Do You Know the Early Warning Signs of Racism?

Scientists have often botched the job of explaining our diversity as a species.

Posted Mar 12, 2021 |

Ever since Charles Darwin—in fact, since well before the publication of his instantly notorious book On The Origin of Species in 1859—the scientific world has been struggling with the paradox of human biological diversity. As the historian of science Peter Bowler wrote years ago: “An evolutionary interpretation of the history of life on the earth must inevitably extend itself to include the origins of the human race.”* This is not an easy assignment.

 G. Mützel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: G. Mützel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Why not? Because we humans are not all alike—at least outwardly—in our physical characteristics. Yet we all belong to one and the same biological species, Homo sapiens. Setting aside more fanciful accounts about space aliens and like, how are we to explain this seemingly paradoxical truth?

Good Old Common Sense

Common sense and science are alike grounded in human experience. These two complementary ways of understanding the world and our place in it, however, are often in conflict. The issue of global warming shows that when this happens, the simplicity of most down-to-earth commonsense explanations can make it difficult to win people over to the complexity and uncertainties of most scientific arguments. 

 Klu Klux Klan, 3/18/22 - PICRYL Public Domain Image
Source: Klu Klux Klan, 3/18/22 - PICRYL Public Domain Image

Given how different people in different parts of the world may look to us, it isn't terribly surprising that history testifies over and over again to how difficult it can be for all of us—regardless of how kind and loving we are as individuals down deep inside—to get our head around the fact that despite all appearances to the contrary, we are all the same "under the skin."

As someone who likes to see himself as a scientist (I am a professional anthropologist,  and have been for more than 50 years), I wish I could say that when good old common sense fails us, brilliant scientists have stepped in and handled the job skillfully and with aplomb. Yes, I wish I could make this claim. But no, I cannot. Far too many scientists haven't done much better when it comes to explaining why we don't all look alike than that proverbial soul popularly known as the "guy on the street."

Why does science so often get a failing grade when it comes to explaining our own species? 

Science Botches the Job

Without naming names, when it comes to explaining why West Africans don't look like Swedes, and both West Africans and Swedes don't look like people from Mumbai, Beijing, or Papua New Guinea, many of my scientific colleagues appear to think that it is sufficient to say to people who believe otherwise: "No, you are simply wrong. Races are not biologically real; they are just social constructions."

Wikimedia Commons / public domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Both of these statements happen to be 100 percent correct, but then why do people around the world not all look alike? You would think that if my colleagues are so confident races aren't biologically real, then geneticists and others making this claim would do a better job of backing it up. Yet they fumble the ball more often than not. Truth be told, they frequently don't even see that they have lost possession of the answer.

Six Degrees of Separation

The answer isn't really all that complicated, although admittedly counterintuitive. We are a highly social species. Although the ties are not always obvious, all of us are connected with one another all over Planet Earth in many, many ways. Sure, most of the time, we deal socially with the people we know really well. But not always. Occasions arise when we connect with people we otherwise rarely encounter. It is through these less frequent ties that we are connected with people not just nearby but far away, too. Or as the popular saying has it, we are all connected by "six degrees of separation."

 Dannie-walker), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Six degrees of separation
Source: Daniel (User: Dannie-walker), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is, of course, only part of the answer to why we don't all look alike. This may explain why we are all one species instead of being a lot of different species that are more or less alike. But what more is needed to complete the answer? Why are we nonetheless diverse?

Life's a Delicate Balancing Act

One of the things that science now knows for sure—and Charles Darwin had a big hand in helping us see this—is that even in the case of snowflakes, things don't all start off being the same and then become different, become varied, become diverse. The opposite is more how the world works. Why this is so can take a lot of words to explain, and I won't try to do so here. But consider, for example, how varied the world is from the snowfields of the polar regions to the sweltering heat of places along the equator.

John Terrell
Model geographic system
Source: John Terrell

Given the Earth's environmental diversity, and the physical diversity of what the Earth not only gives us to work with, but also demands of us, the fact that we don't all look alike despite our social ties and interconnections isn't surprising. In a sense, this is just a sign of our success as a truly global species. Said another way, the sheer scale of our conquest of the Earth has exaggerated our inherent diversity as individuals.   

The Warning Signs of Racism

What then are the early warning signs of racism? Although there are many that could be singled out—for example, becoming wary when someone is speaking a language you don't understand, or is wearing clothing you think looks weird or downright silly—I think there are three that are less obvious but nonetheless worth watching out for:

  1. Being suspicious when someone doesn't look like you.
  2. Thinking that people who don't look like you aren't like you.
  3. Being afraid of people simply because they don't look, act, or talk the way you do.
Henry Winkles; Johann Georg Heck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Henry Winkles; Johann Georg Heck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


* Bowler, Peter J. (1988). The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.