What is race?

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Graves says, “Many people think race consists of differences in physical appearance—things like eye shape, skin tone, or hair type. They also think a person’s physical appearance is an indicator of other traits, such as intelligence, or likeliness to commit crime or suffer from a particular disease.”

montage of women's faces
While the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit was on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Science Buzz featured three experts to answer questions and continue the conversation started in the exhibition. Joseph Graves is the first in the series.

But to a biologist, a race is a subdivision of the human species that can be consistently defined either by a set of physical characteristics or differences in gene frequencies between populations. “So race in a biologist’s sense usually refers to a subspecies,” says Graves. “And subspecies are actually groups on the way to forming new species.”

He continues, “Race is simply not a level of biological division that we find in anatomically modern humans. There are no human subspecies living today. So there’s no scientific support for human races in the biological sense.”