Human Variation

PEOPLE are different. Differences can be observed, for instance, in a number of individual characteristics such as personal perspectives or ways of looking at life, as well as individual life goals and achievements. We also observe differences that have to do with the human body, such as body build, skin color, hair color, and whether or not the hair is straight, wavy, or curly, as well as other characteristics. There is no question but that such variations do exist. . .

-Professor, Behavioral Science Department, Andrews University, at the time this article was written

PEOPLE are different. Differences can be observed, for instance, in a number of individual characteristics such as personal perspectives or ways of looking at life, as well as individual life goals and achievements. We also observe differences that have to do with the human body, such as body build, skin color, hair color, and whether or not the hair is straight, wavy, or curly, as well as other characteristics. There is no question but that such variations do exist.

But in addition to noting these variations it is typical to carry these observations a step further, especially in regard to the physical variations among men. We tend to stereotype or to set up classifications or categories. It was Franz Boas who noted that:

We are easily misled by general impressions. Most of the Swedes are blond, blue-eyed, tall and long-headed. This causes us to formulate in our minds the ideal of a Swede and we forget the variations that could occur in Scandinavia. If we talk of a Sicilian we think of a swarthy, short person, with dark eyes and dark hair. Individuals differing from this type are not in our mind when we think of a "typical" Sicilian. The more uniform a people the more strongly are we impressed by the "type." Every country impresses us as inhabited by a certain type the traits of which are determined by the most frequently occurring forms. This, however, does not tell us anything in regard to its hereditary composition and the range of its variations. The "type" is formed quite subjectively on the basis of our everyday experience. 1

The present concept of race originated in this recognition of physical distinctions between different human populations. Actually, the term and the idea have been around for a long time, but in its so-called scientific setting it was developed in the field of anthropology as a technique for classifying different peoples. What started out as a rather simple and hopefully useful scheme of classification, however, proved to be neither simple nor very useful. The concept of race is really a very complex concept, with elements belonging to biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history.

Defining Race

One of the real problems in discussing this subject has been to define what is meant by race, and then to locate the peoples of earth in regard to the classification scheme implied by the definition. For instance, in his anthropology text, Man in the Primitive World, Hoebel defines race as "a major grouping of inter related people possessing a distinctive combination of physical traits that are the result of distinctive genetic composition." 2 While this may be a "down pat" definition for the student in introductory anthropology, it really raises more questions than it answers. How large must be the major grouping of interrelated people? How distinctive must be the combination of physical traits that set apart this grouping of interrelated people, and specifically, since there is considerable variation with regard to men, as we have already noted, what combination of traits can be called upon to assign the label race? Furthermore, what is the genetic composition of the population to bring a race into view? Can it be pinned down or is it changing?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find answers to these questions with any degree of unanimity or concensus among scholars in this field. Several years ago when I sat in a graduate seminar on race and culture we reviewed some of the classifications that have been advanced. One scholar whom we studied divided mankind into thirteen subgroups and then a number of races. Another suggested that there were six great divisions, seventeen subdivisions, with twenty-nine races. In another place I read that some one was suggesting somewhere around one hundred races based upon his particular scheme of classification.

Now, it is easy to look askance at the scholars and to think that they are simply playing intellectual games. That has not been the case. "One would think," writes Jacques Barzun, "that the so-called scien tific habit of thought would encourage care in dealing with details and differences. It should seem as though the object under consideration, be it a man or a group, would be looked at from all sides, seen as it really is." 3 Actually, he says, "we class, as it were, all white powders as bicarbonate of soda and dispense them on that convenient principle." 4 The difficulty is in trying to pin down an adequate meaning for the concept race, if indeed such a concept can be pinned down.

Constant Intermingling and Change

As far as our knowledge goes, there has never really been a time when there has not been intermingling among the peoples of earth. Thus the varieties of mankind as we tend to stereotype them are not really static but dynamic, ever changing and mixing. The consequence of this is that there is nothing in humans to correspond to the sharply defined differences between the varieties of other species. "The so-called 'pure member of a race,' the 'ideal race type,' " says Bibby, "is nothing more than a composite visual image of the average." 5

For the sake of convenience we generally divide humanity into three major divisions--the Mongoloid peoples, the Caucasoid peoples, and the Negroid peoples. But it should be recognized that this is but a superficial scheme of classification based chiefly on skin color and a few other characteristics, and that in addition there are some peoples such as the Bush man of South Africa, the Ainus of Japan, and others that just do not fit easily into this threefold classification. Such words as "usually," "commonly," "normally," "tend," and others play a large part in anthropological description, and this, too, points up the fact that race is not the simple matter of definition or description that is usually made.

An Emotionally Charged Word

Another problem within our society is that which arises when one uses the word race. It has come to have a highly emotional connotation. "Race," then "is not merely a word which one utters but it is an event which one experiences," notes Montagu.6 This emotionally charged connotation arises as a result of the socialization of children. It is learned. Little children do not have feelings about race or of playing with a child who is different until that difference in human variation is brought to their attention by older people who are prejudiced. This learning or socialization may be direct or it may be indirect. When it is direct, the child is told explicitly that he should not play with so and so because he is dirty or he is not nice. Or the parent may simply hand down the fiat that Johnny is not to play with such and such a child anymore. Even though the parent does not specifically point out the fact of being different, the child is not slow to observe. He may also note with whom his parents associate regularly and with whom they do not associate except in a condescending manner. The latter provides the basis for indirect socialization. Thus human variation is emphasized.

The word we use to denote race in such a social connotation is racism. Racism is based upon race, but the two concepts are different. As we have already pointed out, race is the attempt to classify men on the basis of observed physical characteristics that are said to be genetically derived. Racism is the social disease that follows. It is simply prejudice based upon one's distorted perception of race. Just as cancer is the uncontrolled, rapid growth of body cells, so racism is the uncontrolled, rapid growth of ideas and rationalizations to justify emotional divorcement with persons of a different race.

The ideas of superiority and inferiority involved in racism really rest upon two bases. On the one hand there are those who affirm their superiority over others of a different background or color. But racism becomes a real experience when thoughts of inferiority are internalized by the people to whom the inferiority is ascribed. As W. I. Thomas has written, "If men define situations as real they are real in their consequences." 7 This theoretical dictum helps us to understand in part how racism has become so wide spread. There is evidence, of course, that in black-white relationships, some blacks are not accepting ascription of an inferior status. The feeling expressed in such sayings as "black is beautiful" or "black power" imply a demand to change a position that has helped to perpetuate racism in the past.

Dispelling Myths

Perhaps we should demolish a few myths here in regard to the positions taken by racists. The idea that only white peoples are capable of high cultural attainment cannot stand up against the fact of history, for the truth is that peoples of other races have achieved political and cultural excellence under different set tings than exist in contemporary America. I would refer you to two books to document this: Simon and Phoebe Ottenberg, Cultures and Societies of Africa, and the work by Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past. Both of these works are worthy of your attention.

The idea of racial inequality or racism has also been advanced by those text books of geography and history that have implied or actually stated the superiority of one race over another. This may have been portrayed in terms of the "childlike" and "uncivilized state" of black peoples until the more energetic and intelligent white man came along. The impression of superiority has been conveyed by picturing blacks with mud-matted hair and skewers through their noses, while pictures of whites have depicted them as well groomed and wearing the very latest and best wearing apparel.8 Actually, one sees what he wants to see. That is the problem.

One other myth is that there is a difference in innate intellectual ability based strictly upon the human variation of race. The findings pf research affirm no such thing. Most psychologists, and this is the behavioral discipline that would be involved in such research, have abandoned the notion that intelligence can be accurately tested. Current theories on intelligence support the idea that people in general have the same intellectual potential, and that it is culture that determines what a person will learn. Stated other wise, the simple truth is that there are intelligent people and there are some who are not so intelligent, as well as those to be found in between, among peoples of all races. Where differences exist be tween peoples of different races, those differences nearly always turn out to be cultural differences.

What About IQ?

But the racist does not give up easily on this one. One of the studies that is often cited to prove white intellectual superiority is the study of IQ tests that were administered to men entering the armed forces. On these tests Negroes generally averaged 15 to 20 points lower, and from these results Negro intellectual inferiority has been inferred. However, there is more to this study, which is generally overlooked by those who seek to make the above point. On the Alpha tests, Negro soldiers from the Northern State of Ohio outscored whites from eleven Southern States. What is to be seen here actually is regional variation based upon opportunities to improve upon one's native ability by the educational procedure, and this varies from place to place. In addition, IQ tests and other testing procedures to evaluate intelligence are really the efforts of white thinkers. This must not be overlooked. As anthropologist Stanley Carn has noted, if the Aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western civilization would presumably flunk it.

We are dealing with two things here. First of all, there are cultural differences even though the black man has been living in the United States for a long time. Our cultural setting is primarily white, Protestant, and middle class. Not every one fits in. Second, there are differences in educational opportunity. We are referring here to quality of education as well as to quantity (i.e. grades completed). These points should be kept clearly in view.

Summing it up, we can probably say that the problems mentioned in connection with the concept race, and the ideas of racism, bring us really to the very heart of the present-day problem in the United States.

Origin of Human Variety

Now let us consider the origin of human variety. Montagu asserts that: Concerning the origin of living human races we can say little more than that there is every reason to believe that it was a single stock which gave rise to all the "races" of man. All the "races" of man be long to the same species and have the same remote common human ancestry. 9

Montagu and others, of course, are not talking about Adam and Eve when they refer to human origin in a single stock, but rather to the evolutionary development of man from emerging animal and apelike ancestors. We would assert with Paul that Cod "hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation." 10

Evidence seems to indicate that different races of men probably emerged from inbreeding in isolated groups that were spread out on the earth and that seemed to experience some sort of physical adaptation to their environment in order to survive. This could very well have been the case following the Flood and the experience at the Tower of Babel. The Bible, however, is silent here.

God may have permitted differences to develop among men after the Flood so that men could, in truth, grow rich in a knowledge of life and living, as well as in a knowledge of God. But men have rejected this, and have become ethnocentric to a degree bordering on xenophobia. And this is widespread.

Part of the glory of the new earth will be that for the first time we will be able to really sit down with people who seem different from the north and south, the east and the west. We shall grow then in eternity not because God will lecture to regularly scheduled classes for the universe, but because within that better land people who differ from one another will raise questions that others will not have even thought of before. The answers then to perfectly natural questions, raised from a different perspective, but a perspective that we will then accept, will bring amazement and delight to all. This may well be part of the fascination that we shall all then experience.

But isn't this an experience that could begin here and now?




1. Franz Boas, "The Problem of Race" in V. F. Calverton (ed.), The Making of Man (New York: The Modern Library, 1931), p. 115.

2. E. Adamson Hoebel, Man in the Primitive World (New York: McCraw-Hill Book Company, 1958), p. 116.

3. Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 15.

4. Ibid.

5. Bibby, Race, Prejudice and Education (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1960), p. 21.

6. Ashley Montagu, Man in Process (New York: The New American Library, 1962), p. 88.

7. William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant In Europe and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918), vol. 1, p. 88.

8. Bibby, op. cit. pp. 53-55.

9. Montagu, op. cit., p. 103.

10. Acts 17:26.

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-Professor, Behavioral Science Department, Andrews University, at the time this article was written

October 1972

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