Race – What is it, concept, human race, racism and ethnicity

We explain what a race is in biology, what was called human races and what racism is. In addition, differences between race and ethnicity.

Today we only speak of races to refer to certain domestic animals.

What is race?

The term “race” is used in biology to distinguish, in certain species of living beings, the different groups into which the same species can be subdivided, taking into account its phenotypic traits (their physical appearance) transmitted by genetic inheritance.

It was a term widely used between the 16th and 19th centuries, being used as a synonym for subspecies, until in 1990 its use was ruled out in specialized fields, surviving only in the colloquial language.

In fact, the use of the term is today restricted to certain domestic animals such as dogs, cows or horses, for example, in whose evolution the human being has had much to do, through centuries of controlled reproduction and artificial insemination, to obtain animals with desired traits, such as dogs of a certain appearance, cows that produce more milk, and so on. In botany, however, the term is not used.

Race in humans

Since ancient times, the complex social interactions of the human being have given rise to attempts to define or characterize the different human groups that exist, based largely on their physical traits, but often also on social or cultural ones.

Many names were used to call each type of community, but it would be from the 16th century that “race” arose, probably taken from the Italian razza, with which both the different strains of local wine were called, as well as the people who shared occupations.

As a result of European expansionism and colonialism, the interest arose to distinguish rationally and scientifically between the different cultures found in other continents. A) Yes, in the seventeenth century the first attempts were made to categorize human beings by “race”.

The first book to propose a “scientific” study of human groups was published in 1684 and was the Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l’habitent (“New division of the Earth by the different species or races that inhabit it”) by French traveler and physician Francois Bernier (1625-1688).

Over the centuries, this racial gaze permeated the nascent social sciences. Thus arose fields of study dedicated to “races”, especially those considered exotic and, deep down, primitive or inferior. Everything always measured against the standard of Europe’s social, cultural and political values.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the first theories of racial anthropology emerged, according to which everything was reduced to physical appearance: anthropological methods of racial distinction were even proposed based on the size of the skull, the type of hair and, of course, the color of the skin.

The great work that formalized this biological-racist vision of humanity was the book by the French writer Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) entitled Essay on the inequality of the human races and published between 1853 and 1855. This work that immensely influenced the racist and nationalist movements of the 20th century, such as German National Socialism.

The first to empirically question this racist anthropological legacy were American anthropologists Franz Boas (1858-1942) and Ashley Montagu (1905-1999), who rejected that “race” was equivalent to “subspecies”, relying on genetic data and the impact of the environment on the human phenotype.

Later studies in the 20th century showed that the supposed racial variation corresponds in most cases to 5% of the total genome of the species, which means that They are not, in any case, different human subspecies.

The only exception to this legacy is the use of “human race” as the equivalent of “humanity”, that is, of the human species as a whole, without distinction.


As we have seen, racism, that is, the discrimination of human beings because of their ethnicity, has a long and painful history that goes back to ancient times. However, it was formally called “racism” due to the use of the term “race” during European colonialism.

Therefore, It is a term that is strongly linked to historical and socio-political aspects of colonialist Europe, whose encounter with the cultures of Asia, Africa and America occurred in terms of exoticism, submission and exploitation.

For example, much of the need to distinguish between human “races” was due to the slave market, in which certain physical traits such as strength and endurance, or social traits such as docility, were exalted. This totally racist view of humanity, according to which some were born to govern and others were born to be governed, became established over time and would be the basis of the colonial societies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Finally, in the nineteenth century the debate on races occupied a good part of the intellectual production of the West, founded on biological interpretations, making these distinctions something supposedly natural, lasting and primordial, so that they could not be changed and any attempt to subvert them it could be classified as “against nature”.

Is so the concept of “race” ended up being an ideological issue, since each “race” could be attributed certain cultural, political or moral aspects, without taking into account the history of each culture or its own particularities.

Accordingly, for example, Africans were strong and resilient, with little capacity for inventiveness and intellect, which in the end constituted a “scientific” justification for the mistreatment history that they had suffered at the hands of the European conquerors.

Racism has not disappeared today, despite the fact that a large part of humanity lives in multicultural communities and that global migration is a notoriously enriching phenomenon for societies. However, the humanist and republican legacy of equality between men, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, could be the long-term solution to a social problem as old as racism.

Race and ethnicity

race ethnicity
An ethnic group transmits sociocultural traits from generation to generation.

The current scientific consensus, at the beginning of the 21st century, considers that the category of “race” applied to human beings does not belong to the biological sphere, but of the social, that is to say, that it is a form of historical, arbitrary distinction, without support in the exact sciences, which does not mean that there are no genetic, cultural, social differences and of all kinds between the human groups that they populate the Earth.

Nevertheless, an ethnic group is a group generally endowed with phenotypic characteristics inherited from its descendants, and with specific socio-cultural traits passed down from generation to generation. This term from the Greek ethnos, “People” or “nation”.

The virtue of this concept is that it emphasizes cultural traits rather than biological or anatomical distinctions, and therefore corresponds much better to the diverse and complex nature of humanity.