So what does that mean, “a social construct?” I think of it as something that a group tacitly agrees to think, do, or believe which is exists solely because of that agreement. You can sometimes tell if something is a social construct by evaluating if it varies significantly between different groups. For example, the concept of poverty is at some level a social construct; many people living below the “poverty line” in the USA would be considered quite well off by some Asian Indians. Another example, in sports, is the reaction to the idea of “diving” (soccer) or “flopping” (basketball). In the USA, many are horrified by people who would cheat this way; in other cultures, it’s considered clever to gain advantage by fooling the referee.
Another way to test if something is a social construct is to see if it changes over time based on political decisions or environment, rather than changing due to scientific discovery. Our understanding of the nature of the universe has changed over time based on the invention of (among other things) the telescope, and (somewhat later) the large hadron collider. In contrast, our perception of the integrity of Japanese-American citizens changed radically around 1942, and then changed back after 1945; these changes correlated unsurprisingly with American participation in the Second World War. Similarly, hernophobia (prejudice against the Irish race) has receded somewhat in the 20th century, to the point that I’d imagine some would be surprised by the idea that the Irish were once considered a separate race (and were sometimes depicted as gorillas). But then, that’s the point here, isn’t it?
Here are some things to consider:
Genetic variance within a race is higher than between races.
Gather a large group of people together, lots of people, from all different races. Take a bit of hair from each person, and send them off to be genetically sequenced. While the sequencers are chugging away, separate everybody up by race; put each race in its own room.
Now, if race is important, we’d expect that the genetic sequence of people in each room would be roughly the same, compared to the other rooms, right? We’ll call that “genetic variance” (because that’s what it’s called). You know, the genes of squirrels and chipmunks and cats and dogs are very different, so the genetic variance within a roomful of cats should be lower than the genetic variance between the rooms – cats are more like each other than they are like dogs.
But that isn’t true of the roomfuls of people. In the example I just gave, where we’ve divided things up by race, the genetic variance within the room is higher than the genetic variance between the rooms. That’s basically like discovering that cats are more like dogs than each other… or, it’s like discovering that our idea of different human races isn’t really real.
Skin tone is purely about the angle of the sun’s rays.
Modern perception of race is largely based on skin color. That wasn’t always true; there are examples of race being defined by hair and eye color, or nose shape. But I digress.
Skin color is an adaptation to latitude, specifically the intensity of the sun’s ultra-violet rays. Humans need UV radiation to synthesize vitamin D in the skin. Vitamin D is kinda important; if you don’t have enough, you can suffer bone pain, muscle weakness, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, severe asthma, and more. So we need just the right amount of UV radiation; too much and we get massive sunburn (and cancer), too little and we can’t make enough Vitamin D.
Ok, so a little physics: the atmosphere of the earth filters out radiation. If we didn’t have an atmosphere, the sun’s radiation would bake us like a microwave (and breathing would be a bit more challenging, but I digress). The thicker the atmosphere, the more filtering. If you can imagine the earth as a really big sphere with a thin, even layer of atmosphere all around it (which shouldn’t be hard, unless you are a member of the flat earth society), then you can imagine that at the edge of the sphere tangent to the sun’s rays, the light has to go through more atmosphere and gets diffused over a bigger oval than at the equator. People living at the edges get a lot less UV radiation, so they need to absorb it more efficiently; people at the center get a lot more UV radiation, and so need to protect themselves from it. This is why Ecuador is so much hotter than Norway – and it’s also why Ecuadorians typically have darker skin than Norwegians. Note that if we took a thousand Norwegians and transplanted them to Ecuador and then waited long enough (probably something like 8000 years), the surviving descendents of those Norwegians would be dark skinned – and vice versa.
Watch these people discover that
they are the people they hate:
“They” are us. And “we” are them.