Researchers adept at analyzing the genetic threads of human diversity said Sunday that the concept of race--the source of abiding cultural and political divisions in American society--simply has no basis in fundamental human biology.
Scientists should abandon it, they said.
Their controversial conclusion grows out of a more precise understanding of the underlying genetics of the human species and how surface distinctions of skin color, hair and facial features, which may loom large in daily life, have nothing to do with the basic biology of human differences.
"Biologically, we are saying in essence that race is no longer a valid scientific distinction," said Solomon H. Katz, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist.
Speaking before the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, which is meeting this week in Atlanta, the researchers made their presentations in the heart of a region that for centuries has been alternatively transfixed and transfigured by racial divisions.
"Race is a social construct derived mainly from perceptions conditioned by events of recorded history, and it has no basic biological reality," said C. Loring Brace, a biological anthropologist at the University of Michigan.
The researchers were acting, in part, to correct a legacy of misconceptions about the biology of race, in which earlier generations of researchers provided the raw material for spurious claims of racial superiority. "They liked to concoct a biological basis for mistreating people," said Brown University anthropologist John Ladd.
The work discussed Sunday draws on a new ability to reconstruct the genetic evolution of humankind and a new appreciation for how humanity developed genetic diversity as it spread around the globe.
With the tools of molecular biology, scientists can peer past superficial characteristics to explore more powerful, underlying genetic commonalities and differences, which are making racial categories look increasingly arbitrary and irrelevant, the experts said.
"The old biological definitions of race were based on what people looked like," said Joseph L. Graves Jr., an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University West. "Now that we have better ways of looking at race . . . we could construct races based on what type of fingerprints people have, or on what kind of blood type they have, and that would be just as legitimate."
Rarely have Americans been so concerned about their ethnic and racial distinctions--in the last U.S. census, people claimed membership in some 300 racial or ethnic groups--nor have so many anthropologists been so willing to reject race as a biological category.
One survey by Central Michigan University says more than half of all cultural and physical anthropologists no longer embrace race as a useful scientific definition.
The scientists on Sunday said they are not attempting to deny human diversity, nor suggesting that historians, sociologists or federal census-takers should abandon racial categories in their work. Rather, they want to ensure that the scientific study of human diversity is no longer handicapped by reliance on artificial categories.
"Social scientists are confronted with a dilemma in that they use racial categories in order to conduct their research studies, to compare and contrast life chances or social and economic progress; at the same time there is an understanding that race has no biological reality," said Michael Omi, an expert in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.
"In fact, we can never have any really stable, coherent categories of race and ethnicity. Much of this is socially or historically shaped and politically determined," he said.
Researchers are re-evaluating scientific ideas of race at a time when many researchers generally are suspicious of efforts to link race and complex social behavior.
While there may be no significant biological racial differences between groups of people, the researchers said that does not undermine ideas--such as affirmative action--which may be based on cultural differences stemming from how groups may have been treated historically.
"The fundamental gulf between the races in the United States is not so much culture or cash or color; instead, it is (a difference in) an explanation of behavior," said Rhett Jones, director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race.
"Most white people--not all--really do believe that you can tell something about somebody by his or her skin color," he said. "Most black people really do believe that behavior is determined by choice.
"Very few black people, for example, think there is a white gene for racism," he said.