Posts Tagged ‘Race’

Dem Bones


Originally published by the Guardian 7th March 2007

One of the saddest but often untold stories of the 18th and 19th centuries was the huge loss of human life, and diversity, as European empire builders spread “civilization”. Tragically, this “civilization” took the form of enforced western modes of behaviour and all too often the extermination of populations that were considered troublesome or occupied regions rich in valuable natural resources. Within a relatively short space of time whole ways of life were wiped out: millennia of rich human diversity were gone forever.

Most of the indigenous populations that suffered had traditions of oral history and as they died so to did their histories. Pockets of indigenous people remain but the process of “Mac-Disneyfication” continues unabated. What we are left with, however, are the skeletal remains of indigenous groups that were collected during the same period, albeit in ways abhorrent to modern standards, now residing in museums.

In many cases these skeletons are the last representatives of populations that were utterly destroyed. Analysis of these skeletal remains by scientists, always with extreme reverence and respect, gives us a last chance to better understand the story of humanity. Human skeletons are an invaluable source of information for the understanding of recent human evolution; or how we came to be who we are. The data that can be collected ranges from sex, age at death and disease right through to dietary make-up and DNA profiles.

However, over the last few years there have been increasingly vocal calls from minority groups for the repatriation and reburial (ie destruction) of many of the remains held in British institutions. These bones allow every single human being to better understand our shared history. Genetic analysis of human bones has shown that we are a very closely related species of primate. Surface differences, like skin colour, are insignificant when seen in the light of how recently we evolved in Africa (circa 200,000 years ago), demonstrating how little genetic difference exists between us all. Analysis of these human bones has done so much to show up the flaws in racist arguments.

Institutions that hold collections of human skeletons are generally happy to work with those seeking repatriation of remains and simply ask that they be allowed to carry out tests first. The research that anthropologists carry out is generally non-invasive and when samples are collected they are usually very small. DNA analysis or radiocarbon dating can be performed with a single tooth. Groups that seek repatriation try to demonise those of us who work with human skeletal remains, recently stating that these experiments were nothing more that “mutilation” and were causing “torment to the souls of the dead”.

The most vocal calls for destructive repatriation generally come from groups who disagree with the story scientific analysis presents, which often sharply contrast with indigenous creation myths (which are so central to land claims). Preventing the analysis of these bones through reburial won’t just stop the current generation from better understanding our global history but will make it impossible forever. Can one generation of people be allowed to rule this out for all that come after them?

Race Against Time


Evolution isn’t making people in different parts of the world more distinct. There are no human races, just the one species: Homo sapiens

Originally published by the Guardian 12th December 2007

Race is one of the most misunderstood terms in modern science, misused by seasoned scientists and laymen alike. Put simply, there are no human races, just the one species: homo sapiens. The idea of human races is a totally artificial concept, a sloppy form of shorthand that refers to an ill-defined mish-mash of surface differences, such as skin colour (probably controlled by a small number of genes), as well as different cultural practices, especially religious ones. Humans have an innate need to define and categorise, but race is a dangerous and outmoded idea that just can’t keep up with modern science.

The concept of different human races is an old one. From the 19th century onwards, Darwinian ideas of natural selection were misused to justify erroneous concepts of Victorian racial superiority and nationalism. To still talk about separate human races in the 21st century is at best misguided and at worst woefully ignorant of biology.

Our own species is remarkable for our lack of genetic variation. The eruption of the supervolcano Toba approximately 74,000 years ago is thought to have wiped out much of our genetic diversity by causing the extinction of many human groups. All of the differences that we now see in humans are a mixture of small genetic variations, built up over time, and of environmental effects. The Masai Mara and the Inuit have almost identical genes but the differences in their environment have greatly influenced how those genes are expressed, producing different outward appearances.

Yet a recent study continues to prop up this sick old man of biology, suggesting that “human races” in different parts of the world are becoming genetically more distinct. The fact that we are one species does not mean that we should not expect variation between populations, especially ones separated by large distances. Differences do exist, but the shared similarities are far greater. We all remain homo sapiens but the outward and genetic differences we see between populations are retained because of sexual selection and allegorical mating, the simple concept that like attracts like. Similarly the idea that we will all end up looking the same given long enough time is just as flawed as the idea of human races.

The study of human evolution has done much to show up the fallacy of separate human races. Indeed when we examine the work carried out on DNA from Neanderthal fossils (a separate species) huge areas of shared genetic information emerge, not least the FOXP2 or “speech” gene which is identical in humans and Neanderthals. If such little variation exists between two species that last shared a common ancestor over 500,000 years ago, then how comfortable can we be with the idea of separate human races today? Surely it is at last time to put away the idea of different races, celebrate our cultural differences and warmly embrace what makes us all Homo sapiens.