Probably all of us sometimes think of what is ‘race’? It constantly crops up in the news, in reports, on television, in daily life. How do we deal with that? Let me start with three personal episodes. I gave a seminar once on my research in Papua New Guinea and mentioned Polynesian and Melanesian races. A lady in the audience then interrupted me with the claim that according to the latest findings races do not exist and that “We are just one people; we are all human beings”. I politely replied whether she hadn’t noticed that amongst us human beings there are differences with regard to the shapes of the lips and eyes, the structure of the hair and colour of the skin, whereupon she remarked that these were variations which you’d find in any population on Earth. I kept quiet, not wanting to argue that molecular genetics can trace your ancestry quite well and that in the case of one of my daughters 50% of her ancestry came out as South Indian (which pleased her South Indian Brahmin mother tremendously). The other 50% (from me) were an incredible mix from a multitude of regions.
On another occasion I had teamed up with a New Zealander, who had had 40 years of experience as an ophthalmologist and in his years of practice never had seen a case of glaucoma in a Maori (though he had treated Maori for other eye ailments and approx. 18% of the population were Maori). I felt this fact and information we had obtained from Australia (Australian Aborigines also apparently never suffered from this amongst Europeans not at all rare disease) suggested that there were perhaps genetic factors involved and we applied for a research grant. At the interview, the project was well received and looked like being funded, when however, the last question and comment by one person of the selection panel shot it down. He reminded us and the other members of the panel that Maori would never allow the eyes of one of their deceased to be removed for research. So, where and how would we get our eye material for the comparison with people of European ancestry?
The third occasion was at a conference in Germany around 2010, when a professor announced that what was usually termed “races” in humans were biologically-speaking sub-species. In his defence I have to explain that he did not want to be misunderstood and seen his suggestion to be linked with what the Nazis had termed ‘sub-humans’. No, he pointed out that to a biologist populations that become geographically isolated from each other will see certain genes accumulate, ultimately leading to visible morphological or invisible physiological differences between the isolated individuals, (despite identical chromosome numbers) so that (given a chance) they may still be able to mate with each other and have viable offspring. On account of their morphological, anatomical and physiological differences, however, they would have to be treated as sub-species. For animals and plants that was an established category of classification and would free us from using the term ‘race’ in humans, he suggested. The term ‘variety’ (as with apples or white, brown and black poodle dogs) could then be applied to individuals in a sub-species that wouldn’t completely blend in. Needless to say, the professor’s ideas were politely listened to, but did not receive the support he had hoped for.
To say “we are all one” and argue that differences do not exist flies in the face of common sense. Nobody can dispute that on average Koreans are shorter than Europeans, that Inuit have adapted to a meat diet, Thai can’t digest milk well, Bantu look different from Tibetans, etc. Sure, some Koreans are tall, some Thai drink cow’s milk, but centuries of relative isolation and limited gene mixing has indeed led to differences in world populations, actually to an extent that certain afflictions and ailments are more common in some than in others. A student came to me in Jamaica once, and asked why snake bites affected people of African and European ancestry differently. I didn’t know. I also don’t know why Maori and Australian Aborigines don’t seem to suffer from glaucoma, why prostate cancer is twice the rate of Europeans in African Americans, why Indians suffer so often from heart problems or diabetes is common in Pacific Islanders. To explain all these well documented differences away with references to social background and unhealthy life-styles, in my mind, is unscientific. Pure races or human subspecies due to geographic isolation and a lack to interbreed with others do no longer exist, but that the history of past and long-term isolations has left its manifestation should not be ignored. And that it can include (in addition to visible differences) susceptibilities to certain ailments, foods, pathogens or coping with environmental stressors, is likely.
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