People often mentally categorize others by race. Physical features, like skin color, distinguishing one people group, a ‘race’, from other groups are easy to notice. So Caucasians are ‘white’, Asians are darker, while those of African descent are darker still.
These traits distinguishing groups of people from each other easily leads to racism. This is the discrimination, ill-treatment or enmity towards other races. Racism has contributed to making societies today more caustic and hateful, and it seems to be on the rise. What can we do to combat racism?
The question of racism begs a related question. Where do races come from? Why do race differences among humans exist? Along with, that since race has a strong correlation with ancestral language: Why are there different languages?
The Torah records a historical event in early human history explaining both the diversity of languages we hear and the different ‘races’ that we see today. The account is worth knowing.
Genetic Similarity in the human species leading to our Genetic Ancestors
Before we explore the account there are some basic facts we should know about the genetic makeup of humanity.
The genes in our DNA provides the blueprint that determines the way we look, our physical characteristics. Humans exhibit very little genetic diversity between different people compared to the diversity seen within an animal species. What this means is that the genetic difference between any two people is very little (on average 0.6%). This is much less than, for example, compared to genetic differences between two macaque monkeys.
In fact, humans are so genetically uniform that we can trace the line of descent from all women alive today back through their mothers, and their mothers, and so on. Doing so shows all lines converging to one ancestral genetic mother. Known as Mitochondrial Eve, there is also a male equivalent known as Y-Chromosonal Adam. He is the most recent ancestral male from whom all humans living today have descended. There exists an unbroken line of male ancestors going back to him. The Bible does state that all humans alive today descend from an original Adam and Eve. So genetic evidence is consistent with the Bible’s account of the origins of humans. Not only the ancient Chinese, but modern genetics testify to an Adam as our common ancestor.
Origin of human Races according to the Torah
But then how did the different human races arise? The Torah describes, just a few generations after the flood, how people were scattered across the earth. With only some basics in genetics we can see how such an event would give rise to today’s races. The Torah account reads:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”Genesis 11:1-4
The account records that everyone spoke the same language. With this unity they devised new technologies and started to use them to build a high tower. This tower was to observe and track the movement of stars, since astrology was keenly studied in that time. However, G-d made the following assessment:
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.Genesis 11:6-9
History records that civilization began in ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq). From there there civilization spread across the planet. This account records why. Because the languages were confused this ancestral population was split into various language groups along clan lines.
Implications of Babel from Genetics
The various sub-clans could no longer understand one another. Since hostility comes naturally to people since sin and death had entered the world, these various clans became distrustful of each other. As a result they withdrew from other clans to protect themselves and they did not inter-marry across the language groups. Thus, in one generation the clans became genetically isolated from one another and dispersed.
Punnet Squares and Races
Consider how races arise from such a situation, focusing on skin color since that is a common marker of race. Skin color arises as a result of different levels of the protein melanin in the skin. White skin has less melanin, darker skin has more melanin, while black skin has the most melanin. All humans have some melanin in their skin. Darker people simply have more melanin giving rise to darker skin. These levels of melanin are controlled genetically by several genes. Some genes express more melanin in the skin and some express less. We use a simple tool, called a punnet square, to illustrate the various possible combinations of genes.
For simplicity assume only two different genes (A and B) that code for different levels of melanin in the skin. The genes Mb and Ma express more melanin while the alleles mb and ma express less melanin. A punnet square shows all possible outcomes of A and B that can arise by sexual reproduction if each parent has both alleles in their genes. The resulting square shows the 16 possible combinations of Ma, ma, Mb and mb that can occur from the parents. This explains the diverse range of skin color that can result in their children.
Tower of Babel Scenario
Assume the Tower of Babel event occurred with parents who were heterozygous as in this punnet square. With the confusion of languages the children would not inter-marry. Therefore each of the squares would be reproductively isolated from the other squares. So the MaMb (darkest) would now only intermarry with other MaMb individuals. Thus all their offspring will only remain black since they only have genes expressing greater melanin. Likewise, all the mamb (white) would only intermarry with other mamb. Their offspring would always remain white. So the Tower of Babel explains reproductive isolation of the different squares and the emergence of different races.
We can see diversity like this arising from families today in one generation. Maria and Lucy Aylmer look like they come from different races (black and white). But in fact they are twin sisters from heterozygous parents. Diversity like this arises simply by genetic shuffling. But if diversity like this arises and then these offspring are reproductively isolated from each other then their skin color distinctiveness will persist in their offspring. The Tower of Babel is that historical event explaining how clans retained their isolation from other language clans. Thus what we call races today have persisted since then.
One Family – no race distinction
But once we understand how races arose then we realize that all diverse races are simply part of the same human family. There is no basis for racism once we understand where race differences really come from.
As the Brit Chadasha later on states
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.Acts 17: 26-27
All people today, no matter what their race, skin color, or other distinctive features descend from the same original couple. In that case we are simply one large and diverse family. The Bible says that G-d established the diversity of nations so that we would reach out to find Him. He unfolded His way for all peoples to reach Him by begetting one special nation out of all the nations. This is the Jewish nation, or Israel, and He announced His plan at the dawn of history. How He began this with the call to Abraham we look at here, with summary analysis here.