Classifying the world’s peoples into distinct groups – red, black, white or yellow– seems to be part of the human psyche. Race is one of the three characteristics most often used in brief descriptions of individuals (the other two being age and sex). We humans do seem to specialise in noticing differences. This has been going on for a long time. It is complicated because this issue is also linked to culture, language, religion etc. The Ancient Greeks did not have a specific word for race but Hippocrates did argue that the Greeks owed their bravery and warlike nature to their barren soil. The Asians, on the other hand were weak and peaceful because they lived in luscious vegetation. The philosopher Aristotle believed that Asians were naturally inclined to be slaves. Jumping forward some 2000 years we see an interesting fusion of popular belief about group differences and the emerging scientific explanations. This was not sciences finest hour. Linnaeus is famous for classifying the animal kingdom but he also did it with humans He considered human races to be “varieties”, which he named using his characteristic binomial nomenclature: Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Homo Afer and Homo Americanus. This was hierarchical with Europeans, naturally, at the top of the chain. Along with Darwin’s theory of evolution we got Social Darwinism perhaps it should really be called social Spencerism. It was Herbert Spencer who really pushed these ideas. They would prove to have tragic consequences and would culminate in such horrors as the eugenics movement, colonialism and the Nazi Holocaust. Many of us may associate eugenics with the extreme right but for much of the twentieth century it was favoured by many progressives, liberals and socialists. The list of proponents included HG Wells George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and the Marxist biologist J.B.S. Haldane.
In reality, there is not now nor has there ever been a pure human race. Basically we haven’t been around long enough to evolve into separate subspecies or races. This is because of gene flow, interbreeding and migration There are variations between different ethnic groups but there are more differences within ethnic groups. The problem is that the differences between ethnic groups are skin deep but highly visible. Knowing that someone has a particular skin colour dies not really tell you much about them. In the famous work by Luca Cavalli-Sforza argues in The History and Geography of Human Genes that “the major stereotypes, all based on skin colour, hair colour and form, and facial traits, reflect superficial differences that are not confirmed by deeper analysis with more reliable genetic traits and whose origin dates from recent evolution mostly under the effect of climate and perhaps sexual selection.” If you look at people from sub-Saharan Africa and Australian Aborigines, you will see that they have similar skin pigmentation. However genetically they are very different with the aboriginals being more similar to Asians, which of course is perfectly logical due to their geographical proximity.
Skin deep may be superficial but it is, alas, very noticeable; an idea that has no biological basis can still of course be highly influential. Race may be a socially constructed identity but racism is very real. We are a difference-seeking species and we can find any excuse to discriminate and not just about race. One of the most fascinating experiments in this area was carried out in 1968 by a teacher, Jane Elliot. She told her class that blue-eyed children were more intelligent and generally to those with brown eyes. The latter wee told that they would have to sit at the back of the class and would have to wear special collars so they could be easily identified. To add insult to injury they were not to drink directly from the water fountain, but had to use paper cups. The effects were immediate –those who were discriminated against started losing their self-confidence; their schoolwork began to suffer. Then the following day she said that there had been a mistake and it was really the blue-eyed children who were inferior. The results were immediately reversed, although there was a reduction in intensity. At 2:30 on the second day, Elliott told the blue-eyed children to take off their collars and the children cried and hugged each other. You could say that the experiment was not very ethical but I think it was a wonderful practical class in the insidious nature of discrimination.
It does not appear that race discrimination is going to fade away any time soon. Science is now playing a more positive and has helped to undermine a number of racial myths. But discrimination is still deeply embedded in many minds. In a world where conflict is endemic it is all too easy to blame the other. We have made a lot of progress but there is still a long way to go.