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Biomechanics and race

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  • Biomechanics and race

    Hello All,

    I received many private replies to my original message, all except one
    being supportive of the opinion that race should be discounted in
    experiments. Thank you to all those who have voiced their opinions
    on what is obviously a touchy issue!

    I think that several participants in the discussion missed the point:
    Do we need to associate any particular physical characteristic that we are
    measuring with something called "race" (however we define it),
    in order to understand its significance? If sickle-cell anaemia is predominantly
    linked with people of West African origin, its importance is that it
    indicates a physical adaptation in response to malaria - not that it
    is a characteristic associated with West Africans. If there are people in
    one area of the world among which the absence of the supraspinous
    ligament in the lumbar region is common, then a physical reason for this
    is important, but not its association with their predominant hair
    colour and texture, or eye colour. If Tay-Sachs disease is
    important, it is because of the recognition of the underlying genetic
    condition, (and its avoidance), not because it is incidentally associated with
    the Tay and Sachs extended families, and certainly not the religion they may

    A comparison of colour and race is quite effective - after all,
    colour is in the eye of the beholder, and is subjective. What to us
    is pure "blue" is nothing of the sort to a bumblebee. In fact the
    colours we classify are merely a result of the way in which our own eyes
    work, plus social conditioning. An alien might well see a colour
    somewhere between red and blue as being "pure", and red and blue as
    mixtures, not so? (In fact an alien might not see the same range of
    the electromagnetic spectrum at all!)

    There is no practical use for information such as "The average
    height of Nordic people is slightly greater than that of Slavs". So
    what? Unless one wishes to introduce discriminatory legislation
    against non-Nordic peoples (God forbid), and use height as part of a
    definition of the state of being "Nordic", this is useless information!
    (Anyway, statures and builds are beginning to resemble each other
    right across the world, as nutrition moves away from the traditional
    monocultures towards richer and more varied diets.)

    The mention of "purebreed races" made me shudder. How large is the
    genetic spectrum of each "purebreed"? What genetic span should be
    included in a "purebreed", and who is going to define the cut-off
    points? Who will define what the "purebreed" genetic code is?
    On the other hand we could take this "purebreed" argument to its
    logical limit - is not each individual a perfect example of their own
    purebred race? Are there not 7 billion of us perfect purebred races on

    As far as biomechanics goes, if we find some physical characteristic
    that is relevant to what we are studying, whether it be an athletic
    event or not, the association or otherwise of that physical characteristic with
    other physical markers which are of no consequence for our studies,
    does not enhance them. Often such "other physical markers" may be
    connected with racial stereotypes (e.g. the epicanthal folds of
    Chinese and Japanese peoples' eyes, or hair colour and texture).

    While I remain firmly unconvinced that "race" is a useful concept, I
    agree with all those who stated that social and cultural practices
    might well play a role in research.

    Mark W Swanepoel
    School of Mechanical Engineering
    University of the Witwatersrand

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