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One of the touchiest subjects in human evolutionary biology — or human biology in general — is the question of whether there are human races. Back in the bad old days, it was taken for granted that the answer was not only “yes,” but that there was a ranking of races (invariably done by white biologists), with Caucasians on top, Asians a bit lower, and blacks invariably on the bottom. The sad history of biologically based racism has been documented in many places, including Steve Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man (yes, I know it’s flawed).
But from that sordid scientific past has come a backlash: the subject of human races, or even the idea that they exist, has become taboo. And this despite the palpable morphological differences between human groups — differences that must be based on genetic differences and would, if seen in other species, lead to their classification as either races or subspecies (the terms are pretty interchangeable in biology). Racial delimitation could, critics say, lead to a resurgence of racism, racial profiling, or even eugenics.
In my own field of evolutionary biology, races of animals (also called “subspecies” or “ecotypes”) are morphologically distinguishable populations that live in allopatry (i.e. are geographically separated). There is no firm criterion on how much morphological difference it takes to delimit a race. Races of mice, for example, are described solely on the basis of difference in coat color, which could involve only one or two genes. By this criterion, the human species can be considered to include various races as well.
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