Race, Continents, and Populations: The Illusion of the 21st Century

Human population genomic studies and direct-to-consumer ancestry tests are produced by multiple social constructs. All the social constructs that interplay with human population genomic studies (race, ancestry, ethnicity, geography, and culture) are offspring of or tie back to a single social construct: the sense of personhood. Whether human population geneticists realize it or not, when they define populations, they are also delineating the people within those populations. Population geneticists devise their populations out of the multiple closely related social constructs that all interplay with each other.

The most important social construct that human population geneticists operate on is the concept of geography. Geography is the template social construct for all the other social constructs that human population geneticists use to summate their populations. Geography serves as the quintessential template because it seems the least arbitrary, it appears unaltered by the activities of humans and other living organisms, its status as a social institution is very discrete, and the evidence provided to support its construction is easily visible. Almost all human population geneticists talk geographically, because geography is the pillar of human population genomics. Ever since Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who is considered to be the intellectual grandfather of human genomic research, has written his book The History and Geography of Human Genes in 1994, human evolutionary genomic researchers have been operating around this geographical way of thinking. Even Harvard geneticist David Reich, who is well known for his recent book Who We Are and How We Got Here and controversial statements on the New York Times, such as asserting that there must be genetic differences in behavior and cognition among different populations (Reich 2018) admits that human genetic research relies on terms such as “African-American,” and “European-American,” and that researchers then label segments of the genome as probably being of “African” or “European” origin (Reich 2018).

So how is geography socially constructed, you may ask? Geography is socially constructed because our denotations of places have not been static throughout history, and different people observe geography differently. What is West of you might be East of myself. Additionally, some continental boundaries are socially drawn and completely violate the commonly accepted definition of what constitutes a continent or even a subcontinent. The most notable example of this is the conviction of a “European” continent existing among contemporary humans. Europe is whole-heartedly a socially constructed continent. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a continent refers to “one of the seven large land masses on the earth’s surface, surrounded, or mainly surrounded, by sea, and usually consisting of various countries” (Cambridge Dictionary 2018). Mainland “Europe” is not principally surrounded by sea, and it is connected to the Asian landmass as well. The National Geographic insists that while “The continents of Europe and Asia, for example, are actually part of a single, enormous piece of land called Eurasia…” “… ‘Continent’ has more than just a physical definition. To human geographers, the term is about culture” (National Geographic 2012). The National Geographic then uses this culturally constructed apprehension of “continent” to maintain that “linguistically and ethnically, the areas of Asia and Europe are distinct. The various cultural groups of Europe have more in common with one another than they do with cultural groups in Asia. Because of this, most geographers divide Eurasia into Europe and Asia. An imaginary line, running from the northern Ural Mountains in Russia south to the Caspian and Black Seas, separates Europe, to the west, from Asia, to the east.”

However, more often than not, the authoritative powers (i.e. those who are doing the research) arbitrate which cultures are more similar to each other, rather than allowing actual members of the cultures to delineate themselves. For centuries, researchers and explorers from the Western world have took it upon themselves to assign cultures and groups of people into arbitrary categories based on their perception of the world. They then imposed these artificial categorizations onto the cultures themselves via colonization, slavery, and war. Dr. Martin W. Lewis and Dr. Kären E. Wigen from the History department at Stanford University mention in their book The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography that “Despite the implicit European bias of the continental scheme, its more recent incarnations have been exported to the rest of the world without, so far as we are aware, provoking any major critical response or local modification” (Lewis and Wigen 1997). By doing this, westerners have made their view of their world slowly become universally normalized.

Many racial scientists were continental thinkers. Lewis and Wigen note that nineteenth-century human geographer, Carl Ritter, conflated continents with race, and used the continental concepts to augment support for racial concepts. He concluded “Europe as the land of white people, Africa that of black people, Asia of yellow people, and America of red people” (Lewis and Wigen 1997). Sometimes old racial concepts themselves were used to demarcate continental boundaries. Lewis and Wigen allude back to the early nineteenth century when the borders of Europe were being disputed, and Halford Mackinder proposed that “the southern boundary of Europe was and is the Sahara rather than the Mediterranean, for it is the desert land that divides the black man from the white” (Lewis and Wigen 1997). Some early geographers in the 1960s even proposed that the Swat district of Pakistan was the border between Europe and Asia (Lewis and Wigen 1997).

Similarly, modern day human genomic researchers, like eighteenth and nineteenth century racialist thinkers, think continentally, and seem to hold the recently socially constructed ideas of geography as the basis of what their scientific studies operate on. Ever since the rising of Cavalli-Sforza era genomics, human genomic researchers hypothesize ancestral origins of humans and groups of humans based on their assumptions of discrete “continents” existing, and that pure/unmixed “ancestral populations” existed in these “continents.” Not only do human genomic researchers apply recently solidified, western colonialist labels to modern human groups, they attempt to apply the same labels to ancient human populations — populations that existed tens of thousands of years before the modern understanding of these labels, as well.

Although geneticists like David Reich make it very clear that modern “populations” such as “Europeans” descend from a mixture of highly different groups of people — people that were “as different from each other as Europeans and East Asians are today” (Reich 2018), he, and other geneticists, fail to make it clear that the ancient groups of people (or individuals sampled that have been concluded to represent entire ancient groups by geneticists) are not only the ancestors of modern day “Europeans,” but the ancestors of modern day people from the rest of the “continents” as well. In fact, some of the ancient groups of people that geneticists have studied and touted as “ancestral to modern Europeans” are more ancestral to some populations outside of “Europe” than they are to any population within “Europe.” A brief example of this is how in 2015, researchers from the University of Cambridge reported that “‘Fourth strand’ of European ancestry originated with hunter-gatherers isolated by Ice Age” (University of Cambridge 2015). The study, while revealing very minuscule details about how “Populations for which the ancient Caucasus genomes [the “fourth strand of European ancestry”] are best ancestral approximations include those of the Southern Caucasus and interestingly, South and Central Asia” (Jones E.R. et. al 2015), chooses to present this ancestry as part of the “European gene pool” and being distinctly part of the “European” story, erasing its significance to modern day populations located in West, Central, and South Asia, and overestimating its significance to the entire “European continent.” Despite the study noting very briefly that the Caucasus Hunter Gather (CHG) related ancestry is mostly significant in Northern Europe, and barely significant in Southern European populations at all, it still chooses to socially homogenize the CHG strand of ancestry to the entire “European continent” (Jones E.R. et. al 2015). The study was largely funded and supported by the European Research Council, the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) ERC Support Programme and the Marie-Curie Intra-European Fellowships, and the The National Geographic Global Exploration Fund (Jones E.R. et al 2015), which could certainly correlate with its Eurocentric outlook, way of defining things and people, and interpretation of ancient genomic history. As mentioned earlier in this paper, the National Geographic, which is one of the significant funders of the paper, is the same institution that insists that the “Europeans” and “Asians” are “ethnically and culturally distinct,” in order to support the imaginary line drawn to divide the two “continents.” (National Geographic 2018). The aforementioned assumptions of the funder could be reflected in how the study was conducted and presented to the public. National Geographic also made mention of how “European” ethnic groups and cultures are more similar to one another, making them distinct from “Asian” cultures, but indicate no distinctiveness of “Asian” ethnic groups and cultures (National Geographic 2018).

Additionally, even stands of ancient ancestry such as the Western Hunter Gatherer (WHG) is not constricted to just Europeans, as studies often claim. In fact, WHG ancestry reaches up to 15% in sampled North African populations. Other ancient populations touted as “part of the European family tree,” such as the Ancestral North Eurasians (ANE) are also an extremely significant ancestral population to Native American groups, yet they are often left out of the publications focusing on this ancestry, or their relevance is minimized. This Eurocentrism that exists in many population genomic studies erases humans from the rest of the globe from the human family tree, and it further “otherizes” those who descend from non-European ethnic backgrounds.

Human genomic studies themselves are often not the sources that directly inform the public, however. News blogs such as DailyMailUK, ScienceDaily, and many other news outlets take to social media to write articles which summarize the points in studies of population genomics. Additionally, direct-to-consumer ancestry tests, the offspring of population genomic studies made as an easy interpretation of genetics for lay people, also inform the general public of population genomic findings. Articles such as the 2013 ScienceDaily article claiming that “Genes show one big European family,” summarizes a study conducted by Graham Coop from the University of California — Davis and Peter Ralph from the University of Oregon that talks about how Europeans are supposedly all genetically related just a few thousand years ago, and endorses the notion that Europeans have a “unique genetic heritage” that is separate from the rest of the world. However, like the other study, the one by Coop and Ralph also mention brief disclaimers that are significant exceptions to their overall conclusion, but keep them so discrete in order to not distract the reader from the overall theme of the article. When interviewed by ScienceDaily, Coon claimed that “What’s remarkable about this is how closely everyone is related to each other. On a genealogical level, everyone in Europe traces back to nearly the same set of ancestors only a thousand years ago” (ScienceDaily 2013). However, what is mentioned in his actual study completely contradicts that notion. The study estimated that “…most of the common ancestry shared between Italy and other populations is older than about 2,300 years” (Coop and Ralph 2013). They also claim that “Interestingly, the Greek samples (EL) place near the middle of the Italian gradient. It is natural to guess that there is a north-south gradient of recency of common ancestry along the length of Italy, and that southern Italy has been historically more closely connected to the eastern Mediterranean,” in addition to noting that the entire Iberian Peninsula and France are exceptions to the 1,000 years identical-by-descent rule proposed by them as well (Coop and Ralph 2013). Coop and Ralph said that they and other researchers hypothesized their findings over a decade ago, and based their hypothesis due to the migrations of Slavs, Huns, and Romans across the continent (Coop and Ralph 2013). However, it is important to note that those migrations did not all effect the “European” continent equally, and that they impacted parts of “Asia” and “Africa” even more than they impacted several portions of Europe. This makes it questionable why only “Europe” was focused on to study the impacts of those migrations. The sample sizes for many of the countries and islands were very insignificant as well. For example, the sample of people from Turkey only consisted of 4 individuals, the samples of people from the Czech Republic and Bosnia only consisted of 9 people, and only 1 person from Bulgaria, Montenegro, Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, and Denmark were sampled.

Finally, direct-to-consumer ancestry tests, the byproduct of population genomics that most lay people encounter, also support the notion of distinct “continental” ancestries or DNA existing. Companies like 23andme have categories for some portions of DNA such as “Broadly European” or “Broadly East Asian,” in which they claim that those are segments of DNA that are found “only in” those continents, but not in other continents, and cannot be pinpointed to an exact country within those countries (23andme n.d.). However, no such ancestry or DNA exists. Though there are different frequencies of alleles in some genes among different human populations, it is very false to even remotely claim that some variants are confined only to one “continent.” They also have a problematic way of defining non-western populations, often over-simplifying them into one large category, while breaking down European regions into several other categories.

Nonetheless, direct-to-consumer ancestry testing has provided some positive impact in the world, as has population genomics. Using population genomics, researches were at least able to deduce and admit that “race” is a social construct, and that western ideas of how people around the world are on a scientific level are not supported by science. Additionally, direct-to-consumer ancestry test can have a positive impact in the life of an adoptee. It can help give an adoptee acquire a sense of personhood, kinship, and relatedness to other people around them. They also help adoptees reconnect with their biological families as well, which can be sometimes a good thing, but also sometimes a bad thing as well (if the adoptee or the biological family do not wish to know one another). Though biological anthropology and population genomics have several negative consequences that need to be addressed, they also have several positive outcomes that cannot be overlooked as well. Population genomic studies on ancient humans have re-shaped how scientists view the past, and have falsified several racist beliefs. When a book by Nicholas B. Wade A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History was published in 2014, it projected racist views such as claiming that different “races” have different levels of intelligence on the basis of I.Q. tests scores. 139 population geneticists, including David Reich and Graham Coop, signed a letter that responded to his book, refuting what it claimed. The open letter sent to Wade mentioned how “As discussed by Dobbs and many others, Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not. We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures” (Coop et. al 2014). Lastly, the services provided by genomic studies have provided historically marginalized people such as African-Americans an ability to explore a heritage and history that was taken from them.

Furthermore, the social constructions of geography, ethnicity, race, and culture all cultivate each other, and the pursuit of studying human genetics and ancestry reflects all of that. The study of human genetic variation is not inherently evil, and most people who study genetic variation do not have malicious intent, either. However, the history of studying human variation does include a dark past, and many modern researchers of human variation have unknowingly kept most of the erroneous ideas of the past alive today by using problematic ways of defining individuals and groups of people. Though geneticists and biologists tend to favor endorsing parsimonious explanations for things, they need to understand that they cannot oversimplify the past of humanity. Very few groups of humans or hominids in general have ever lived in true “isolation” and “divergence,” and that ancient humans were just as likely to move around as individuals and as groups as they are today. Subsequently, they must completely eradicate their continental, colonialist way of framing groups of people around the world in their studies, and stop applying nineteenth century continental labels to ancient human populations from before the Holocene (who clearly defy the continental scheme of thinking in almost every way). Instead, they should move to a regional frame of thinking that accurately reflects population histories of people around the globe and how the populations of the world identify themselves today. Whether population geneticists realize it or not, they are searching for genetic variation that fits within culturally constructed concepts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ancient human DNA shows again and again that those labels are culturally constructed and have no basis in genetics at all.

A Cultural and Biological Anthropology student based in the Washington, D.C. area