Race – biology and sociology

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The meaning of the term race has become subordinated to the myth of race. It has become profitable, both politically and socially, and expedient in some quarters, to exploit the biological differences (which in most cases are only superficial) between various groups and individuals of the species Homo sapiens. Concomitant with this attitude is the attempt to deny the universality and unity of the human species. It is necessary to distinguish between the scientific reality of race and the accumulation of distorted interpretations based upon myth and ignorance. Race as term is not at all a satisfactory or scientific basis upon which to anchor explanations of human behaviour. Also, when discussing the explanation of the term race both from a biological and sociological point of view, it is necessary to define not only race but also what is meant by racism, racialism, prejudice and race relations.

In terms then of the biological approach, once it is understood that there are no true races, no pure races – race can be defined in general as a major grouping of interrelated people possessing a distinctive combination of physical traits which are the result of inheritance. From this it can be seen that, scientifically, race is a biological term and is narrowly confined to those characteristics that distinguish one group of humans from another, and that inheritance implies that these particulate characteristics are genetically determined. It certainly implies no judgements concerning inferiority, or superiority of any race over another.

The races of humankind are the result of human evolution and thus the evolution of the species sapiens. The species is a closed system, but the races are open ended parts of the species. Races then have evolved in genetic terms by mutation, migration, and genetic drift. Culture has been, and is, the major consideration in the process of evolution of our present species. Cultural determination affirms the fundamental anthropological belief that humankind must be studied both as a social and biological organism. Hence there cane be the possibility of studying the development and evolution of raciation without studying human culture. Thus genetics also shows, if applied correctly in the analysis of races, that typology is of no scientific value.

The term race is only of any use if one is concerned with the type of genetic, anatomical and structural variations which in times past were of some adaptive importance to certain groups of the species as a whole. Races then are products of the past, relics of times and conditions that have long ceased to exist. Thus racism which is based upon a fundamental and profound misunderstanding of cultural and biological evolution of the human species, is equally a relic with no support in any phase of modern scientific thought.

The outlook to adopt if one wants to have a scientific view is that race is a biological phenomenon, but that racism, racialism and race relations are social phenomena. That a correct analysis is only possible if there is a synthesis of the relevant parts of social and biological analysis. Once those variations with a genetic basis have been elucidated it will be seen that relations between various groupings of people have a mode of operation of their own, and furthermore have a cultural and social development that is sometimes quite independent of human biological makeup. The task of the social scientist is to study these systems of social life. Cultural differences occupy an important place in the study of race relations because the evidence is that social differences are not genetically transmitted. Genetic factors are peripheral to the study when the main guiding force of the evolution of the species Homo sapiens has been social heredity. Cultures have variations due to many factors including the geographical, historical and social.

The approach to race relations from a sociological point of view means that race must not be viewed as a biological category. In all social systems noticeable but necessarily important physical characteristics have been invested with more significance that their actual physiological value. The role of the social scientist is to build up a body of general propositions about race relations, to develop the science, so that the contribution will be to seek new aspects, new questions and new evidence, in order to comprehend the problem more succinctly.

In the study of the social aspects there have arisen, with the postulation of three main models, three lines of approach. The first approach analyses the subject in terms of ideology with racism as its basic concept. By racism is meant the doctrine of human behaviour being controlled by genetically determined characters, and that these are derived from separate racial stocks having a relationship of some form of superiority or inferiority to each other. This has to be seen as separate from racialism, which has been regarded as the putting into operation or practice of the doctrine. A second model puts forward the idea of prejudice and classifies this as an attitude, being defined as a generalisation. This generalisation exists a priori to the situation in which it is invoked. It is then directed towards people, groups, or social institutions. This prejudice is thus accepted and defended as a guide to action regardless of its discrepancies with known and actual facts. Essentially, prejudice is the emotional expression of racial intolerance. The third model puts forward the concept of discrimination, being an approach to social relationships. Prejudice becomes the differential treatment of persons ascribed to particular social categories, and can be generalised to give an indication as to attitudes of social distance.

The popular notion of race, important though it is as a social fact has very little to do with, or relation to, the knowledge that has been established by scientific enquiry. There must not be a false dichotomy when studying the question of race from either a biological or sociological point of view. Race relations is such that many disciplines have a contribution to its understanding. While the study of class and group distinctions and relationships in society are in that area which is the prerogative of the sociologist, the points of articulation and cooperation between the biological study of race and its study by social science are also very important. Finally, the explicandum of race can only be understood as the result of the interdisciplinary exchange between the biological and the sociological sciences.

Human Sciences, 1971-74.


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