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N O T E O N T H E C O N C E P T O F R A C E Since the presently difficult terms race and racial are used throughout this book, it seems desirable that their meaning be rendered clear. It is notorious that race has been denned in a great variety of (usually unfortunate) ways, but it is less widely known that in recent years race as a scientific concept has undergone a virtual revolution. Since about 1950 scientists have made notable advances in the study of human races and have dispelled much confusion on the subject. Though there remain broad areas of disagreement and many unanswered questions, most reputable investigators now share certain fundamental suppositions and modes of approach. Increasingly the tendency has been to study human races within the context of human evolution and genetics. At first, some scientists directed their attention to physical features which seemed obviously susceptible to modification by natural selection. Attempts were made to link the more gross and obvious physiognomic characteristics with climatic factors: thus the typical Mongolian face and stature were declared admirably adapted to extreme cold. Partly because such characteristics are difficult to analyze genetically, other scientists set out to investigate certain characteristics, such as blood types, which are governed not by many genes but by one. Initially it was supposed that blood types of the major series A-B-O were selectively neutral (that is, that individuals were neither advantaged nor disadvantaged by having a given type of blood); but it now seems almost certain that some of these types are connected with susceptibility to certain diseases. More strikingly, it has been established that a gene responsible for sickle cell hemoglobin (which is especially common in Africa) often causes fatal anemia in homozygous individuals (both of whose parents contribute the gene) but affords protection against malaria to heterozygous individuals (those who inherit the sickle cell gene from one parent only and who do not develop the anemia). In malarial areas the [583] frequency of the gene remains roughly constant in the population as a whole: for while the sickling gene makes for a fatal disease in some persons, it saves others from death by malaria but itself does no harm, and it is thereby passed on to the next generation. In non-malarial areas, of course, the gene is entirelydisadvantageous. Discovery of these facts has served to highlight man's plasticity under pressure of environmental change: elimination of mosquitoes may result eventually in elimination of a racial characteristic. The sickling gene and indeed genes as such are not commonly thought of as racial characteristics. Obviously, however, human groups which differ markedly in appearance also differ genetically. One of the most important recent breakthroughs has been the conception of race as a group of individuals sharing a common gene pool. Such a definition emphasizes the fact that racial characteristics such as skin color are unlikely to remain stable over long periods of time. It underlines the fact that the continued existence of races is dependent upon geographical or social separation. It places in proper perspective the biological differences among human beings: all mankind shares a vast number of genes in common, yet at the same time various populations differ as to frequency of certain genes. With this in mind, racial characteristics may be defined as biological traits which various populations possess in varying frequencies . By this definition, arms and legs are not racial characteristics ; on the other hand, blue eyes do constitute a racial characteristic , but blue-eyed people do not constitute a race. Finally, the genetic approach to race makes clear that permanent isolation of any group of individuals from the common gene pool of the species Homo sapiens would result eventually in development of a new species which would be incapable of genetic intermingling with its progenitor. In this sense, races are incipient species. Obviously, however, the biocultural attributes of Homo sapiens make the prospect of permanent reproductive isolation very unlikely. There are several important, broad emphases implicit in this evolutionary view of race which run somewhat counter to widely held popular notions. It is now clear that mankind is a single biological species; that races are neither discrete nor stable units but rather that they are plastic, changing, integral parts of a whole which is itself changing. It is clear, furthermore, that races are best studied as products of a process; and, finally, that racial differences involve the relative frequency of genes and...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469600765
Related ISBN
9780807834022
MARC Record
OCLC
861793501
Pages
696
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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