Subspecies vs Race

Subject: Subspecies vs Race
From: Nikolas Haass <>
Date: Mon, 23 Feb 2009 13:42:05 -0800 (PST)
Hi Akos,

It is Genus species subspecies (however, there are also subgenera and 


Here is an interesting paper in a very prestigious journal:

Nature Genetics  36, S17 - S20 (2004) 
Published online: ;  | doi:10.1038/ng1455 

Conceptualizing human variationS O Y Keita1, 2, R A Kittles1, 3, C D M Royal1, 
G E Bonney1, P Furbert-Harris1, G M Dunston1 & C N Rotimi1
1 National Human Genome Center, College of Medicine, Howard University, 
Washington, DC 20060, USA.
2 Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
3 Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology, and Medical Genetics, The Ohio 
State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA.Correspondence should be addressed 
to R A Kittles    What
is the relationship between the patterns of biological and
sociocultural variation in extant humans? Is this relationship
accurately described, or best explained, by the term 'race' and the
schema of 'racial' classification? What is the relationship between
'race', genetics and the demographic groups of society? Can extant
humans be categorized into units that can scientifically be called
'races'? These questions underlie the discussions that address the
explanations for the observed differences in many domains between named
demographic groups across societies. These domains include disease
incidence and prevalence and other variables studied by biologists and
social scientists. Here, we offer a perspective on understanding human
variation by exploring the meaning and use of the term 'race' and its
relationship to a range of data. The quest is for a more useful
approach with which to understand human biological variation, one that
may provide better research designs and inform public policy.   'Race': 
semantics and confusion
term 'race' engenders much discussion, with little agreement between
those who claim that 'races' are real (meaning natural) biological
entities and those who maintain that they are socially constructed1.
The former group sometimes stresses empirical evidence for the
existence of biological 'racial' differences, and the latter stresses
the role that human agency has had in creating distinctions between
people (on any level). Biologists also disagree about the meaning of
'race', and whether it is applicable to human infraspecific
(within-species) variation2, 3, 4, 5.

examination of these discussions indicates that there is a problem with
semantics. 'Race' is not being defined or used consistently; its
referents are varied and shift depending on context. The term is often
used colloquially to refer to a range of human groupings. Religious,
cultural, social, national, ethnic, linguistic, genetic, geographical
and anatomical groups have been and sometimes still are called 'races'6, 7.
In anthropology, the meaning of race became formalized for humans and
restricted to units based on biological variation in keeping with
general zoological practice8, 9. Classifications were based on somatic traits.

is applied in formal taxonomy to variation below the species level. In
traditional approaches, substantively morphologically distinct
populations or collections of populations occupying a section of a
species range are called subspecies and given a three-part Latin name10.
In current systematic practice, the designation 'subspecies' is used to
indicate an objective degree of microevolutionary divergence11. Do any of the 
human groups called 'races', including those from traditional anthropology, 
meet this latter criterion?

argue that the correct use of the term 'race' is the most current
taxonomic one, because it has been formalized. 'Race' gains its force
from its natural science root. The term denotes 'natural' distinctions
and connotes differences not susceptible to change. One is led to ask,
therefore, whether everything that is called a 'racial' difference is
actually natural. 'Racial' differences carry a different weight than
cultural differences. In terms of taxonomic precision and best
practice, is it scientifically correct to identify European Americans,
Asians and Pacific Islanders, Han Chinese, Hispanics and African
Americans of Middle Passage descent as different races? Although
individuals may refer to themselves as belonging to a particular
'race', it is doubtful that this has been done with knowledge of, or
concern for, zoological taxonomy, because the common use of the term
has come from sociopolitical discourse. Individuals learned the 'race'
to which they were assigned.

'race' and subspecies are usually treated as equivalent, some
zoological taxonomists reserve the word 'race' for local breeding
populations, with subspecies being geographical collections of
populations that are similar or the same in the defining traits. This
causes no serious problem to this discussion, because the most commonly
known anthropological classification of humans is said to consist of
races. If 'Caucasoid' is a subspecies, however, then an endogamous
village population or ethnic group becomes a 'race'. This illustrates
an inconsistency even in biological usage not found in scientific or
sociopolitical practice: for example, how often are the Old Order Amish
referred to as a 'race' in recent scientific literature? This group of
people is a breeding population, based on a particular behavioral
pattern of mate choice, as opposed to being defined by an anatomical
trait complex.

'Race' and subspecies
the subspecies level is formally recognized in taxonomy, it has been
criticized. Subspecies were primarily delimited by differences in
selected observable morphological traits within a restricted
geographical range. In practice, divisions were made based on a few
prominent traits, with subsequent variation interpreted in terms of
established units.

In the 1950s many zoological taxonomists became dissatisfied with the 
subspecies as a way to understand variation10, 12, 13.
Criticisms included (i) the nonconcordance of traits, which made it
possible to produce different classifications using the same
individuals; (ii) the existence of polytopic populations, which are the
product of parallel evolution; (iii) the existence of true breeding
populations (demes) within previously delimited subspecies; and (iv)
the arbitrariness of criteria used to recognized subspecies10. In addition, 
some traits were found to be clinally distributed, making the creation of 
divisions arbitrary.

Current systematic theory emphasizes that taxonomy at all levels should reflect 
evolutionary relationships11.
For instance, the term 'Negro' was once a racial designation for
numerous groups in tropical Africa and Pacific Oceania (Melanesians).
These groups share a broadly similar external phenotype; this
classification illustrates 'race' as type, defined by anatomical
complexes. Although the actual relationship between African 'Negroes'
and Oceanic 'Negroes' was sometimes questioned, these groups were
placed in the same taxon. Molecular and genetic studies later showed
that the Oceanic 'Negroes' were more closely related to mainland Asians.

systematics makes it possible to explore infraspecific variation to
detect patterns that would reflect phylogenetic substructuring. Avise
and Ball suggest a definition of 'subspecies' that is consistent with
the goals of evolutionary taxonomy11:
"Subspecies are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding
populations phylogenetically distinguishable from, but reproductively
compatible with, other such groups. Importantly the evidence for
phylogenetic distinction must normally come from the concordant
distributions of multiple, independent, genetically based traits."

definition is different from the previous one in that it emphasizes
phylogenetics. It is, in theory, more objective and consistent with
neodarwinian evolutionary theory and can be used as the basis for
determining whether or not modern Homo sapiens can be
structured into populations divergent enough to be called 'races'. We
know that there is human geographical variation, but does this
infraspecific diversity reach a threshold that merits the designation
'subspecies', as is true with chimpanzees14?

Nikolas Haass

Sydney, NSW

----- Original Message ----
From: "" <>
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 8:30:16 AM
Subject: Subspecies vs Race

Hi birders.

What is the difference between subspecies and race? And how would they be
expressed when written when referring to a race or subspecies? Would they
be written in three parts as in Genus species subsp. or Genus species race?

Thanks in advance from the ultimate birding virgin. :)

Akos L 


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