Chapters 4 & 12 (299-304): Modern Human Diversity: Race and Racism

In Chapters 3 & 4, we talked about the Linnaean classification system, which forms the basis of our animal kingdom system. However, Linnaeus was not the only one to create a system for ordering the natural world. Many early systems, including those eventually used by early physical anthropology, tried to divide our species into races, or subspecies. These attempts were the result of beliefs that different populations of humans were in fact different subspecies that were at different stages of evolution. While untrue, these notions of superiority and inferiority have led to destructive results, including genocide, slavery and discrimination. This chapter explores race from both the biological and social perspectives and suggests that race, in terms of humans, doesn’t exist at a biological level. Rather, it is a socially constructed idea.


A race is biologically, “defined as a subspecies, or a population of a species differing geographically, morphologically, or genetically from other populations of the same species.”

Such a definition is impossible to apply to human populations for a number of reasons.

1.     One issue is that how different does an individual need to be before they would be classified as another race? Where is the cut-off between races?

2.     A second issue is that any given race does not have exclusive rights to particular features or genes. Brown skin does not belong only to Africans; Middle Easterners, Aborigines, and some Asian populations also have shades of brown skin.

3.     A third issue is that there are greater genetic and morphological variations with any given racial group than between two such groups.


While the biological concept of race as applied to humans is problematic, race still exists at a cultural level, since human groups tend to recognize such physical differences. However, these differences are relatively recent in human history, as is our knowledge of others who look and act differently from ourselves, probably dating to around the time of village or city living.


Despite all of the foregoing, scientists still have valid reasons to study the biological characteristics of people in discrete groups (what we usually call races), because humans exhibit biological variation. But a better way to approach such divisions is to view them as a result of historical cultural and biological processes. In this way, we can refer to an ethnic group that shares history, territory or cultural identity or to a population, which exists as a result of past human migrations, adaptations and activities.


Urban, sedentary living is a recent phenomenon for modern humans. Thus, we haven’t had a lot of time to develop genetic or physical adaptations to the stressors of urban life. When we began living in cities we changed our activity patterns and diets, were exposed to social inequalities, stress, crowding, pollution and crime.  Foragers had much better health than food producers, and the shift to food production marked our downward spiral in health. Stressors are things in any environment that may be bad for our health and well-being. As cities are stratified, people in different classes experience and respond to stressors in different ways.

Sanitation and Water Supply

Urban settlements with large dense populations face serious issues in securing clean drinking water, disposing of animal and human waste and having fresh air. Infectious disease first became significant when we began living in urban settlements. As a cultural response to these stressors, some of the first cities designed sewer and drinking water systems. However, throughout history and into the present, crises have arisen due to bacteria-laden water (for example, cholera).


When you combine high levels of population density, air pollution, low quality housing and a lack of services, humans suffer from mental and physical problems. Many diseases are really urban diseases. Tuberculosis (TB) is gotten from other infected people through coughing and sneezing. Crowding poor people in poor living conditions, including jails, increases the likelihood of TB infection. One new strain of TB, multi-drug resistant TB, is resistant to conventional antibiotics and thus makes it a very serious health hazard.


Pollution can be in the air, food, ground or water. Pollutants can cause chronic or acute illness, disease and death. Air pollution is a major problem of urban areas, with their large populations and numerous cars and factories. Lead poisoning was common until the 1970’s and 80’s in the U.S. and is still common in poor countries. Poor people, immigrants and minorities had higher lead poisoning rates as it was found in drinking water and paint in poor neighborhoods.

Poverty and Gender

Across the world, the poor are more likely to be exposed to the dangers of urban areas. Since women are more likely to be poor than are men, poor women are in the worst danger. Access to good paying secure jobs with benefits can allow people to leave bad neighborhoods or even urban areas for the suburbs. Being able to provide for yourself also empowers people to advocate and lobby for protections. The under- and unemployed don’t have access to the same medical care, nutritious diets or safe living conditions the rest of us have. Poor people have less money in total for food and buy items that are filling but which have little nutritional value because they are cheaper (see foodstamp challenge links on class webpage). Poor people have higher rates of premature death, malnutrition and stunted growth than wealthier ones. Malnutrition is linked to chronic and infectious disease because people are either too poor to treat chronic illnesses or their weakened bodies are unable to fight off either type of illness. The world has enough food and water for all, but where it is located is the problem. Wealthy countries have surpluses while poor nations have deficits.