The race to stop talking about 'race'

By Anna Moles, Associate editor for bioarchaeology

Hot topic! A topic so hot that it merits a second special issue in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (early views of articles available now). It’s been over ten years since the first special issue (AJPA 139, 2009) which discussed the origins and history of physical anthropology as a discipline, parameters for describing and interpreting human biological variation, whether “race” exists and if the term should continue to be used, and how the different researchers defined race.

The early direction of the discipline of physical anthropology was often aligned with eugenics research which has long-since been maligned and craniometrics for the investigation of race fell out of vogue in the field. However, there is still reason to investigate human variation to better understand how it occurs and what the implications are for understanding human origins, human population history, the relationship between human biology, language and culture, the genetic and environmental components of complex disease, or forensic identification (Edgar and Hunley 2009).

While the “race concept is at best a crude first-order approximation to the geographically structured phenotypic variation” (Relethford 2009), these osteological studies of biological variation in relation to self-identified race in a forensic case could have some weighting in the identification of an individual (Konigsberg et al. 2009). Another situation that has been put forward to justify research into race, racism and human biological variation is one of health. Well-defined inequalities exist between racially defined groups for a range of biological outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, certain cancers and others (Gravlee 2009). The current pandemic data indicates the Covid-19 is a racist disease. While genetic differences do have an impact on predisposition to a disease and how the body reacts to it, the race concept does not fit with the modern understanding of global genetic diversity. Additionally, there is a growing body of evidence that social inequalities (a cultural factor of perceived race) play a significant role in these biological outcomes.  

There is a growing movement, which we hope to see a growing focus on in the Race Reconciled II (2021) issue, towards a focus on the complex environmental influences on human biology. Human biological variation exists on a continuous spectrum. Groupings of biological characteristics exist but can be caused and effected by genes, geography, climate, cultural and social factors and habitual activities.