People now use the term "race" to refer to a host of human differences. Very often people tend to essentialize it with traits of character and intelligence, and are then deemed "racist" by others. Can talk of "human races" have a defensible biological specificity, or is it only a dubious social construct that we should promptly abandon? The answer is: it depends on what one means by "race".
Jerry A. Coyne makes a fair case below for the term's relevance in science. However, in his final paragraph, he falters seriously in saying that races "are certainly not 'sociocultural constructs.'"—they are that, too, as is plainly evident in how so many non-biologists use the term. Indeed, given all the baggage, perhaps we are better off switching to other terms like 'peoples', 'ethnicities', 'groups', 'castes', etc.
One of the touchiest subjects in human evolutionary biology—or human biology in general—is the question of whether there are human races. Back in the bad old days, it was taken for granted that the answer was not only “yes,” but that there was a ranking of races (invariably done by white biologists), with Caucasians on top, Asians a bit lower, and blacks invariably on the bottom. The sad history of biologically based racism has been documented in many places, including Steve Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man (yes, I know it’s flawed).
But from that sordid scientific past has come a backlash: the subject of human races, or even the idea that they exist, has become taboo. And this despite the palpable morphological differences between human groups—differences that must be based on genetic differences and would, if seen in other species, lead to their classification as either races or subspecies (the terms are pretty interchangeable in biology). Racial delimitation could, critics say, lead to a resurgence of racism, racial profiling, or even eugenics.
So do races exist?