Where Did the Races Come From?

Where Did the Races Come From?

No matter the audience, people tend to pose many of the same questions about science-faith issues. One frequent query has to do with the origin of the races.

While the Bible doesn’t describe how racial diversity arose, the implication is that it arose rapidly as humans were scattered following the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). The rub is that this biblical account doesn’t seem to square with the most widely known scientific explanation for racial diversity (commonly referred to by anthropologists as regional differences).

For decades, the scientific consensus has been that human regional differences required about 2 million years to arise via evolutionary processes. This idea is closely aligned with an evolutionary model for human origins called multiregionalism, which proposes that a primitive form of human migrated from Africa into Europe and Asia, and then evolved independently to a modern form. Regional differences supposedly resulted from these separate evolutionary trajectories, requiring a vast amount of time to manifest.

However, recent genetic variability studies have shown multiregionalism to be wrong. The data indicate that modern humans appeared recently, roughly about 100,000 years ago; and only dispersed globally within the last 50,000 years. This new view means that, ironically, the evolutionary explanation for human origins faces the same challenge as the biblical view: How to account for the rapid emergence of regional differences over the course of a few tens of thousands of years at most, rather than 2 million years.

This conundrum has resulted in a focused effort to explain the origin of racial diversity. As it turns out, regional differences, driven by microevolutionary processes such as natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift, can arise rapidly for migrating humans. Let me illustrate with an example.

The scientific data indicates that the first humans looked very much like African people groups today. As humans made their way into northern latitudes, lightening of the skin pigmentation would allow for more efficient vitamin D synthesis (which requires exposure to UV radiation). Change in body shape from a more elongated torso and limbs to shorter limbs and a more barrel-shaped body would help with heat retention. And changes in nose shape from a broader, flatter nose to a sharper, narrower one would help warm air before it reaches the lungs.

The latest scientific data indicates that human regional differences can originate rapidly. As scientists uncover more about the origin of humanity, the biblical view and timing become more reasonable.