The Myth of Human Races

The Myth of Human Races

Alain Corcos
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 210
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/j.ctt7zt5tq
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  • Book Info
    The Myth of Human Races
    Book Description:

    The idea that human races exist is a socially constructed myth that has no grounding in science. Regardless of skin, hair, or eye color, stature or physiognomy, we are all of one species. Nonetheless, scientists, social scientists, and pseudo-scientists have, for three centuries, tried vainly to prove that distinctive and separate "races" of humanity exist. These protagonists of race theory have based their flawed research on one or more of five specious assumptions:- humanity can be classified into groups using identifiable physical characteristics,- human characteristics are transmitted "through the blood,"- distinct human physical characteristics are inherited together,- physical features can be linked to human behavior,- human groups or "races" are by their very nature unequal and, therefore, they can be ranked in order of intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority.The Myth of Human Racessystematically dispels these fallacies and unravels the web of flawed research that has been woven to demonstrate the superiority of one group of people over another.

    eISBN: 978-0-87013-903-1
    Subjects: General Science, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. A Word to the Reader
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Historically, race thinking² assumes at least five things:

    1. That humanitycanbe classified into groups using identifiable physical characteristics;

    2. That these characteristics are transmitted “through the blood”;

    3. That they are inherited together;

    4. That physical features are linked to behavior;

    5. That these groups are by nature unequal and therefore can be ranked in order of intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority.

    My objective in this book is to refute the notion that human “races” (in the plural) exist. I hope to contribute to efforts that will permit all of us to respond to human diversity in productive...

  6. Part One
    • Introduction to Part One
      (pp. 7-8)

      You may think you are not qualified to decide whether or not many human races exist, or whether we are all part of a single race. You may believe that answering these questions should be left to scientists and others who have more information. Specialists have, after all, spent many years classifying humanity into racial groups; many have written scholarly articles and a seemingly endless stream of learned books on the subject. But notwithstanding all of what has been done, the means for understanding this seeming dilemma is within the reach of most people. We do not need to know...

    • Chapter 1 Race is a Slippery Word
      (pp. 9-14)

      Peter 1. Rose¹ is indeed correct. Race, as applied to human beings, is vague and ambiguous. In common speech, it has a whole range of meanings. To focus on the issue, dictionaries offer little help. For example, theAmerican Heritage Dictionary of the English Languagegives numerous and contradictory definitions of the word “race”:

      1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.

      2. Mankind as a whole [as in the human race].

      3. Any group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history,...

    • Chapter 2 Race Classification: An Impossible Task
      (pp. 15-22)

      What Fernand Corcos, my uncle, meant was that the two hypothetical men were more alike than they were different. As a matter of fact it would have been impossible for anyone, except the two of them, to know which one was a Jew and which one was an Arab; their “differences” would be purely cultural, not physical. My uncle could have made the same comment about the Serbs and the Croats: If they were fighting in the streets without their clothes on and without saying a word, they would be unable to recognize one another as “enemies.”

      Physical differences among...

    • Chapter 3 Skulls, Women, and Savages: The Art of Craniology, or Heads, I’m Superior; Tails, You’re Inferior
      (pp. 23-32)

      Charles Darwin, though highly intelligent and an original thinker, shared a belief that brain size was highly correlated with intelligence; that is, the larger the skull and the bigger the brain, the more intelligent the person. Darwin and his colleagues also firmly believed in the existence of human races. Many thought that these races, like different species, had been created separately and endowed with different mental capacities.³ Others thought that human races had evolved from a common ancestor, but that, by now, had acquired distinct physical and mental capacities. Whatever they thought about the origin of human races, most intellectuals...

    • Chapter 4 Full Blood, Half-Blood, and Tainted Blood
      (pp. 33-44)

      I am spending a weekend on Wiggins Lake, in northern Michigan. It is cold, but I feel fortunate that I am not in the eastern United States, which is being battered by what the press calls the worst storm of the century. Inside our cottage I am warm and watching a “thrilling” movie calledTainted Blood.But as the film’s plot unravels I become disenchanted with it, because I realize that the movie would be thrilling if I did not know that the three common beliefs about heredity on which it is based are without foundation. What is wrong with...

    • Chapter 5 Racial Traits: More Fiction than Fact
      (pp. 45-48)

      Alexander Alland,² like many who are not familiar with African populations, had a stereotypical view of an African as a man or a woman with a dark skin, a jaw that projects forward, curly black hair, a flat nose, slight chin, thick lips and small brows. His view was shattered when he had the opportunity to live for some time among the members of a particular African tribe. There, contrary to what he expected, he found that not all of the members of that population had similar skin color, hair color, eye color, and hair form. He became aware of...

    • Chapter 6 You Cannot Judge a Book by its Cover
      (pp. 49-60)

      This is what Pee Wee Reese said¹ when he learned that, on August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson had signed a contract with Branch Rickey, which led him two years later to be the first black to play major league baseball. Reese, like most “white” people at the time, believed that “blacks” were athletically inferior to them. Sure, they could box, so the argument went. After all, there was Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber.” Theycouldplay baseball, there were “colored” baseball teams; but they were not as good as “whites”. They could play basketball; after all, there were the Harlem...

  7. Part Two
    • Introduction to Part Two
      (pp. 61-64)

      In Part One, I have demonstrated the false assumptions on which race thinking is based. Yet race thinking has inhibited and undermined social cooperation and harmony by assuming that some human groups, as defined by physical appearance, are intellectually inferior to others. Hence, so their reasoning goes, people in these groups have to be treated differently, to be segregated, to receive less education, and to be economically deprived. That race thinking has played a major and unfortunate role in our dealing with social issues is well known today. But what is not so well known is that race thinking also...

    • Chapter 7 Did We Evolve from Apes, and If So, from How Many?
      (pp. 65-70)

      That is what the wife of the Bishop of Worcester exclaimed when her husband told her what Professor Huxley had said at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, on that fateful Saturday, June 3D, 1860. The exchange occurred just seven months after the publication of Darwin’s controversial but scholarly book,The Origin of Species.In this work, Darwin successfully organized evidence to demonstrate that living organisms had evolved and forcefully explained the process by which it took place, which he called natural selection.

      If the average person in the street were asked the meaning...

    • Chapter 8 Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fittest of Us All?
      (pp. 71-78)

      What Josiah Strong alluded to in the last sentence above was natural selection, the theory that Charles Darwin proposed in 1859. Notions like “survival of the fittest“ and “struggle for existence” often come to mind when one is asked about the meaning of natural selection. However, neither phrase was original with Darwin. The first was used by Thomas Malthus, who, inAn Essay on the Principle of Population,expressed the view that human reproductive capacity far exceeds the available food supply. Human beings compete among themselves for the necessities. The unrelenting competition engenders vice, misery, war and famine. The second...

    • Chapter 9 Adaptive or Not Adaptive, That is the Question
      (pp. 79-82)

      The question anthropologists of earlier generations never asked about what they called racial traits is a simple one: Are they adaptive or not adaptive? Not only have they assumed, and in some cases still assume,¹ that racial traits exist, but they concluded that each trait had an adaptive value. What do scientists mean when they use the phrase “adaptive value?” In order for a trait to have adaptive value, it has to improve the adjustment of the individual to the environment in which he or she lives; it has to be inheritable, and it has to enable its possessor to...

    • Chapter 10 Why Different Skin Colors?
      (pp. 83-90)

      Why does human skin color vary from very dark to very light? A clue to the answer for this question lies in the observation that, before the great era of human migration that followed the European voyages of discovery, dark-skinned peoples, in general, were found in areas of high solar radiation; light skinned people, in general, lived in lands further north, lands with cool, cloudy climates. This observation suggested to many that in some way these peoples had the right skin pigmentation for the climatic conditions in which they lived.

      The migration of people that has occurred during the past...

    • Chapter 11 Why Different Shapes of Noses? Why So Much or So Little Hair on the Body or the Head?
      (pp. 91-96)

      One of my friends has a large, convex, highly bridged and curved nose. When he was a graduate student years ago, he visited a biochemical laboratory in Detroit. The man who was in charge of the laboratory was a Jew who seemed to have a stereotypic view of what Jews are supposed to look like, for at the end of the visit, pointing to his own nose, he asked one of his colleagues, also a Jew, if my friend was “one of us.” Well, my friend was not “one of them,” for there are many people throughout the world who...

    • Chapter 12 Why Different Colors of Eye and Hair?
      (pp. 97-102)

      That is what the priest-detective Father Dowling said to the resourceful Sister Steve in a recent episode of the television seriesThe Father Dowling Mysteries.Though Father Dowling's deduction led him to find the murderer, it was not scientifically sound. The inheritance of eye color is far more complex than is generally assumed. However, we cannot blame Father Dowling or his script writers for repeating common folk wisdom, which has been taught for years, even in beginning courses on genetics. Eye-color inheritance was considered to be a classic example of a human trait determined by one pair of genes; one...

    • Chapter 13 Race: Geneticists Led Astray
      (pp. 103-110)

      We have seen that during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, there were many attempts to classify humanity into races by using skin color, hair type, nose configuration, skull shape, and many other physical traits. These attempts failed because scientists have never been able to agree on how many races there were or what a human race actually was. No genuine racial boundaries could be identified because there is tremendous variability of traits among individuals within any group that is established. However, in spite of repeated failures, most scientists remained convinced of the existence of human races. They did...

    • Chapter 14 Race and IQ: A Pseudoproblem
      (pp. 111-124)

      A wrong assumption that leads science astray may only delay its progress. It may have no other consequence. This was the case of the phlogiston theory in chemistry or the case of the theory of spontaneous generation in biology. However, the assumption that human races exist not only led science astray for quite a while but also had very harmful, even destructive social consequences. For years many scientists were convinced that different human groups differed in intelligence and they attempted to demonstrate that this was true.

      What happened as a result of their efforts was not something in which we...

    • Chapter 15 Race and Disease: Another Pseudo-Problem
      (pp. 125-132)

      We have seen in previous chapters that the assumption that human races exist has led science astray for quite a while. Unfortunately this assumption still persists unchallenged today in the field of medicine. While the physical differences among us, such as shape of nose and hair, are not important, our differences in susceptibility to diseases and our likelihood of inheriting a genetic diseases may be of great significance.

      Medical researchers, unlike anthropologists, have not yet questioned the use of racial categories as a means for organizing data. They use such techniques to argue that there are clear differences among “racial”...

    • Chapter 16 How the U.S. Government Classifies its Citizens: A Real Problem
      (pp. 133-138)

      If scientists have for the most part abandoned the concept of race, the U.S. Government, like the public at large, has not. Today, the question, what race do you belong to? is asked by all types of institutions in the United States, because the federal government wants to know if they are complying with the famous Article Nine, which deals with affirmative action. Affirmative action is a phrase that refers to attempts to bring members of underrepresented groups, usually groups that have suffered discrimination, into a higher degree of participation in some beneficial program.¹ To achieve this, the government has...

  8. Part Three
    • Chapter 17 Of Species and Races: A Modern View
      (pp. 141-148)

      In the eighteenth century, opponents to slavery in Britain’s American colonies accused slave owners of not considering blacks to be human beings, but as members of anotherspecies.This accusation was not entirely deserved. Though most planters treated slaves as animals, they did not necessarily believe that they were not human beings; among them, Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.² But, of course, it also must be remembered that pro-slavery writers wrote explicitly about Africans not being of the same species as whites.³ The pro-slave polemicists went so far as to place blacks in groups that included orangutans, apes, baboons and...

    • Chapter 18 Each of Us Is Unique
      (pp. 149-154)

      Most Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant groups teach their congregations to accept people on their individual worth regardless of their name, color, religion, or occupation. This moral advice is not only excellent but agrees with what biology has taught us for years. We are each biologically unique; the basic reason can be summarized in a few words. The incredible diversity that exists among us is the result of one fundamental aspect of sexual reproduction.

      Each of us has a unique genetic makeup, a unique set of genes. The chances of our having such a genetic makeup can be compared to our...

    • Chapter 19 Of Genes and Chromosomes: No One Is Like You
      (pp. 155-162)

      In chapter four, we mentioned that the thrilling movieTainted Bloodwas based on three false assumptions, one being that there was something “special” about a boy and a girl who were twins. But the twins, in this instance, were of different sexes and were therefore fraternal twins. Fraternal twins, unlike identical twins, are no more similar than regular brothers and sisters. They originate from separate fertilization events: two eggs, ovulated in the same menstrual cycle, each fertilized by a different sperm. Different eggs and different sperm combine to produce complete and different individuals, which happen to be born the...

    • Chapter 20 Myths about ancestry
      (pp. 163-168)

      Many people, like Reginald, still believe that blood is involved in inheritance. According to this notion, the blood of our ancestors, which carries their characteristics, somehow mingles and is poured into us. Our inheritance is a half-and-half blend of blood from our fathers and mothers, and hence a quarter each from our grandparents, one eighth each from our great grandparents and so on.² This notion, a logical consequence of the blood theory of inheritance, is widely held. If believers of this theory have a famous man or woman somewhere in their lineage, they, like Reginald, boast of the fact, believing...

    • Chapter 21 Of DNA and Proteins, or No One is Like You
      (pp. 169-174)

      We are alike, yet we are all different. If a Martian landed on Earth, he or she would have no problem in distinguishing humans as belonging to the same species. He or she would be struck by our erect posture which permits us to walk fast and steadily on the surface of the ground and to use our arms for things other than ambulation; he or she would possibly be impressed by our hair, which cascades from the top of our heads, but is almost absent from the rest of our bodies. These characteristics are only a few of those...

    • Chapter 22 Except for a Very Few of Us, We are All Colored
      (pp. 175-178)

      Skin color has been and is still used to physically describe people. It is easy to understand why. Skin color is one of the most striking human traits. All other distinctions fade before this one. A very dark-skinned or a very light-skinned person stands out among people who have skins of different colors. And that distinction remains, for no amount of sun, no skin treatment, no drug, can fundamentally and permanently change someone’s skin color. Not only is skin color the most visible and striking human trait, it is also one whose social significance has been tremendous throughout our history....

    • Chapter 23 Can We Change our Skin Color?
      (pp. 179-186)

      William James² said once that there is no way to explain the experience of being in love to someone who has not had the experience.

      In a similar way “black” people generally tell their “white” friends that no matter how they try there is no way for them to know how a black person feels when discriminated against since they are not themselves blacks. But we know that at least two people did share this experience simply by changing the color of their skin and for a few weeks successfully “passing” as “Negroes.” One was John Howard Griffin in 1960...

    • Chapter 24 Nothing Under the Sun is Just Black or White
      (pp. 187-192)

      If we bring up a dark-skinned child born in Africa in northern France, or if we bring up a light-skinned child, born in France, in equatorial Africa, they will remain, respectively, dark and light. Something fundamental, therefore, must exist in their genetic makeup that determines their basic pigmentation. Scientists call this basic pigmentationconstitutive skin color.If our degree of pigmentation varies with our genetic constitution,¹ it also varies with the environment. Some of us are lightly pigmented a part of the year and may become more pigmented the rest of the year, depending upon how much our skin is...

    • Chapter 25 Genes and Skin Color: The More the Merrier
      (pp. 193-200)

      Skin color is undoubtedly inherited, but misconceptions about it are many and have been repeated in literature. For instance, in one of Conan Doyle’S Sherlock Holmes adventures, a little girl wears a yellow mask. The reason for this strange behavior is that the mother is afraid she would lose the love of her husband if he knew that she had a child from a former husband, an African American, who had died three years earlier. Showing the portrait of her deceased husband to the astonished Holmes, Watson and her second husband, the woman said:

      That is John Hector of Atlanta...

  9. Concluding Thoughts
    (pp. 201-206)

    Most people believe that human races exist and that their belief has been supported by scientific evidence. Nothing could be further from the truth. In spite of efforts, scientists have failed to demonstrate that humanity can be divided into races, i.e., groups of human beings that can be distinguished biologically. The reason for this failure is that humanity is so highly diverse that whatever trait is used to classify people into groups, there are always members of one group sharing this particular characteristic with members of several groups, rendering the classification system unworkable.

    The biological reason for this is clear....

  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 207-210)
  11. Index
    (pp. 211-214)