Scientific and Social Definitions of Race

Debunking the Ideas Behind This Construct

Coworkers standing arm in arm
Buero Monaco/Taxi/Getty Images

It's a common belief that race can be broken down into three categories: Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid. But according to science, that's not so. While the American concept of race took off in the late 1600s and persists even today, researchers now argue that there’s no scientific basis for race. So, what exactly is race, and what are its origins?

The Difficulty of Grouping People Into Races

According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.”

Scientists can divide some organisms into racial categories easier than others, such as those which remain isolated from one another in different environments. In contrast, the race concept doesn’t work so well with humans. That’s because not only do humans live in a wide range of environments, they also travel back and forth between them. As a result, there’s a high degree of gene flow among people groups that make it hard to organize them into discrete categories.

Skin color remains a primary trait Westerners use to place people into racial groups. However, someone of African descent may be the same skin shade as someone of Asian descent. Someone of Asian descent may be the same shade as someone of European descent. Where does one race end and another begin?

In addition to skin color, features such as hair texture and face shape have been used to classify people into races. But many people groups cannot be categorized as Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, the defunct terms used for the so-called three races. Take Native Australians, for instance. Although typically dark-skinned, they tend to have curly hair which is often light colored.

“On the basis of skin color, we might be tempted to label these people as African, but on the basis of hair and facial shape they might be classified as European,” Relethford writes. “One approach has been to create a fourth category, the ‘Australoid.’”

Why else is grouping people by race difficult? The concept of race posits that more genetic variation exists interracially than intra-racially when the opposite is true. Only about 10 percent of variation in humans exists between the so-called races. So, how did the concept of race take off in the West, particularly in the United States?

The Origins of Race in America

The America of the early 17th century was in many ways more progressive in its treatment of Black people than the country would be for decades to come. In the early 1600s, African Americans could trade, take part in court cases and acquire land. Enslavement based on race did not yet exist.

“There was really no such thing as race then,” explained anthropologist Audrey Smedley, author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview, in a 2003 PBS interview. “Although ‘race’ was used as a categorizing term in the English language, like ‘type’ or ‘sort’ or ‘kind, it did not refer to human beings as groups.”

While race-based enslavement wasn’t a practice, indentured servitude was. Such servants tended to be overwhelmingly European. Altogether, more Irish people lived in servitude in America than Africans. Plus, when African and European servants lived together, their difference in skin color did not surface as a barrier.

“They played together, they drank together, they slept together…The first mulatto child was born in 1620 (one year after the arrival of the first Africans),” Smedley noted.

On many occasions, members of the servant class—European, African and mixed-race—rebelled against the ruling landowners. Fearful that a united servant population would usurp their power, the landowners distinguished Africans from other servants, passing laws that stripped those of African or Native American descent of rights. During this period, the number of servants from Europe declined, and the number of servants from Africa rose. Africans were skilled in trades such as farming, building, and metalwork that made them desired servants. Before long, Africans were viewed exclusively as enslaved people and, as a result, sub-human.

As for Native Americans, they were regarded with great curiosity by the Europeans, who surmised that they descended from the lost tribes of Israel, explained historian Theda Perdue, author of Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South, in a PBS interview. This belief meant that Native Americans were essentially the same as Europeans. They’d simply adopted a different way of life because they’d been separated from Europeans, Perdue posits.

“People in the 17th century…were more likely to distinguish between Christians and heathens than they were between people of color and people who were white…,” Perdue said. Christian conversion could make American Indians fully human, they thought. But as Europeans strove to convert and assimilate Natives, all the while seizing their land, efforts were underway to provide a scientific rationale for Africans’ alleged inferiority to Europeans.

In the 1800s, Dr. Samuel Morton argued that physical differences between races could be measured, most notably by brain size. Morton’s successor in this field, Louis Agassiz, began “arguing that Blacks are not only inferior but they’re a separate species altogether,” Smedley said.

Wrapping Up

Thanks to scientific advances, we can now say definitively that individuals such as Morton and Aggasiz are wrong. Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature,” Relethford writes.

Unfortunately, this view hasn’t completely caught on outside of scientific circles. Still, there are signs times have changed. In 2000, the U.S. Census allowed Americans to identify as multiracial for the first time. With this shift, the nation allowed its citizens to blur the lines between the so-called races, paving the way for a future when such classifications no longer exist.​

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Scientific and Social Definitions of Race." ThoughtCo, Feb. 7, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 7). Scientific and Social Definitions of Race. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Scientific and Social Definitions of Race." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).