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Anthropology/Evolution and Race


QUESTION: Do you believe the races have equal intellectual capacity? If so, what would lead you to conclude the races would posses equal intelligence other than simply a desire to believe so because it seems fair, equitable, and satisfies one's deeply held egalitarian beliefs?

If environments were so varied to lead to such great difference in skin pigmentation, hair texture, facial features, skull shape etc., why would one conclude that despite all these differences the races somehow evolved separately, in their vastly differing environments, yet ended up developing exactly equal intellect?

Do you believe it's possible that the races are not sub-species, but actually different species? I have heard it explained that some animals, such as African and Asian elephants are classified as entirely different species while physically appearing more similar than some racial differences in appearance, or that while some animals may be considered separate species they are closer genetically than say a western European is to an aboriginal Australian.

Racial egalitarianism seems to be almost the new religion of the 21st century, and anyone who dares to question it is seen as blasphemous in the same way those who questioned whether the earth was flat or whether the earth was truly the center of the solar system were once considered to be blasphemous for holding, or even daring to consider, positions which at that time where in opposition to the church.

What could lead one to conclude that the races are necessarily the same species or evolved completely equally in intellect, temperament, etc. especially given all of the data and real world observations that seem to suggest otherwise?

Everything in my experience as a professional anthropologist for the last 30 years suggests that there are more differences in intelligence within regional groups of humans ("races") than there are between them.  In short, smart and dumb vary among humans, but their distributions are not patterned  along geographic lines.  When people talk about race and intelligence, it is really important to keep in mind that neither race nor intelligence are actual things, but rather concepts that arose either before scientific studies of human variation began (race) or before psychology developed tools for sorting out the various things that comprise intelligence.
On Race, see M.F. Ashley Montagu's book Race: Man's Most Dangerous Myth or (a more recent work) Wolpoff and Caspari Race and Human Evolution: A Fatal Attraction.
On intelligence, see Steven Jay Gould's  The Mismeasure of Man.
All humans alive today are member of the same species, Homo sapiens.  "Subspecies" in technical terms are regional populations of larger species that differ from one another morphologically but that remain (theoretically) able to interbreed with one another.  So, yes, in those terms "races" are analogous to subspecies.
Your comparison of African elephants and Asian ones is mistaken. These are not just different species, but different genera (Loxodonta and Elephas, respectively).  They are very different from one another in terms of morphology and behavior.  Their last common ancestor lived tens of millions of years ago.  The last common ancestor of all humans, by comparison, lived 100-200 thousand years ago (in Africa).  In geological terms, this is yesterday.  Humans only dispersed out of Africa a little less than 100 thousand years ago. That's enough time for some trivial differences in hair, skin color, etc. to evolve, but not enough time for serious behavioral differences to accumulate among regional populations of humans.
Yes, there is some "political correctness" behind views about human equality today, but happily this is a case where political and scientific correctness are correlated with one another.
John Shea

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for your quick reply. I have a couple follow up questions on this if that is OK.

As far as your statement, "Everything in my experience as a professional anthropologist for the last 30 years suggests that there are more differences in intelligence within regional groups of humans ("races") than there are between them" - I do understand this concept, but that does not negate differences between races, does it?

For example, there is a greater difference in height between different men (for example some guys are 6'6" and others 5'6") than there is in the height difference of the average man vs. the average woman (maybe the average man is 5'10" and the average woman 5'4"). Clearly there is a bigger difference between individual men or between individual women than there is between the average for each gender, yet no one would ever try to claim that women and men are equal in height because of this. I have never understood why that concept (intraracial differences vs. interracial differences) is used to try to negate differences between races.

Also, I have heard that all populations with the exception of sub-Saharan Africans have neanderthal DNA between 1-4%. Is this correct? If so, how can it be possible that "When people talk about race and intelligence, it is really important to keep in mind that neither race nor intelligence are actual things?" Wouldn't there be a "racial" or "sub-species" difference between populations with neanderthal admixture and those without?

Thanks again for your quick reply.

"As far as your statement, "Everything in my experience as a professional anthropologist for the last 30 years suggests that there are more differences in intelligence within regional groups of humans ("races") than there are between them" - I do understand this concept, but that does not negate differences between races, does it?"  This is my subjective impression, admittedly, but it pretty much summarizes the scientific evidence.

Science is all about prediction.  Does knowing X quality of something enable one to predict the value of Y.  So, to follow your example, when it comes to height, yes, men are taller on average than women, but knowing a person's sex does not enable one to predict their height either relatively or exactly.  Similarly, knowing whether someone is from China or Zambia or Sweden (or more to the point, where their ancestors have been evolving for the last 10,000 years or so) does help one predict skin color, hair texture, or some other such features that vary geographically.  Such information has never been shown to convincingly predict intelligence or any other behavioral difference.
The key thing is not whether there are differences between regional human populations, but whether such differences mean anything important other than histories of humans interbreeding at low population densities until very recently (last 10,000-5000 years or so, after the invention of agriculture, urban living, and high population densities.

Look, nearly all this business about behavioral and cognitive differences among human "races" are statistical phenomena.  Nobody in antiquity every impugned the intelligence of whole geographic groups of humans (other than the universal "Us" vs. "Them" kinds of differences.  Hypotheses about racial differences in intelligence came into fashion during the 18th-9th centuries when (1) some people needed a justification for slavery and/or imperialism and (2) in the early 20th century when statistical methods and computation technology had advanced to the point where they could assign probabilities to differences in standardized tests.  If you test any large group of people who differ in one way or another, you are going to find statistically-significant differences. The key thing, though, and this is where all the race-difference theories fall flat, is statistically-significant differences are meaningless without some prior theory that predicts it.  Why would one expect patterned regional differences in intelligence among humans?  Does it make sense that whole continents of people would differ from one another significantly in terms of intelligence?  Wouldn't the archaeological record show vastly different rates of change over time that are not otherwise explicable in terms of climatic variables ?  It doesn't. Wouldn't there be morphological correlates for such intelligence differences in the fossil record in terms of healthy or longevity?  There aren't.  So, for me, absent such prior theory, when someone claims to find racial differences in behavior, my first assumption is that it is a statistical fluke, the kind of pattern anybody can find if they fish around a sufficiently large dataset for correlations.

I remain agnostic about this "Neandertal DNA" business.  The recovery and analysis of DNA from human fossils is a very young field.  It was not too long ago (1996 precisely) that Neandertal DNA indicated NO close relationship with ANY living human.  Right now the half-life of an evolutionary hypothesis based on fossil DNA is about three weeks.  I think we need another decade of solid research before we can pass judgement on this evidence.  Again, though, think about prediction.  Does knowing how much, if any, Neandertal DNA one has (1-4%) allow one to predict anything about variation in their behavior?  Is there any hard-and-fast evidence for patterned behavioral differences or differences in intelligence between Subsaharan Africans who lack Neandertal DNA and everybody else who has variable amounts of it?  Isn't it more likely that evidence for such patterned differences is so weak because between >96%  of all humans' DNA comes from their non-Neandertal African ancestors?

Have a look at those books on race by anthropologists.  Montagu's was written back in the 1940s and is probably in public domain.  Caspari and Wolpoff's is available on Amazon and is a fast read.  You might also look up books by Jonathan Marks, particularly "What it means to be 98% chimpanzee" and "Why I am not a Scientist".  Marks is a talented writer an a first-rate scientist (title of second book notwithstanding).
If, after you have read these works, you have further questions, I will be happy to try to answer them, but at this point I have to cut this discussion off.  I only do these Allexperts questions when I have spare time, and now I need to return my attention to my research (a small mountain of 45,000-year old stone tools in my lab).
John Shea


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John Shea


Questions about Old World prehistoric archaeology (especially Stone Age) of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, prehistoric human and hominid behavior, primitive technology, origin of modern humans, extinction of the Neandertals. IMPORTANT: Between February 14 and September 01, 2014, I will be on sabbatical leave. During this time I will have limited access to email. This means that there may be very long periods (i.e., weeks) between your posting a question and my having time to answer it.


>20 years as a professional anthropologist based at a research university.

Journal of Field Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Lithic Technology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Mitekufat HaEven (Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society), Paléorient, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, American Anthropologist, Geoarchaeology.

Ph.D (Anthropology) Harvard University, 1991.
BA (Archaeology) Boston University, 1982.

Awards and Honors
Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer 2012-2014

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