Biology Question #885

Charcoal, a 19 year old female from the Internet asks on August 19, 2002,

What makes classifying dogs in breeds different from classifying humans in races? I thought that breed is different from race because unlike the breed of a dog, the race of a human is mostly determined by societies’ definitions of races based on phenotype they don’t tell much more than that while classifications of breed are more concrete and not only implies how something looks but also acts. For example, the definition of white in North America differs from the definition of white in some countries below the equator and therefore what is “white” is arbitrary. However, by calling a dog a flat-coated retriever, not only is this universal but the term tells more than plain phenotype, it also the likely disposition of the dog. This is what the definitions were in my head but according to my thesaurus, the word “breed” and “race” are synonyms, although I’ve never heard a boarder collie referred to as a race of dog or Aboriginal people as a breed of Homo sapien. In a scientific sense, are the words synonymous? In addition, I’ve heard that there are no biological races yet race is still used in the medical field to determine susceptibly to genetic disorders. I guess my question is, what does it mean that there are no biological races when the concept of biological race is still used in the medical field?

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The answer

David Carmean answered on January 7, 2004

This topic is better covered at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History dinosaur mailing list. Essentially the idea is: you cannot subdivide humans like dogs. According to poster, Kyle Brudvik, humans have a large range of variation in one species, but don't make the mistake of seeing this variation as anything other than variation within a species. There is absolutely no reason to erect racial groups because where do you draw the line? How many people do you include in your groups? Only those who fit your presupposed criteria for inclusion? Besides, what are these mysterious racial characterisitics? They come from people's imaginations and are applied to humans, they are not the results of observations of any naturally defined populations.

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