Human Variation

Tongue rolling is coded for by a gene. Who knew?
Tongue rolling is coded for by a gene. Who knew?

Week 6: Human Variation

Activity: Mendelian Genetics

Topic: Human Variation

The notion of “race” is a social, rather than biological construct. Historically, race has been used as a tool of instituting social inequality and prejudice.

Anthropologists do not accept ‘race’ as a valid concept for a number of reasons, but chief among is the fact that ‘race’ is impossible to define in a biological sense. Many of the traits that people would typically use to define racial categories (e.g., skin color, hair, facial features, height, etc.) are so broadly distributed through all human populations that it would be impossible to say, for example, that “Race A is constituted of individuals with ___hair, __skin color, etc, while Race B is characterized by _____ facial characteristic and _____ skin color.” In fact, there is more genetic variation “within” any particular race than would be “between” different racial categories. It isn’t just a matter of people being hard to classify. The issue is that the entire classificatory system is wrong.

Ask the students to consider their own concept of race. Are they thinking about biological variation or cultural factors, such as socioeconomic status, language, religion, or other characteristics? Do the categories work?


Each student group will attempt to place photographs of individuals from the PBS Sorting People Exercise into distinct “races.” Once they have placed each individual into a particular racial category, we will reveal how each person describes their own heritage and racial identity.

Ultimately, students will learn that race is not a valid biological concept, which is why anthropologists do not use the term to describe modern human populations. Instead, anthropologists talk about ethnicity, genetic variation, and culture.

Define key terms and raise questions about how race is discussed in modern society.

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