The Two Sides of the Debate on the Concept of Race Between Scientists, Historians, and Anthropologists

Categories: AnthropologyRace

The debate surrounding the concept of race has been on going for years between scientists, historians and anthropologists. One side of the debate, historically taken up by scientists and biologists, argues that race is biological and has developed as a result of evolution. The other side of the debate, usually supported by historians, social scientists and anthropologists, argues that race is not genetic but is a social and cultural construct. This historiography willdiscuss the way in which arguments and the concept of race has developed over time in the field of history and science.

Berlin, Wade, Lenkeit, Rosenberg and Gravlee all look at the issue of race and how to define this concept, however each approach this in different ways using different methods. Firstly, this essay will compare the arguments of Rosenberg and Wade, who both lean towards the race is biological argument. Secondly, this essay will discuss the similarities and differences of Berlin and Lenkeit’s arguments. Thirdly, this essay will compare Gravlee’s arguments with the other authors, discussing how his piece is both similar and different to the other pieces.

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Lastly, this historiography will discuss the way inwhich the context of the time period in which each writer was arguing their pieces affected the way they perceived race as a concept.

Firstly, Rosenberg and Wade argue similar points, however, they use different methods in arguing their views. Both Rosenberg and Wade argue overall that race is as a result of the evolutionary process and exists and a biological construct.

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Rosenberg argues that human races do exist in a biological sense, not as a cultural construct, but as a result of evolution and

natural selection. Wade, too, argues that human races do exist as a result of evolution and natural selection however the way in which he argues this point differs from Rosenberg. The difference between Rosenberg and Wade’s methods in arguing their point is the stance they both take. Rosenberg, while arguing that race is biological and as a result of natural selection, states that these differences in genetic make up between the races is not of much significance. However, Wade criticises anthropologists for making the topic of race taboo, stating that race is of great significance socially, culturally and scientifically, also stating within his article ‘a few biologists have begun to agree that there are human races, but they hasten to add that the fact means very little. This is where the two authors differ in their methods of arguing race as biological; Rosenberg arguing that racial variation is not of much significance, whereas Wade argues race does have a significant impact upon society and culture. Wade has written his article in order to make the topic of race known and discussed as he argues it is regarded a taboo topic, which has social and cultural implications, whereas Rosenberg is writing his piece as part of genetic human research. Another way in which Rosenberg and Wade’s arguments are similar but methods differ is through the argument that race is due to natural selection and defined as distinct populations living geographically separated. Rosenberg argues that there are human races living in different areas however this is blurring due to the increase in migration. However, Wade does argue that human races are defined as living in separate locations, he argues that evolution has not come to a halt, but race as biology is continually adapting and forming. Ultimately, Wade and Rosenberg are arguing similar concepts, that race is biological, not a social construct, and races are as a result of the evolutionary process, however their methods differ in their writing.

Secondly, in contrast to Rosenberg and Wade, Berlin and Lenkeit both argue that race is not biological but is a social and cultural construct, pointing out that races do not biologically exist. Lenkeit is arguing from an anthropological point of view, focusing on race as a construct through the lens of human development and how society works. Lenkeit is writing this book chapter in order to establish race as a social construct and move the concept away

from it’s biological understanding and ties. However, Berlin goes a step further using a different method in arguing that race is a social construct, stating that not only is race culturally constructed but is a historical construct. Berlin argues that by merely labelling race as a social construct, it has won few practical battles and barely changed social behaviour. He argues that this is because race needs to be understood as a product of history and changing relationships over time, while focusing on the changing nature of the concept of race throughout slavery in North America. Lenkeit is arguing her case for race as a social construction through the lens of anthropology and human beings, whereas Berlin uses the method of looking at race through historical events as a whole and how societies and institutions have affected race as a concept throughout history. Furthermore, both Berlin and Lenkeit argue that race has been shaped by people’s experiences and narrow perceptions. For example, Lenkeit makes the point that in North America, white Americans often associated black with African as black slaves were the only Africans they had experience with.” Both authors argue that race as a concept is as a result of perceived differences reinforced by social groups, differing to both Rosenberg and Wade’s claims that race as biological and not constructed by people’s experiences. In addition, Berlin does not directly reject geneticists or scientists who claim that race is biological, but aims to build upon the idea that race is a social construct in arguing the for historical understanding of race as a concept. In contrast, Lenkeit takes a more defensive approach, stating that race is not biological but variations amongst humans are as a result of clinal variations and geographical location. Ultimately, Berlin and Lenkeit argue similar points, that race is a social construct, however they differ in the way in which they argue their points within the context of their social science research.

Thirdly, in contrast to all other four authors, Gravlee argues somewhere in the middle of the race debate. While Wade and Rosenberg argue that race is biological and as a result of evolution and natural selection, Gravlee argues that race is biological however not as a result of evolution. Furthermore, in contrast to the arguments made by Berlin and Lenkeit stating that race was a cultural and historical construct, Gravlee argues that race is embed in society and passed on through biological pathways. Gravlee is ultimately arguing that race as it is perceived is a culturally constructed concept, however as systematic racism becomes embodied in the biology of racialized groups, the inequalities and consequences are transmitted throughout generations. Gravlee dismisses Rosenberg’s claims that genetic variation shows that individuals from the same continent cluster together but argues instead that genetic variation is as a result of geographical location, similar to Berlin and Lenkeit. Gravlee is arguing his case within the context of the health debate in the United States during this period of time, ultimately aiming to identify social and cultural causes of racial inequalities within the health system. This is where Gravlee’s method of writing differs to the other authors; Gravlee is arguing that researching the concept and causes of racial inequalities will lead to a better understanding of the race concept, whereas other authors are arguing their point of view in an academic journal, debating and proving theory their perceived theory of race as a concept. Ultimately, Gravlee moves slightly away from both views that race is either biological or cultural, arguing that race is more complex than genetics and the underlying causes of inequalities should be further researched.

Lastly, each author’s individual arguments and methods adopted are related to the context of the time in which they wrote their piece. The race debate has developed over time and during the twentieth century ideas developed, concluding that race was a cultural construction. Berlin and Lenkeit are arguing from an anthropological perspective, as Morning states, the concept of race has become ‘conventional wisdom’ within modern sociology. However, the race debate has begun to immerge in recent years in a different light, particularly surrounding events within America. As pointed out by Fouche and Echevarria, social and economic racial inequalities have become a major issue, providing context for Gravlee’s piece, where he highlights the need to research these root causes, not just debate the theory of race. In contrast, both Wade and Rosenberg are writing their pieces from a scientific point of view. Rosenberg is leading a team at Stanford University studying human evolutionary genetics, his research providing the knowledge to make these arguments and inferences. Wade is writing his piece as a science reporter for the New York Times, criticising the notion that race is a cultural construct within the context of the debate which argues race needs to be discussed.

Ultimately, each author is arguing different points using different methods based on their context in which they write.

In conclusion, this historiography has demonstrated how the race debate has developed and changed over a period of time. Through analysing each author’s writing and comparing and contrasting their arguments, this essay has demonstrated the changing nature of the concept of race within particular schools of research and theory. Race has developed from a biological concept, to being perceived as a social construct, to in recent times, being researched as a concept more complex than biology and society can explain.

Works Cited

  1. Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. London: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  2. Fouche, Lori Dickerson and Echevarria, Joe. “What’s Missing From America’s Debate on Race.” Fortune, May 5, 2015 americas-debate-on-race/.
  3. Gravlee, Clarence. “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, 1 (2009): 47-57.
  4. Hartigan Jr., John. “Culture Against Race: Reworking the Basis for Racial Analysis.” South Atlantic Quarterly 104, 3 (2005): 543-560.
  5. Jackson, Myles. “The Biology of Race: Searching for No Overlap.” Perspectives inBiology and Medicine 57, 1 (2014): 87-104.
  6. Lenkeit, Roberta Edwards. Introducing Cultural Anthropology: Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012.
  7. Lucas, Margery. “Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and HumanHistory,” Society 51, 6 (2014): 698-700.
  8. Morning, Ann. ““Everyone knows it’s a Social Construct”: Contemporary Science and the Nature of Race.” Sociological Focus 40, 4 (2007): 436-454.
  9. “Rosenberg Lab at Stanford University,” Stanford University, last modified October 27, 2014,
  10. Rosenberg, Noah. “Are There Human Races?” Why Evolution is True (blog), February 28, 2012, Source Weblogpost.html? style=3&type=4&detail=3
  11. Wade, Nicholas. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014.

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The Two Sides of the Debate on the Concept of Race Between Scientists, Historians, and Anthropologists. (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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