GlossaryA | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I – K | L | M | N-O | P | R | S | T | U | W-Z
ABO blood system: a human blood typing system that consists of 4 distinct types: A, B, AB, and O. ABO blood type is determined by the alleles present at a single locus, which are inherited from parents.
abolition: the abolition movement consisted of organized efforts to do away with legalized slavery, in the United States. Emancipation was gained gradually in northern states, and slavery was abolished throughout the country by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
acculturation: cultural exchange and change that results from sustained contact between different groups
Affirmative Action: first established by the Federal government in 1965, this legal mandate consists of special actions in recruitment, hiring, and other areas designed to eliminate the effects of past discrimination.
African replacement model: the hypothesis that modern humans evolved as a new species in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago and then spread throughout the Old World, replacing archaic populations; sometimes called the recent African origin model.
allele: the alternative form of a gene or DNA sequence that occurs at a given locus. Some loci have only one allele, some have two, and some have many alternative forms. Alleles occur in pairs, one on each chromosome.
Allen’s rule: states that mammals in cold climates tend to have shorter and bulkier limbs, allowing less loss of body heat, whereas mammals in hot climates tend to have long, slender limbs, allowing greater loss of body heat.
anatomically modern Homo sapiens: the modern form of the human species, which evolved in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.
anthropology: the study of humans and their cultures, both past and present. The field of anthropology includes archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and applied anthropology.
anthropometrics: measurements of the human body.
anti-miscegenation laws: U.S. laws that forbade sexual relations or marriage between people of different races. Declared unconstitutional in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia).
anti-Semitism: prejudice or discrimination against Jews
applied anthropology: the subfield of anthropology that applies the knowledge and methods of anthropology to present-day problems.
archaeology: the subfield of anthropology that focuses on cultural variation and power relations in past populations by analyzing material remains (material culture or artifacts).
assimilation: the process of change that occurs when an individual or group adopts the characteristics of the dominant culture and is fully incorporated into that culture’s social, economic, and political institutions.
Back to top
base pairs: the rungs of the ladder are composed of four bases in pairs that specify genetic instructions – adesine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). “A” always pairs with “T”, and “G” always pairs with “C”.
behaviorism: a school of thought in psychology emphasizing the importance of overt behavior responses over conscious experience for understanding human social interactions
Bergmann’s rule: states that (1) among mammals of similar shape, the larger mammal loses heat less rapidly than the smaller mammal, and that (2) among mammals of similar size, the mammal with a linear shape will lose heat more rapidly than the mammal with a nonlinear shape.
biocultural approach: The use of biological and cultural research methods and interdisciplinary theory to study human biological variation and other factors such as health in relationship to social and cultural practices, environment and change.
biological anthropology: the subfield of anthropology that focuses on the biological evolution of humans and human ancestors, the relationship of humans to other organisms and to their environment, and patterns of biological variation within and among human populations. Also referred to as physical anthropology.
biological determinism: the philosophy or belief that human behavior and social organization are fundamentally determined by innate biological characteristics, so that differences in behavior within and between groups are attributed to genetic variation rather than influences of environment and learning.
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich (1752-1840): German naturalist who developed one of the earliest, non-scientific human racial classification systems, which included geographically defined “Caucasian,” “Mongolian,” “Ethiopian,” “American,” and “Malay” races. See also Linnaeus, Carolus.
Back to top
caste system: closed, hereditary system of hierarchy, often dictated by religion and occupation; status is ascribed at birth, so that people are locked into their parents’ social and economic position.
Caucasian: a non-scientific term invented by German physician Johann Blumenbach in 1795 to describe light-skinned people from Europe (and, originally, from western Asia and North Africa as well) whom Blumenbach mistakenly thought came from the Caucasus Mountains. The term became synonymous with “white.”
cell: the smallest unit of life. Our human bodies are composed of more than 100 trillion cells. Inside the cell membrane is the nucleus. The cell nucleus is surrounded by cytoplasm.
census: an official count of a population and collection of demographic data. The United States Census is conducted every 10 years.
chromosome: long strands of DNA found inside the cell nucleus. Human cells each contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, inherited from our parents.
Civil Rights movement: legal and other efforts led by African Americans against racism and segregation and for the enactment of legislation ensuring their full civil and human rights. The modern Civil Rights movement dates to the mid-1950s and proceeded in earnest throughout the 1960s.
classification: the ordering of items into groups on the basis of shared attributes. Classifications are cultural inventions and different cultures develop different ways of classifying the same phenomena (e.g. colors, plants, relatives, and other people).
cline: a gradual, continuous change in a particular trait or trait frequency over space.
codominant: both alleles affect the phenotype of a heterozygous genotype, and neither is dominant over the other. For example, in the ABO blood type system, alleles A and B are codominant and, together, produce blood type AB.
complex trait: a physical trait affected by more than one loci, which interact with environmental conditions. Most studied human traits are complex (e.g. height, body size and skin color).
continuous trait: a characteristic that is measured on a scale that is ordered and does not have gaps or divisions (e.g., skin color).
creationism: the belief that the universe was created by God.
cultural anthropology: the subfield of anthropology that focuses on describing and understanding human cultures, including human cultural variability (over time, throughout the world).
cultural construct: an idea or system of thought that is rooted in culture. It can include an invented system for classifying things or for classifying people, such as a racial system of classification.
cultural determinism: the belief that human behavior and social organization are fundamentally determined by cultural factors.
culture: the full range of shared, learned, patterned behaviors, values, meanings, beliefs, ways of perceiving, systems of classification, and other knowledge acquired by people as members of a society; the processes or power dynamics that influence whether meanings and practices can be shared within a group or society.
culture shock: the disorienting experience of realizing that the perspectives, behaviors and experiences of an individual, group or society are not shared by another individual, group or society.
cross-cultural comparison: the method of comparing characteristics of one culture to another. This is one of the hallmarks of anthropological knowledge.
cultural relativism or cultural relativity: the belief that the values and standards of cultures differ and cannot be easily compared with the values and standards of other cultures.
Back to top
discordance: disagreement, see nonconcordance.
discrete trait: a biological characteristic that takes on distinct values and properties (such as ABO blood type).
discrimination: policies and practices that harm and disadvantage a group and its members.
DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid): the molecule that encodes heredity information.
dominant allele: an allele that masks the effect of the other allele (which is recessive) in a heterozygous genotype.
double helix: the DNA looks like a long twisted ladder. The sides of the ladders are composed of phosphates and sugars.
Back to top
Emancipation: freedom from legalized slavery gained by most enslaved persons of African descent immediately following the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in Confederate states.
essentialism: the idea that all things have an underlying or true essence. Racial essentialists argue that all members of a specific racial group share certain basic characteristics or qualities that mark them as inherently different from members of other racial groups.
ethnicity: an idea similar to race that groups people according to common origin or background. The term usually refers to social, cultural, religious, linguistic and other affiliations although, like race, it is sometimes linked to perceived biological markers. Ethnicity is often characterized by cultural features, such as dress, language, religion, and social organization.
ethnocentrism: the deeply felt belief that your own cultural ways are universal, natural, normal, and even superior to other cultural ways.
ethnography: anthropological research in which one learns about the culture of a society through fieldwork, the data-gathering methods that are combined with and/or built upon first-hand participation and observation in that society.
eugenics: from Greek eugenes meaning wellborn; The eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to “improve” the human species and preserve racial “purity” through planned human breeding. Eugenicists supported anti-miscegenation laws and other, sometimes more extreme measures such as sterilization.
evolution: the transformation of a species of organic life over long periods of time (macroevolution) or from one generation to the next (microevolution) due to four evolutionary forces. Anthropologists study both the cultural and biological evolution of the human species.
evolutionary forces: the four mechanisms that can cause changes in allele frequencies across generations: mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow.
exogamy: choosing mates and marriage partners from outside the local population.
Back to top
fieldwork: a form of data collection. Anthropological fieldwork involves a number of techniques and strategies that rely upon the firsthand observation of social interaction (in cultural anthropology) or the conducting of excavations (in archaeology).
founder effect: a type of genetic drift that occurs when all individuals in a population trace back to a small number of founding individuals. The small size of the founding population may result in very different allele frequencies from its original population. Examples of populations exhibiting founder effect include the French Acadians, the Amish and the Hutterites.
Back to top
gene: a unique combination of bases (see base pairs) that creates a specific part of our body.
gene flow: a mechanism for evolutionary change involving genetic exchange across local populations. Gene flow introduces new alleles into a population and makes populations more similar genetically to one another.
genetic distance: an average measure of relatedness between populations based on various traits. Genetic distances are used for understanding effects of genetic drift and gene flow, which should affect all loci to the same extent.
genetic drift: a mechanism for evolutionary change resulting from the random fluctuations of gene frequencies (e.g. from one generation to the next). In the absence of other evolutionary forces, genetic drift results in the eventual loss of all variation. See founder effect.
genetics: the study of human heredity, its mechanisms and related biological variation. Heredity may be studied at the molecular, individual (organism) or population level.
genome: one complete copy of all the genes and DNA for a species.
genotype: the genetic endowment of an individual from the two alleles present at a given locus. See phenotype.
Back to top
HapMap: an international research effort to find genes associated with human diseases and response to pharmaceuticals.
heritability: in biology, the proportion of variation of a trait due to genetic variation in a population.
heterozygous: the two alleles at a given locus are different.
holistic: the perspective that understanding human variation requires understanding how its different aspects (e.g. biological and cultural) are interrelated. This is one of the hallmarks of anthropological knowledge.
homozygous: both alleles at a given locus are identical.
Human Genome Project: an international research effort to sequence and map the human genome, all of the genes on every chromosome. The project was completed in 2003.
human variation: the differences that exist among individuals or among groups of individuals regarded as populations. Anthropologists study both cultural and biological variation.
human biological variation: refers to observable differences among individuals and groups that have resulted from the processes of human migration, marriage and environmental adaptations. Human biological variation is often referred to as human biological diversity.
hypothesis: a proposed explanation of observed facts. A scientific hypothesis must be testable.
Back to top
immigration: the act of entering a country of which one is not a native to become a permanent resident. In the United States and elsewhere, immigration and immigration policies are often racially-charged issues.
intelligence: the innate potential to learn and solve novel problems.
intelligent design creationism: the idea that the biological world was created by an intelligent entity and did not arise from natural processes. This idea is somewhat different from that proposed by “creation scientists.”
interfertility: the ability to interbreed or mate and produce fertile offspring. All humans are members of the same species and are interfertile.
institutional racism: the embeddedness of racially discriminatory practices in the institutions, laws, and agreed upon values and practices of a society.
linguistic anthropology: the subfield of anthropology that focuses on the nature of human language and the relationship of language to culture.
linguistics: the comparative study of the function, structure, and history of languages and the communication process in general. Linguistics is also referred to as linguistic anthropology.
Linnaeus, Carolus (1707-1778): Swedish botanist and physician who developed the system for sorting living organisms into major (genus) and then more specific (species) categories (e.g. Homo sapiens). In the 1758 tenth edition of Systema naturae (Natural System), Linnaeus created the first formal, non-scientific human racial classification scheme. It included five varieties of Homo sapiens – “Americanus,” “Europaeus,” “Asiaticus,” “Afer,” and “Ferus” – based on physical and cultural descriptions that favored Europeans. Linnaeus’ human classification system influenced the way race is conceptualized in the US. See also Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich.
locus: the location of a particular gene or DNA sequence on a chromosome.
Back to top
macroevolution: the study of macroevolution focuses on biological evolution over many generations and on the origin of higher taxonomic categories, such as species.
malaria: a group of diseases caused by any of four different microorganisms called plasmodia (Plasmodium falciparum, vivax, ovale, and malariae), which are transmitted by certain species of mosquitoes. Malaria is potentially life-threatening and is found mostly in tropical and subtropical regions of the world.
Mendelian genetics: the branch of genetics concerned with inheritance. This field was named after Gregor Mendel who discovered the basic laws of inheritance in the nineteenth century.
meritocracy: the idea that merit and individual effort, rather than one’s family or social background (including race, gender, class and legacy), determine one’s success, one’s social and economic position. Similarly, the idea that social inequalities are the result of individual differences in merit and effort.
microevolution: the study of microevolution focuses on changes in allele frequencies from one generation to the next.
mitochondrial DNA: a small amount of DNA that is located in the mitochondria of cells. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only through the mother.
monogeny: pre-evolutionary scientific argument that human biological “races” all descended from a single source (or biblical “Adam”). See polygeny.
Mulatto: originally from Spanish mulato meaning hybrid; an offspring of European and African parentage or a descendant of European and African ancestors; also used to refer to a person whose phenotype suggests mixed African and European ancestry.
multiregional evolution model: the hypothesis that modern humans evolved throughout the Old World as a single species after the first dispersion of Homo erectus out of Africa. According to this model, the transition from Homo erectus to archaic humans to modern Homo sapiens occurred within a single evolutionary line throughout the Old World.
mutation: a mechanism for evolutionary change resulting from a random change in the base sequence of a DNA molecule. Mutations are the ultimate source of all genetic variation but must occur in sex cells to cause evolutionary change.
Back to top
natural selection: a mechanism for evolutionary change favoring the survival and reproduction of some organisms over others because of their particular biological characteristics under specific environmental conditions. Natural selection does not create variation, but acts on existing variation.
nonconcordance: the tendency of some human traits to vary independently, often in response to environmental or selective conditions. For example, skin color and ABO blood type are nonconcordant.
nonrandom mating: deliberate patterns of mate choice that influence the distributions of genotype and phenotype frequencies. Non-random mating does not lead to changes in allele frequencies. Arranged marriage is a form of nonrandom mating.
phenotype: the observable or detectable characteristics of an individual organism. A person’s phenotype includes easily visible traits such as hair or eye color as well as abilities such as tongue-rolling/curling.
philology: the comparative study of human speech and literature, especially those aspects useful for understanting population movements and cross-cultural interactions in the past. See also linguistics and linguistic anthropology.
physical anthropology: the study of the non-cultural, or biological, aspects of humans and our fossil ancestors. Physical anthropologists are usually involved in one of three different kinds of research: 1) non-human primate studies (usually in the wild), 2) recovering the fossil record of human evolution, and 3) studying human biological diversity, inheritance patterns, and biological adaptation to environmental stresses, and cultural means of adapting to environmental stressors that impact biology. Physical anthropology is also referred to as biological anthropology.
physiology: referring to the organic or bodily processes of an organism.
polygenic: affected by two or more loci. See complex trait.
polygeny: pre-evolutionary scientific argument that human biological “races” are separate species, each descended from different biblical “Adams.” See monogeny.
polymorphism: a discrete genetic trait in which there are at least two alleles at a locus having frequencies greater than 0.01.
polytypic: a species with physically distinguishable regional populations. The human species (Homo sapiens) is polytypic.
populational model: in reference to humans, an outdated classification system based on the assumption that the only biologically distinct groups are long-isolated breeding populations with distinct evolutionary lineages. In practice, populations are difficult to define scientifically.
primary African origin model: a variant of the multiregional evolution model of the origin of modern humans that suggests most of the transition from archaic to modern humans took place first in Africa and then spread throughout the rest of the species across the Old World by gene flow.
Back to top
race: a recent idea created by western Europeans following exploration across the world to account for differences among people and justify colonization, conquest, enslavement, and social hierarchy among humans. The term is used to refer to groupings of people according to common origin or background and associated with perceived biological markers. Among humans there are no races except the human race. In biology, the term has limited use, usually associated with organisms or populations that are able to interbreed. Ideas about race are culturally and socially transmitted and form the basis of racism, racial classification and often complex racial identities.
racial classification: the practice of classifying people into distinct racial groups based on certain characteristics such as skin color or geographic region, often for the purpose of ranking them based on believed innate differences between the groups.
racial endogamy: marriage within one’s own racial group (see also anti-miscegenation laws).
racial identity: this concept operates at two levels: (1) self identity or conceptualization based upon perceptions of one’s race and (2) society’s perception and definition of a person’s race.
racialization: the process by which individuals and groups of people are viewed through a racial lens, through a culturally invented racial framework. Racialization is often referred to as racialism.
racial profiling: the use of race (and often nationality or religion) to identify a person as a suspect or potential suspect. Racial profiling is one of the ways that racism is manifested and perpetuated.
racial stratification: a system of stratification and inequality in which access to resources (political, economic, social) depends largely upon one’s racial classification.
racism: the use of race to establish and justify a social hierarchy and system of power that privileges, preferences or advances certain individuals or groups of people usually at the expense of others. Racism is perpetuated through both interpersonal and institutional practices.
recessive allele: an allele whose effect is masked by the other allele (which is dominant) in a heterozygous genotype.
RNA (Ribonucleic acid): the molecule that functions to carry out the instructions for protein synthesis specified by the DNA molecule.
Back to top
selective pressure: environmental pressure on individuals within a population that results in evolutionary change; the driving force of natural selection. Extreme temperature and ultraviolet radiation are examples of selective pressure.
sickle cell allele: an allele of the hemoglobin locus. Individuals homozygous for this allele have sickle cell anemia, while heterozygotes have sickle cell trait. In areas of the world where malaria is endemic, people with the sickle cell trait have a selective advantage (see natural selection).
sickle cell anemia: a genetic disease that occurs in a person homozygous for the sickle cell allele, which alters the structure of red blood cells, giving it a “sickled” shape. These abnormally-shaped red blood cells are less efficient in transporting oxygen throughout the body, which can cause pain and even organ damage.
single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP; pronounced “snip”): a single base pair within a DNA sequence that can vary among individuals. An example of a SNP is the change from A to T in the sequences AATGCT and ATTGCT.
slavery: an extreme form of human oppression whereby an individual may “own” another person and the rights to his or her labor. In the colonial Americas, a form of racial slavery evolved that would eventually distinguish only persons of African descent as “slaves.”
social class: a social grouping of people based on common economic and other characteristics determined by society and reflecting a social hierarchy.
stereotype: the process of attributing particular traits, characteristics, behaviors or values to an entire group or category of people, who are, as a consequence, monolithically represented; includes the process of negative stereotyping.
stratification: in reference to society, a system by which social, economic and political inequalities are structured in society.
subspecies: physically distinguishable populations that are genetically distinct within a species.Humans do not conform to the subspecies criteria.
symbol: a sign or attribute that stands for something else, to which it may or may not have any relationship. For example, the bald eagle or “Uncle Sam” are symbols of the United States.
Back to top
taxonomy: the science of describing and classifying organisms.
trait: a characteristic or aspect of one’s phenotype or genotype.
typological model: in reference to humans, an attempt to classify people based on the false assumption that humans can be unambiguously placed into discrete groupings on the basis of selected traits such as skin color, hair form, and body shape.
universalism: the belief that values and standards are commonly shared among cultures.
white privilege: A consequence of racism in the United States that has systematically, persistently, and extensively given advantages to so-called white populations, principally of European origin, at the expense of other populations.
Whiteness studies: the investigation of white racial identity, defined differently throughout United States history, but usually based on the maintenance or pursuit of white privilege.
Back to top