Letter: `Race' is not a social concept

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Sir: Ben Carrington (Letters, 19 September) spoils a good case by overstatement. Agreed, Sir Roger Bannister's arguments were fallacious, but "race" (near-synonyms: ethnic group, variety, strain, sub-species) cannot be dismissed as a myth or a wholly social concept.

These concepts have "woolly edges", but do stand for something real: members of the same group tend to have various shared characters which are not found (or are much rarer) in other groups, and some of these differences are genetically influenced. This in no way justifies any kind of racial discrimination or persecution.

Mr Carrington shows a remarkable dogmatism in his argument about which characteristics were most important in determining whether an individual slave did, or did not, survive the rigours of the slave-ships and plantation life. My guess would be that mental and physical features were both important, along with an element of luck. As the future slave-owners valued physical strength above all, physique probably had an influence on who was captured as a slave.

Those who (like myself) have done research on the genetics of plants or animals tend to be wary of those who claim that some human character is due either to genes or to environmental influences (in a broad sense, including culture). The true answer is nearly always a combination of the two.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Cock

Department of Biology

Southampton University


19 September