Race: fact or fiction? Science holds the answer

Having the bangsa (race) and agama (religion) categories in official forms in Malaysia has always struck me as rather odd – right from the first time I laid eyes on a form years ago. As I got older, that feeling transformed into one of dismay. In this day and age, why are we required to identify ourselves based on race and religion? Doesn’t being a proud Malaysian suffice?

This thought, among many others, flooded my consciousness after the murder of George Floyd in the US, which brought the ugly face of racism back into sharp focus and sparked renewed international interest in eradicating it.

In Malaysia and globally, it feels like race-consciousness is at an all-time high. Many are using this opportunity to air their grievances and share their personal experiences with racism. It’s been heartening to see so many people open up about experiences that I’m sure caused them much distress.

For all its ubiquity, where do the all-pervasive roots of the concept of race, and the often racist behaviour it gives rise to, lie?

The word race originated from the French rasse and Italian razza and was introduced to English in 1580. It means a group of people who share a common descent. But even before the coinage of the term, the concept of race had been part of human cultures for millennia.

And although many had thought of race as immutable and grounded in reality, this school of thought was largely discarded more than 30 years ago in favour of the theory that it is a sociocultural construct without a scientific basis.

The scientific community has, by and large, accepted this to be true today. Dr Craig Venter, a pioneer in human DNA sequencing, says: “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”

Geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wills backs this up by saying: “Racism is not only socially divisive, but also scientifically incorrect. We are all descendants of people who lived in Africa recently,” he says. “We are all Africans under the skin.” The kinds of differences that people notice, such as skin pigmentation, limb length, or other adaptations are “basically surface features that have been selected for in the environment. When you peer beneath the surface at the underlying level of genetic variation, we are all much more similar than we appear to be. There are no clear, sharp delineations.”

At this point, you might be excused for thinking that the issue is settled, and that race is just a man-made construct. But as with many things that have as nuanced and complicated a history as race, the issue is far from settled.

The few scientists who don’t subscribe to this view say that this is a well-intentioned theory that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Dr Armand Marie Leroi of Imperial College of London, for instance, says that if a physical trait is compared individually, the race or the person’s ancestry would be understandably difficult to determine, and hence void of meaning and utility. However, if traits are taken together, we can usually predict the race of the person accurately.

For example, if skin colour was the only characteristic under comparison, there would be little to differentiate a dark-skinned Tamil person to an African American. However, if along with skin colour, the shape of our eyes, our hairiness, height and many other physical traits are taken into consideration together, it would be possible to ascertain ancestry accurately.

In fact, a 2002 study by the University of Southern California and Stanford University showed that people can be sorted into five major groups or continental races. They are those who are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia. These divisions more or less fall into line with traditional anthropology – the same school of thought that’s largely maligned by academics today for fear of being thought of as condoning racism.

But let’s keep in mind that being of the same race only means having been geographically located together at some point in history, after the migration out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, where we are all originally from. And the genetic variation between races that we see today is due to environmental pressures, which include closeness to the equator, diet, lifestyle, contact with other cultures and diseases.

This genetic variation can be studied by poring through our DNA, which has four chemical bases – A for adenine, C for cytosine, G for guanine, and T for thymine.

As author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Kolbert explains: “The tweak that gives East Asians thicker hair is a single base change in a single gene, from a T to a C. Similarly, the mutation that’s most responsible for giving Europeans lighter skin is a single tweak in a gene known as SLC24A5, which consists of roughly 20,000 base pairs. In one position, where most sub-Saharan Africans have a G, Europeans have an A.”

So we can see that race, even though a hazy way to compartmentalise people, is still grounded in science.

As geneticist David Reich says: “Recent genetic studies have demonstrated differences across populations not just in the genetic determinants of simple traits such as skin colour, but also in more complex traits like bodily dimensions and susceptibility to diseases. For example, we now know that genetic factors help explain why northern Europeans are taller on average than southern Europeans, why multiple sclerosis is more common in European-Americans than in African-Americans, and why the reverse is true for end-stage kidney disease.”

He adds: “Compared with the enormous differences that exist among individuals, differences among populations are on average many times smaller, so it should be only a modest challenge to accommodate a reality in which the average genetic contributions to human traits differ.”

The fact is, we are all originally Africans and are way more similar than dissimilar across races. Realising that race differences are real in no way condones racism just as realising that gender differences are real in no way condones sexism.

At the end of the day, I don’t see why we can’t celebrate our differences just as we cherish our similarities and live together as one human race.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.