The post from yesterday was inspired by the news coverage surrounding the paper describing gene expression differences (DOI) between human populations. The original article uses neither the term ‘race’ nor the term ”Caucasian”. Instead, what would normally be called ‘races’ are referred to as ‘populations’ — aside from the single use of ‘ethnic groups’ in the title of the paper — and the population that would be called ”Caucasian’ ‘ is dubbed ‘European-derived’.
When we look at some of the news coverage of the article, though, we see different terminology. The Nature news item by the usually excellent Erika Check refers to the different populations as ‘ethnic groups’ except when quoting Steve Scherer (who refers to them as ‘populations’). Check also calls the European-derived population ‘Caucasian’. The Scientific American coverage exhibits a similar trend — exclusive use of ‘ethnic group’ or ‘ethnicity’ rather than ‘race’ or ‘population’ and a preference for ‘Caucasian’ over ‘European’. The Scientist uses a hybrid of population and ethnicity, but chooses European over Caucasian.
There are two items to address here. First, are the terms above synonymous or exchangeable? Second, if they mean different things, what do they mean?
Ethnicity vs. Race vs. Population
I’ve been fairly explicit about my preference for ‘population’ over ‘race’. Race is a term hijacked from biology by the general population — originally referring to a biologically meaningful classification below the species level. The human races of the common vernacular are definitely the result of population structure — restricted gene flow between these races — but it’s unclear to what extent these populations have differentiated. Also, the word race is pretty loaded outside of scientific dialogues, which causes me to shy away from using it. But I do see race and population as fairly synonymous; I just prefer the term population.
Ethnicity, on the other hand, is not synonymous with race or population. While race and population trace their roots to biology, ethnicity is a sociological concept. Ethnic groups are cultures — groups of people who share beliefs, practices, languages, etc — whereas populations are historically breeding groups of individuals. Populations take many generations to become genetically unique from each other (and they can be called races if they also differentiate in biologically meaningful ways), but ethnic groups can form within a single generation. As Razib mentioned in the comments of the previous post, an ethnic group such as ‘Latino’ can include many different races/populations — European, Amerindian, and African.
If race/population and ethnicity mean different things, why do journalists insist on referring to population differences as ethnic differences? I think it goes back to my point about the stigma associated with ‘race’. The journalists are uncomfortable referring to the populations as races, and many don’t seem to have the term ‘population’ in their arsenal. So they call them ethnic groups, drawing the ire of people like me.
European vs. Caucasian
This one is a bit more straightforward. Europe is a fairly objectively recognizable geographic area: from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean Sea, and extending somewhere into the Middle East (possibly to the Caucasus Mountains or maybe further). People who trace their ancestry to this region are of European descent.
Caucasian, literally, refers to people native to the Caucasus, but it has become interchangeable with any number of ‘White’ populations, most of whom trace their ancestry to Europe. One gets the feeling that the term ‘White’ fell out of favor and was replaced by ‘Caucasian’ much like ‘Black’ was replaced by ‘African-American’. But the roots of such terminology are a bit disturbing; it was postulated that the natives of the Caucasus exhibited the idealized physical appearance so the Caucasus were believed to be the birthplace of mankind. The logic behind this idea — the assumption that Whites exhibit the best physical appearance — is implicitly racist. Additionally, we now know our species first appeared in Africa, so the biology isn’t any good either. The connotations of the term Caucasian along with the geographical absurdity of using that term to describe all Europeans or Whites are the two main reasons we should abandon the term.
There is a difference between race and ethnicity — one refers to biology, the other to culture — and Caucasian is both historically loaded and geographically inconsistent. It seems like the scientists publishing research on biological differences between populations tend to use my preferred terminology — population rather than race or ethnicity, European ancestry rather than Caucasian or White. It’s the journalists (and some scientists) that chose to use the iffy terms (ethnicity and Caucasian) because the alternatives that come to mind (race and White) have fallen out of favor. They fail to realize that there are much better alternatives (population and European) that are accurate descriptors and do not carry negative connotations.