The Myth of Race
Articles - Human Evolution, Biology and Anthropology
Monday, 02 June 2008 05:44
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The Myth of Race
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What is your race? White, Black, Asian, Oriental or “other”? Do you feel comfortable being asked that question? Do you know the answer? What does “race” actually mean anyway?


Race, a social construct


Although some ancient civilisation (such as the Egyptians) had some of their own ideas about races, the concept, as we know it, first arose during the period of European imperialism and colonization, in the 15th and 16th centuries, known as The Age of Discovery. Ships were sent out from Europe around the globe. On these voyages explorers encountered many previously unknown populations and cultures at various stages of technological advancement. The idea of race was further developed during the 17th and 18th centuries when debates occurred in England about differences between people of Anglo-Saxon origin and Norman origin. In the 19th century, pseudo-scientific theories were created to legitimise the division of people into races and these stated that the European races were superior to non-European races and that this explained Europe’s technological and supposed cultural superiority and justified the exploitation of “lesser” races by European powers. It is important to realise that before Darwin, most people thought the world was only a few thousand years old and the concept of evolution was non-existent; they therefore sought explanations as to why European technology and civilisation was so much more advanced. The idea of race was attractive to 19th century taxonomists who were obsessed with categorising plants and animals into species and thought they saw the opportunity to do the same with humans. Another driving factor in the development of race as an issue of division arose from the greater contrast that could be observed in colonies, where the smooth transition between people from different geographical areas (as found in the old world) was replaced by a patch work of people who had departed from a great diversity of places in the old world (Europe, Africa, China, India) and were now living side-by-side.  Later, race became a convenient excuse to keep colonised locals and imported slaves down, while European settlers lived a luxurious lifestyle with their slaves or servants toiling in the fields, kitchens and in industry and agriculture. Europeans reasoned that only they could keep these colonies civilised, as racial inferiorities prevented the natives from having the intellect or required attitude to run their own affairs. Contrast this with the Romans who also had slaves and were familiar with different “races”; but where slaves, largely regardless of race, could and often did gain freedom and become Roman citizens, as well as marry into the general population.


Decline of race


Over time a number of factors did begin to undermine the idea of race. Firstly, individuals who were not European in origin began to turn up who, by chance, had had exposure to European culture and education. These people could speak the European languages fluently, indeed often eloquently, and furthermore many of these people were highly intelligent and could write, argue and debate with Europeans as equals. In addition, increasing numbers of relationships developed between Europeans and so-called “natives” and when children were born, shock, they were perfectly normal and healthy! Furthermore science had produced theories about evolution, speciation and the age of the earth; these gave alternative explanations for the development of obvious “racial” features such as skin colour. It became apparent that there were few real differences between so-called races; they had the same anatomy and almost entirely the same physical capabilities. As the reasons for treating people differently according to race fell away, people of all “races” began to question if segregation and racial laws were ethical let alone scientific and by the 1960s the civil rights movement was well underway. The final nail in the coffin has been DNA evidence showing just how similar people from different so-called races are, and how minor the differences (such as skin colour) really are. However, while most scientists are now clear on the absence of any foundation for race and the law has followed suit, it seems that the concept of race is still alive and kicking in countries all around the world. There is evidence that in some places, such as the US and Eastern Europe, things are getting worse and even in the UK, recent years have seen race-riots and ghettoisation of a level not seen for a hundred years. The problem seems in part to be a gap in understanding between scientists and the public at large. The rest of this article tries to explain the science which lays the myth of race to rest.

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