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Debunking the History of Race Science

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Racist pseudo-science has been used to justify discriminatory and bigoted behaviour for centuries. Through the years, scientific racism has taken many forms, all with the goal of co-opting objective knowledge to justify racial inequality.

At this point I think it’s important to say this: 

There is no scientific or biological definition of race.
Race is a social construct that humans have created to categorise and label individuals based upon appearance and background.

Historical “Race Science” 

The foundations of scientific racism was cemented during the 1700s and early 1800s. Many scientists in Europe and the Americas pursued studies in “race science”. These scientists held onto the notion that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races. This period of history is illustrated by significant contradictions between the belief in human equality expressed in the American and French Revolutions and the continued trade of human slaves within the United States and a number of European countries. 

In 1795 German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, coined the term Caucasian “to describe the variety of mankind that originated on the southern slopes of Mount Caucasus” along Europe’s eastern border. He claimed it was the “original” race and therefore the most “beautiful.” Not only is this statement untrue, it highlights the ugly origins of the word Caucasian and raises the question as to why the word is still used in modern language and in the context of scientific research as it possesses no biological definition.  

Some 19th-century scientists were believers in “polygenism”, suggesting that human races were distinct species. “Evidence” used to support this theory was obtained using pseudo-scientific methods like craniometry – the measurement of human skulls. It became a common European belief that Black people possessed smaller brains and were therefore considered intellectually inferior. This belief is scientifically unfounded, and was based merely on the prejudice of travellers and explorers of the time. One of the most effective tactics used to justify anti-Black racism and White supremacy has been scientific racism.

Blumenbach’s craniometry diagrams of apparent human races. Image credit:

All humans belong to one species – Homo sapiens

Modern “Race Science” 

Since the discovery of the DNA double helix structure in the 1950s, our understanding of genetics has exploded into a vast and complex field of research. Sadly, alongside these discoveries there are also modern scientists who have attempted to use this new data to justify racist attitudes and stereotypes. One such scientist is James Watson, one of the co-creditors of the discovery of the DNA double helix. 

Watson has made a number of comments claiming that traits such as intelligence, creativity, servility (willingness to serve others) and sex drive are determined by genetics and therefore, in Watson’s argument, race. Not only are these comments baseless and offensive, they are dangerous. This is especially true when you consider the platform and prominence that Watson holds as a genetic scientist. The comments themselves may be, and often are, considered “facts” by racists, just because a famous scientist has said them.  

To this day, genetic research routinely categorise study participants based on race and ethnic identity. Whilst this collecting this data can sometimes be informative, it is often inaccurate and can result in individuals being excluded from studies or from receiving meaningful results. It was previously thought that grouping participants by race or ethnicity would control for other genetic variables within genetic association studies. However, recent research has shown that association studies can perform better and gain more information when larger and more diverse groups of people are analysed.  

Though our genes contribute to the way we appear, appearance is an extremely poor predictor of our genetic make-up. Humans possess around 20,000 genes which can be expressed in different ways, at different levels and at different times over the course of our lives. In addition to the vast number and variations of genes we possess, genes can also interact, mask and enhance each other.


The family tree of humanity is much more interconnected than we tend to think. Take, for instance, the last person from whom everyone on the planet today is descended. In 2004 mathematical modelling and computer simulations by a group of statisticians at MIT, indicated that our most recent common ancestor probably lived no earlier than 1400 B.C. and possibly as recently as A.D. 55. In the time of Egypt’s Queen Nefertiti, someone from whom we are all descended was likely alive somewhere in the world.
Because the genetic isopoint (common ancestor) occurred so recently in the history of humanity, scientist Adam Rutherford points out “in relation to race, it absolutely, categorically demolishes the idea of lineage purity.” No person has forebears from just one ethnic background or region of the world. Your genealogical connections to the entire globe mean that not too long ago your ancestors were involved in every event in world history. 

“The vast majority of what we think of as human differences, cultural and linguistic, the act of categorization in science itself, I’ve come to see as fundamentally fraught and political.” – Angela Saini 

Check out Genomic England’s podcast for an interesting and informative discussion the history of race science, the use of language and its implications on genomics.  

Adam Rutherford interview: Can science ever be rid of racism?  

Genetics Unzipped podcast. Breeding better humans: Exposing the dark legacy and troubling present of eugenics  

For just all round good science and anti-racism content follow @AdamRutherford on twitter. 


~This article was written by Katie Sadler on behalf of the LIVE with Scientists team. All views belong solely to the author. ~