The Concept of Race in Science Part II – Human Evolution

While some scholars try to disentangle the nuances in the distinctions between race and culture, and debate the validity of the use of race in scientific discourse, some others seem to have assumed that race is an unavoidable term and simply consider it as a factor needing to be taken into account when carrying out scientific research or referring to human evolution.

Scholars who seem to operate with such an assumption include Philippe Rushton, a former professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario who argues that there are actual racial differences which shape human intelligence, brain size, genital size and sex drive.

Others such as Richard Lynn, a British professor emeritus at the University of Ulster, have claimed that the highest IQs are found amongst Northeast Asians, followed by Europeans who score on average ten points higher than Southeast Asians and Amerindians. His arguments have sparked controversy and debate over the relation of intelligence and race.

Bold claims

The claims mentioned above have been widely criticised. They are regarded by many as racist and the works have been accused of lacking scientific rigour as well as promoting racist political agendas. They also have been critiqued for their methodology and data interpretation.

One thing is for sure, they prove that racism is still an active issue within the scientific community. While the concept of race is itself debatable, racism still occurs in varying degrees.

The first academic reference to race can be found in the 18th century, when the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach suggested that his classification of five different races had varying degrees of beauty depending on their degree of degeneration from the perfect form of Adam and Eve who were created by God, and were regarded as having been Caucasian.

Evolution of one species

The theory of evolution demolished such views. Some of the first theories of human evolution suggested that we developed in different places and forms and were affected by a number of environmental and social conditions which made us into different “racial groups”.

However current scientific theories discard most of these ideas and modern biological research has questioned the concept of race per se. If we are considering evolution in genetic terms, race may seem to be an irrelevant and clumsy means of classification.

It is widely accepted that modern humans (Homo sapiens) spread from Africa into other parts of the world. However some theories have suggested that there might have been some interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans, mainly in Europe. According to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, approximately 1-4% of non-African modern human DNA is shared with Neanderthals – some of our closest ancestors but still a far less developed human species.

Humans share a similarity of genetic information with chimpanzees of 98-99%. Indeed we human beings share 99.9% of the same genetic information. The possible definition of race based on genetic differences relies on a minuscule percentage of 0.1 and for this reason it is widely acknowledged that race is not a relevant classification of humans in genetic terms or in terms of hard science, but rather a product of cultural history.


Cavalli-Sforza, L.L., Menozzi, P., Piazza, A., 1994. The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Heinz A, Müller DJ, Krach S, Cabanis M, & Kluge UP (2014). The uncanny return of the race concept. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 25408642

Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History (2014). What does it mean to be human?

Image via Procy / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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