Human Sub-Species, Races and Varieties – what are we to believe?

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.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If humans behaved more like animals…

Maybe we’d have a better society

All too regularly one reads about the shocking, disgusting and horrible treatment that women far too often receive from men. The killing of women has even got its own name: ‘femicide’. I find the cruelty and sadism that is frequently involved impossible to understand; maybe psychologists can, but I can’t. All of us, or at least most of us most of the time, appreciate our girlfriends, our female companions, partners and wives and we all had a mother and two grandmothers. Therefore, men who are responsible for such atrocities meted out to our females should receive the harshest possible punishment that the law allows. But they must not be called “animals”, which unfortunately happens quite frequently.

That male animals kill their females almost never happens, whichever species you look at. Accidental deaths can occur, but a deliberate killing or torture of females is not something any animal practices. Courtship displays, songs, dances, nuptial gifts, etc. are often essential rituals before males and females ‘agree’ to engage in sex; yet rapes do sometimes occur and mentioning that once in a course of mine on animal behaviour got me into trouble. Sure, it’s not nice but I call it rape. A student complained that I had talked about rape in class and I had to explain to the university’s principal that occasionally male animals force themselves onto females without prior courtship or receiving a signal from a female that she’s willing to mate. A kind of gang-rape has even been reported from whales in which males corner a female, with two shoving her into a position to allow a third to penetrate her. A female frog or toad can drown, when too many males cling to it, preventing it to reach the surface to breathe. But a deliberate killing of females is apparently alien to animals and so extremely uncommon (reported only from a hungry male octopus), that to call men who torture and kill their partners “animals” is an insult to all animals.

What does happen in some species of animals is the opposite: namely the killing of males by females. In the aforementioned octopus it can happen that the female is hungrier than the male and devours him! Famous for consuming their mates are many spiders, but because male spiders are nearly always (and sometimes extraordinarily much) smaller than their females, mistakes can happen and a hungry female spider will then not hesitate feasting on her mate. In praying mantises males that copulate with their bigger females may lose their heads quite literally, because while they mate the female will decapitate them; an act that makes sure that the copulating male cannot stop until it has inseminated the female.

A seemingly nasty behaviour is that of some males, reported from lions, some monkeys and even rodents, who kill the offspring of their females. Two main reasons have been advanced to explain this odd behaviour: firstly, the offspring may be the result of previous matings by the female and is therefore genetically not related to the new partner (who can, of course, not identify whether the young are genetically related to him); secondly, an absence of newborns will lead to the cessation of milk production and will make her receptive faster than if she was still suckling her young. That females kill the young of other females has also been reported, but it is rarer still. In giant water bugs females attach their eggs to the backs of males, who then guard the eggs until they hatch. There is, however, not terribly much space on a male water bug’s back and females have been observed to scratch off the eggs that another female has deposited there, so that the new female can attach her eggs on the male’s back. In the tropical wading bird Jacana jacana it is also the male that guards the chicks, which unrelated females may kill. The existence of these and some cannibalistic behaviours in animals, however, are no reason to term men, who commit femicides, animals. Their horrible, evil, cruel and sadistic actions towards females are so abominable that there simply isn’t any parallel among animals. 

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow white albinism pigment

Herman Melville and his White Whale

White or pigmentless or both?

I was fascinated as a kid by Hermann Melville’s story about “Moby Dick”, the white sperm whale chased fanatically by Captain Ahab, but who eventually lost the struggle to kill the beast that had dominated his life and caused him never-ending sleepless nights. —>—>