Is race biological

Sometimes scientists feel the need to clarify things. For example, when the wrong terms are used in public discussions. One of them has haunted political debates for centuries - and is even included in the Basic Law: the term "race".

At least since the "Black Lives Matter" protests flared up around the world, this term has - again - been at the center of the discussion. After all: "Race" and racism are closely related in terms of language. Yet what matters is the relationship between these two words.

To make it clear that the concept of racism is not based on that of "race", scientists wrote the "Jena Declaration" last autumn on the occasion of the 112th annual conference of the German Zoological Society, signed by Martin S. Fischer, among others Head of the Institute for Zoology and Evolutionary Research at the University of Jena, as well as Johannes Krause, until June 2020 Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human History there. A pre-publication of a detailed essay on this topic appeared a few weeks ago.

The concept of "race" is the result of racism, not its premise

In their texts, the scientists emphasize that from the point of view of evolutionary research, the term "race" cannot and never could be used for humans. You write: "Racism needs legitimation, which is why it looks for explanations and particularly likes biological explanations, because they should appear natural." Or to put it another way: "The concept of race is the result of racism and not its prerequisite."

A famous pioneer of the concept of "race" was the physician Ernst Haeckel, who tried to categorize and evaluate people according to visible characteristics such as the texture of their hair in his work "Natural Creation Story" in 1868. The origin of anthropological race studies, however, is much earlier; for example with the Swedish natural scientist Carl von Linné, who tried as early as 1735 in his work "Systema Naturae" to classify animals and people according to certain characteristics.

From the point of view of modern evolutionary research, however, these attempts to order certain groups of people are scientifically unsustainable. While dogs, for example, have breeds with a very narrow gene pool - that is, animals that can be genetically clearly categorized - humans speak of a genetic gradient that can only be divided into arbitrary categories, if at all. Fischer and Krause compare this gradient with the color wheel: "Of course there are red, green and blue there. But only if I leave everything out in between and jump from one side to the other," said Fischer in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

There is no sharp line between "black" and "white"

The authors of the Jena Declaration therefore advocate the term "populations", which from the point of view of biology describes a constantly changing group. "Race", on the other hand, is and was, also with a view to the crimes of the National Socialists, a static term that was imposed on people from the outside - according to arbitrarily chosen and unscientific categories such as a country of origin or certain supposedly uniform body characteristics.

One of these common body traits used to categorize people is skin color. However, there is no sharp line between "black" and "white", neither with a look at genes nor with a look at people's faces. "If we look at genetic diversity, we can find every change in DNA that can occur in humans in Europe alone," says geneticist Johannes Krause. Conversely, this does not mean that there cannot be conspicuous clusters of certain characteristics; People from Southeast Asia, for example, are on average slightly smaller than people from Northern Europe. The variability is also given here; As elsewhere in the world, there are very large and very small people in this region. The same applies to a statistically increased risk of disease such as diabetes due to certain gene variants that occur more frequently in some population groups.

A frequently used argument for the use of the term "race" is the fact that successful marathon runners, for example, noticeably often come from African countries such as Ethiopia or Kenya. The authors of the Jena Declaration respond to this objection and state that "there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a 'runner DNA'". "Despite the constant notion of the close association between athletes' skin color and athletic performance, there have been no studies to date that validly assess this genetic effect," they write. It is possible that ideal training conditions and early support play a significantly greater role. In any case, the authors firmly reject a classification into "races" based on athletic performance.

Editor's note: In an updated version of the text, we have specified that the cited article is a prior publication.