly) onto human populations identified on the basis of the continental location of recent ancestors.

  • Since physical location is associated with population structure, it is no surprise that populations whose ancestors came from different locations will differ in the frequencies of some alleles.

  • Although human populations identified on the basis of folk-racial categories differ in the proportion of particular alleles, so too do many human populations that are not generally socially recognised as forming races (such as the country of origin within Europe).

  • Biologically, the populations that form folk-racial categories (e.g. Asians) are no more important or significant than many other populations that are not usually identified as races (e.g. the Spanish and Portuguese).

  • Although human populations identified on the basis of folk-racial categories differ in the proportion of particular alleles, this does not make the folk-racial categories biological categories.

Keywords:

  • biological race;
  • allele frequencies;
  • folk racial categories;
  • human populations;
  • human genetic variation