Yet, there always was a great deal of unease about race and a widely held belief that racial categories were in practice extraordinarily difficult to apply.
One famous critic of racial theory was the American anthropologist Ashley Montagu who wrote in 1941: “The omelette called ‘race’ has no existence outside the statistical fryingpan in which it has been reduced by the heat of the anthropological imagination”.
If race still resonates today publicly and politically, what do scientists think about it? Do anthropologists in particular believe that races are still valid?
A new survey of more than 3,000 anthropologists by Jennifer Wagner of the Geisinger Health System and her team has recently been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and it offers some valuable insights into their views and beliefs.
The people surveyed were members of the American Anthropological Association, the largest professional body of anthropologists in the world.
They were asked to respond to 53 statements about race covering topics like whether races are real, if they are determined by biology, whether races should play a role in medicine, the role of race and ancestry in commercial genetic testing, and if the term race should continue to be used at all.
Most revealing was the response to the statement, “The human population may be subdivided into biological races”, with 86% of respondents strongly disagreeing or disagreeing.
To the statement, “Racial categories are determined by biology”, 88% strongly disagreed or disagreed. And, “Most anthropologists believe that humans may be subdivided into biological races”, 85% of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed.
We can take from this that there is a clear consensus among anthropologists that races aren’t real, that they don’t reflect biological reality, and that most anthropologists don’t believe there is a place for race categories in science.