Science and Race

There was an interesting conference, at the Jacques Loeb Centre for the history and philosophy of the life sciences at Ben Gurion University, entitled “Science, Race, Ethnicity and Identity.”  I was only able to attend the morning session  consisting of four presentations, but I found them very stimulating.

According to most popular beliefs, humans are made up of several races, such as white European, black African, yellow Asian and native Americans.  But, these are not really races at all, since each can co-habit with the other and produce offspring.  The definition of a race or species according to science is that they cannot reproduce.  Humans have been on the earth about 500,000 years at most, probably about 350,000 years.  That in scientific terms is simply not enough time for separate races to develop.

The racial ideas developed by the Nazis, that they needed to keep their “Aryan” race pure is nonsense, since there is no such thing genetically as a pure race.  All the major groups of humans in the world, that have been largely geographically separated, are genetically over-lapping.  There is diversity, but not along so-called racial lines.  The homogeneity is greater than the diversity.  This was the conclusion of Prof. Diethard Tautz, from the Max Planck Inst. for Evolutionary Biology, Germany.  According to genetic analysis, there is only one species of human being (Homo sapiens) and all others are now extinct, from genetic analysis the Neanderthals can be considered a sub-species.

Prof. Giovanni Destro-Bisol from Sapienza Univ., Italy, also said that the concept of “race’ is not useful for biologists and geneticists. But, whether we like it or not, the term “race” is useful and has entered the legal sphere.  For example, it is stated in law that one cannot discriminate on the basis of “race, religion, ethnic group, etc.”   There are organizations that seek to remove all mention of race from the law, yet the preponderance of opinion is that it is a useful concept that has meaning for most people.

Michael Gilead, a psychologist from Ben Gurion University, concluded from human experimentation, that the basis of so-called racial distinction comes from the human need to identify those who are of the same group or clan, and therefore safe,  from the others, who are not.  This is a very basic, deep inherited human response and in itself is not necessarily discriminatory.  It is only when it becomes political, that issues of rights, ownership and superiority enter into the issue.

Later presentations covered the issues of Jewish concepts of race and the genetic definitions of ethnic origins.