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It's very common -- especially in fantasy and science-fiction -- to use race instead of species.

For example:

  • “In Middle Earth (...) Aragorn (race: men) (...) Bilbo (race: hobbit)” 1
  • “Tarkin's motivation was the enslavement of the Wookiee race for use as manual (...)”2
  • “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”3

Shouldn't species be used instead?

From the Oxford Dictionary:

species.

Biology. a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g. Homo sapiens.

race2.

each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics: people of all races, colours, and creeds.

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  • 4
    I don't understand why this question was closed. I think it is a perfectly ordinary "word differences" question. I have voted to reopen it. Also, you may find this question interesting.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 2:22
  • 8
    Because it's idiomatic.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 23:01
  • 1
    See definition 1.5 in the second sense here
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 23:15
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    @kenyin Hello, and health! Could you give a link to documentation showing that some humans belong to different genetic sub-groups? Or if non-genetic criteria are used for sub-grouping, specify them and give links to documentation similarly?
    – Conrado
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 5:38
  • 1
    As Hot Licks implies, the phrase human race is firmly established in the language regardless of modern scientific definitions. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 9:00

9 Answers 9

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No. In its entry for race the ‘Oxford English Dictionary's ’ first definition is 'A group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.'

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  • But then why to use race to classify, say, caucasian/nordic, if both are human race? Isn't that ambigous?
    – pferor
    Commented Jan 22, 2012 at 19:41
  • @pferor: I don't think so. 'Nordic race' can mean 'A group of people . . connected by common descent or origin', just as 'human race' can. Commented Jan 22, 2012 at 20:35
  • Sure, but I think the question is whether it's sensible to use the term "race" to distinguish different fictional species. Normally, we use the word "race" strictly to distinguish sub-species. If I said "Jack and Jill are different races", you wouldn't think Jack was a human and Jill an alien, because "races" are within a species. Commented Jan 22, 2012 at 20:55
  • @DavidSchwartz: I gather by subspecies you mean some group that is a subgroup of a species rather than its technical meaning; there is only one extant subspecies of human, Homo sapiens sapiens, and the concept of human racial classification is largely cultural, not biological.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 3:19
  • By "subspecies" I mean a classification within a species. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 5:05
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At one level, the answer to your question "shouldn't [they] use 'species' instead?" is "Why should they use a technical, scientific word rather than an ordinary English word?".

Looking at it a different way, the set of circumstances we're talking about is the interaction of humans with something that's like humans but not quite human. In the present day, that is a purely fictional scenario - but in earlier centuries it was a reality, when Europeans encountered people who did not look or behave like them. Whether or not these others were of the same species or not was not apparent (and I'm not sure that the question would have been intelligible to many at the time) but it was immediately obvious that they were of different "race".

In time some scholars certainly decided that they were of different species (see for example Samuel Morton) but the divisions have always been referred to as "races" - though as Barrie says, the word has other meanings as well.

From our modern perspective, we know that all extant humans are of one species, so any subdivision can only be races (though nowadays such subdivisions are not regarded as meaningful by most scientiests). But I suggest that the experience of European explorers who first encountered different kinds of humans was very much akin to that of Terran explorers in Science Fiction who make the first contact with humanoid aliens.

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It all comes down to sex - can they breed?

So you would probably have to troll the murkier corners of fan fiction to find sufficent examples of man-on-dwarf action to determine if they can interbreed.

Species is becoming a less useful term in biology with more genetic information and it's definition is now a bit fuzzy. Race is a good literary alternative.

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  • 3
    Well, naturally humans and elves can breed. How else to you explain the high percentage of half-elves in D&D games?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 2:26
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Instances of 'human race' (singular) from Early English Books Online

A search of the Early English Books Online database turns up several hundred matches for "human/humane/humaine/humayne race" from the period 1576–1700. Here are the earliest ten unique instances I could find.

From a 1576 translation of A most lamentable and tragicall historie conteyning the outragious and horrible tyrannie which a Spanishe gentlewoman named Violenta executed vpon her louer Didaco, because he espoused another beyng first betrothed vnto her:

O bitch for sprong of serpents séede, / And not of humayne stocke: / But sosterd vp in desert groues, / Within some holowe rocke: / Where fostered thou waste with milke; / From ramping tygers dugge: hich thou amongst the craggy cliffes, / With sauage chappes didst tugge. / The raging senceles Lions brode, / Within themselues agree: / Detesting all against their makes, / Iniurious for to bée. / But thou deriu'd of humayne race, / Endued with reason to: / Aduenturest vpon such factes, / As they abhorre to doe.

Here the author/translator is comparing the "humayne race" with the races of serpents, tigers, and lions, where race seems to have its old meaning of (as Edward Phillips & John Kersey, The New World of Words: Or, Universal English Dictionary, sixth edition (1706) puts it, "a Lineage or Generation proceeding from Father to Son"—so "human race" effectively means "human parentage."

From Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great (1590):

Cosroe. What means this diuelish shepheard [Tamburlaine] to aspire / With such a Giantly presumption. / To cast vp hils against the face of heauen: / And dare the force of angrie Iupiter. / But as he thrust them vnderneath the hils, / And prest out fire from their burning iawes: / So will I send this monstrous slaue to hell, / Where flames shall euer feed vpon his soule.

Meander. Some powers diuine, or els infernall, mixt / Their angry seeds at his conception: / For he was neuer sprong of humaine race, / Since with the spirit of his fearefull pride, / He dares so doubtlesly resolue of rule. /And by profession be ambitous.

Marlowe uses "humaine race" in essentially the same way that the translator of Violenta and Didaco in 1576 did.

From I. L., A true and perfecte description of a straunge monstar borne in the citty of Rome in Italy, in the yeare of our saluation. 1585. (1590):

This Pope to shew himselfe a most cruel ennemy to humane race, as most his predecessors haue been, though few in so high degree, being no sooner seated in his bloudy seat, he straight beates his braines, how to set al christendome together by the eares, partly through the pleasure he taketh in shedding innocēt bloud, partly to set himselfe the surer in his Antichristian chaire, (now almost rotten) and wholly to extinguish and roote out the glorious and moste comfortable Gospell of our Sauiour, with all the professors thereof, that hee might so bring it to passe, that their might be no memorie remaining of the one nor the other.

Here, "humane race" seems to refer to human beings as a species, and more particularly to their continuation in the face of attempts to extinguish them.

From Richard Johnson, Musarum plangores vpon the death of the right honourable, Sir Christopher Hatton, Knight, &c. (1591):

Our Cedar stock hath lost a liuely branch, / And Death the hunts-man of our humane race, / His fierce and egre appetite to stanch, / In ranging through our Forrest Syluane chace, / Hath slayne the spotles HINDE with cruell spight, / In whome his Prince reposde a chiefe delight.

Johnson treats "humane race" as a category of prey for Death, as if it were comparable to the race of deer or hares or grouse.

From Christopher Marlowe (again), Hero and Leander: begun by Christopher Marloe; and finished by George Chapman (1598):

Before them on an Altar he [the priest] presented / Both fire and water: which was first inuented, / Since to ingenerate euery humane creature, / And euery other birth produ'st by Nature, / Moysture and heate must mixe: so man and wife / For humane race must ioyne in Nuptiall life.

I read this instance of "humane race" as referring to the continuation of the line of human beings.

From Thomas Moffett, The Silkewormes, and Their Flies: liuely described in verse (1599):

Others report, there was and doth remaine / A neighbour people to the Scythian tall, / Twixt Taurus mount and Tabis fruitful plaine, / Most iust of life, of fare and diet, smal, / Louers of peace, haters of strife and gaine, / Graye ey'd, redde cheek't, and amber-headed all, / Resembling rather Gods then humane race, / Such grace appeard in words, in deeds, and face.

This is an interesting example because it compares "a neighbour people" to more run-of-the-mill "humane race" and finds that they more nearly resemble Gods.

From Thomas Floyd, The picture of a perfit common wealth describing aswell the offices of princes and inferiour magistrates ouer their subiects, as also the duties of subiects towards their gouernours (1600):

Al men are naturally borne to affect societie, whereof there be 3. sortes; the one being giuen to the engendring and procreating of humane race, as that of man and woman and this is wholy by nature, Nam omnium societatum nulta est magis secundū naturam, quam maris & foeminae. The other addicted to policie and ciuil gouernment, as lawmakers within their seueral precincts & limits; & this proceedeth partly by nature, partly by other causes. The 3. to lewdnes, and wickednes, as that of pyrates, theeues and conspirators, which societie nature needeth not: this hapneth in many places, either for want of lawe, or the execution therof.

Floyd uses "humane race" in its human lineage sense, it seems to me.

From Richard Verstegan, Odes in Imitation of the Seauen Penitential Psalmes (1601):

In later age, high God wil him abase, / And vnto low estate himself inclyne, / Mixing his nature with our humaine race, / His Godheid to our manheid to combyne: / And lo the litle lamb in strawy bed, / Shal of a maid be nowrished and fed.

...

At noontyde of our dayes wee do arryue, / As doth the Sun at midday in his height, / VVhat tyme the bel a second sound doth giue, / To moue remembrance of the heauy waight, / Of sinnes huge burthen when high heauens grace, / In humaine flesh released humaine race.

In the first instance here, "humaine race" stands in contrast to God and God's unhuman nature; in the second, it refers to humans as a (sinful yet forgiven) group of living beings.

From a 1601 translation of the works of Josephus:

He [King Antiochus] therefore commaunded these seuen [children], together with their mother Salomona who now grew well in yeeres, to bee brought before him: so they according to his commaund were brought, being of excellent beautie and worthie children of so vertuous a mother; yea they resembled angels, their faces shining like the cleare light of the Sunne, their eyes sparkled in most comely and decent maner, as testifying that they surpassed in vertue al other of humane race and condition.

"Humane race" is again equivalent to human lineage or human origin.

And from Johm Beaumont, The Metamorphosis of Tabacco (1602):

Teach me what power thee on earth did place, / What God was bounteous to the humane race, / On what occasion, and by whom it stood, / That the blest world receiu'd so great a good.

...

Then first ambitious mortals gan to rise, / And with vaine pride did the great Gods despise, / Still warr'd they with the Gods, still had the worst, / And when their hands could do no more, they curst: / Nor could the flood that inward spot deface, / Still it continued in the humane race, / Creeping vnseene, subiecting eu'ry part, / Till it possest our chiefest towre, our hart: / Which thus infected did a battell wage / Gainst the remainders of the golden age.

The use of "humane race" in this source could be read as referring to "human species," "human lineage," or both. Notably, Beaumont precedes both instances of "human race" in his poem with "the"; he is the earliest EEBO author to do this. Johnson in 1591 and Verstegan in 1601 had used the formulation "our huma[i]ne race," which may likewise be read as expressing a unitary notion of "human race." Altogether, EEBO returns 45 matches for "the human[e] race" from 1700 and earlier, and 14 more matches for "our huma[i]n[e] race" from the same period.


Instances of 'human races' (plural) in EEBO

All of the preceding instances involve "human race" as a singular term, but the EEBO database also contains three books that include instances of "humane races" as a plural form.

From a 1614 translation of Lucan's Pharsalia:

What is become of all the store / Of humane races but of yore, / That in the world were borne and bread? / The townes are vnreplenished? / The champian vninhabited? / One citie now vs all containes, / The fields manur'd by slaues in chaines.

...>

But thou Emathia as forlorne / Wouldst humane races hold in scorne. / As if thou wert that torrid soyle. / That Phoebus beams doth alwaies roile. / Or else that frozen ycie land / That vnderneath the pole doth stand. / Vnknowne so wouldst thou lie vnman'd.

Both of these occurrences of "humane races" arise in the context of descriptions of various peoples of what might be called the near Roman world of Latinate tribes.

From Veridicus, "O Friends! No Friends, to King, Church and State" (1648):

Now to set footing or to wade after where the unprinted Manuscript broke the ice, I desire, as the case now stands, to anchor all Fluctuations and doubts, that all the blinded eyes in the Kingdome were Swalllow-like, rubbed with Celedine or Collirium, and that all insatuated braines were purged with Hellibore, to discerne what firme friends Papists have been to Protestant Princes ever since Papisme, chiefly Jesuitisme was hatched (like all other our late renewed Heresies) from hell it selfe: and to look with in partialll eyes into their plots oft effected, if according to their sanguinnolent positions, commented by their practices in all States, they be not and ever have been as sure friends to Orthodox Princes, as Hawkes to innocent Doves, Hounds to hunted Hares, Wolves to Lambs, and all kinds of Serpents, from the Basilisk and great Regulus to the little Dipsas, to all of humane races, yet hinc nostri fundi calamitas, here is our fore-seen wrack and woe, that these Serpents that we have so long fought against to crush them, as Pigmees against Craines, ...

Veridicus casts a wider net with his "humane races," seeming to mean human lineages on a global scale.

From William Bosworth, The Chast and Lost Lovers Living Shadowed in the Person of Arcadius and Sepha (1653):

In midst of which fair Court there is a Fo[n]t, / Of Christall streams, where oft a Goddess wont, / With diverse Damsels, Goddesses I think, / Because their beauty hath such power to link / Men to their love, for sure such Heav'nly faces / Ne're sprung from mortall; ne're from humane races / But be they as they are, in that same Well / They us'd to bath, the Statues there can tell, / Chlamidias shrines th' are call'd, and strong de[f]ence / That were erected at her going thence.

As with some of the singular instances of "humane race" noted above, the point of "humane races" here is to stand in contradistinction to the races of goddesses, satyrs, and other nonhuman beings.


Conclusions

"Human race" in the sense of "human lineage" has considerable seniority over "human race" in the sociological or quasi-scientific sense of a clearly definable anthropological subgroup of human beings who uniquely share an array of specific characteristics that distinguish them from all other similarly defined subgroups of human beings. One might, therefore, reasonably ask not "Why do people talk about 'the human race' when there are so obviously multiple human races?" but rather "Why did people start talking about multiple 'human races' when English speakers were already referring to 'the humane race' as a single grouping that encompassed all human beings, at least as early as John Beaumont in 1602?"

Today, we have the quasi-scientific language of "human races" (which has antecedents in very old references to ethnically similar lineages or families of people from adjacent or nearby regions), and we have the 400-year-old (or older) notion of "the human race" as a collective term for all human beings. If usage determines validity, neither of these terms is illegitimate as a popular (that is, nonscientific) way to conveniently divide or unite people.

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The dictionary also defines 'literally,' as meaning 'literally,' and 'virtually.'

Dictionaries and common usage can only take us so far.

Scientific definitions are much more useful. In SCIENCE, species are defined by speciation. If two individuals can produce viable offspring, they are of the same species.

This is a ricketey definition, as life itself is largely misunderstood. Science struggles to issue a definition even there.

However, calling aliens a different race is merely yet another ideological tool in the belt of racists. Some use it unknowingly, even innocently, but that does not stop their actions from hurting others.

When black kids see the newest Hollywood movie about an alien 'race,' they understand that the language is built against them. It perpetuates a feeling of alienation.

In short: races are like breeds of dogs. Maybe our ears are bigger or shorter, but we're all the same species.

Aliens are a different species.

If Fantasy settings were subjected to real-world scientific rigor (not necessary at all - indeed I believe such rigor would make the setting sci-fi with fantasy trappings) then Orcs, Humans, and Elves (if they could produce Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, etc.) would all be of the same species. However, if each has an origin story involving magical deities, or being shaped out of mud or emerging from a blooming flower, then all bets are off.

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Species is a technical term, and a technical term only. Race is not. It does have a technical definition, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't help.

In biology, "race" means "subspecies", which modern science denies the existence of in humans. The various "human races" are too genetically similar and too geographically integrated to count as subspecies. Even worse, following the clade model of taxonomy, none of the generally accepted races are monophyletic - the result, and the only result, of a single ancestor. And using the cline model, there are several conflicting clines - genetic or phenetic gradients - running crisscross through every possible way to divide the "races".

All this together means the natural sciences do not recognize any human races, with the sole exception of "the" human race. In other words, your premise is incorrect, at least as far as the natural sciences are concerned.

But what about the social sciences? To them, at least today, race is nought but a social construct, much like gender is. And while gender does have a real, underlying motivator, i.e. sex, it is just as shaky and wobbly as the concept of race - what counts as "woman's work" in one culture is "man's work", or even "third gender's work", in another.

That's the key. Different cultures have different concepts of race. And there are several cultures today that do not accept the concept of human races, other than "the" human race. But there are also plenty of cultures that don't - and each with their own way of dividing them - and that is why the concept of race still has traction. What you are witnessing is a culture clash.

TL;DR: The human species does not have distinct, natural races, and there are cultures that do not recognize the social construct of race as valid.

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  • If you wanted another subspecies under homo sapiens, wouldn't that be HeLa, as that cell line broke loose and became a weed in the labs?
    – Joshua
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 1:48
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In your specific examples 'race' could be used interchangeably with 'species'.

From Dictionary

species

noun, plural spe·cies.

  1. Biology. the major subdivision of a genus or subgenus, regarded as the basic category of biological classification, composed of related individuals that resemble one another, are able to breed among themselves, but are not able to breed with members of another species.

In the present day we have only one species of human -- the human race if you like.

The Dictionary entry has a 'usage note' for race.

Genetic evidence has undermined the idea of racial divisions of the human species and rendered race obsolete as a biological system of classification. Race therefore should no longer be considered as an objective category, as the term formerly was in expressions like the Caucasian race, the Asian race, the Hispanic race. Instead, if the reference is to a particular inherited physical trait, as skin color or eye shape, that salient feature should be mentioned specifically: discrimination based on color.

So different 'human races' is scientifically specious. It is a relatively modern concept which has been used to justify various injustices such as slavery and Nazi ideologies. I would say if you still want to use 'race' then the combination 'the human race' or an 'alien race' for sciencefiction is probably ok. Presumably there are characteristic human genes which would distinguish them from an alien race/species. However, like the previous poster noted, since 'race' has been used in a discriminatory way for centuries it can push the wrong buttons. Probably better avoided.

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    +1 for shoehorning in the word "specious" in a discussion about species!
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 14:04
0

The OED, updated 2008, has 8 entries each of which has about 3 subsections. Race, in this 'group' meaning, is a word that has many connotations and is somewhat imprecise, and even context does not always help as can be seen from the accompanying notes.

Race and species differ. Species is the greater. A safe definition to distinguish race from species is:

OED

Race 5.a. A breed or stock of animals or plants; (Biology) an interbreeding population within a species that is genetically and morphologically distinct from the members of other such populations of the same species, esp. through cultivation or breeding or as a result of geographical or ecological isolation.Sometimes equivalent to subspecies; sometimes (esp. in Botany) used to denote a rank between subspecies and variety.

1973 BioScience 23 523/1 We are dealing with a single species of honeybee, Apis mellifera, the races of which differ very little in appearance or structure.

The difficulty arises when the subject is human and politics and sensitivities come into play...

**Race I. A group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.In its widest sense the term includes all descendants from an original stock, but may also be limited to a single line of descent or to the group as it exists at a particular period.

1.a. A group of people belonging to the same family and descended from a common ancestor; a house, family, kindred.

2000 E. S. Belfiore Murder among Friends i. 16 The Argive women supplicate Theseus on the basis of kinship, since they, like him, belong to the race of Pelasgos.

b. An ethnic group, regarded as showing a common origin and descent; a tribe, nation, or people, regarded as of common stock. In early use frequently with modifying adjective, as British race, Roman race, etc. Frequently overlapping with, and difficult to distinguish from, sense 1c and in some cases also sense 1d.

2005 D. McWilliams Pope's Children xxiv. 271 Back in mainland Europe, it feels like the Jews and the Paddies are the only two entrepreneurial races in Europe.

c. A group of several tribes or peoples, regarded as forming a distinct ethnic set.Esp. used in 19th-cent. anthropological classification, sometimes in conjunction with linguistic groupings. Frequently overlapping with, and difficult to distinguish from, both sense 1b and sense 1d.

2004 R. Weitz Rapunzel's Daughters i. 20 In his influential 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race , Madison Grant argued that ‘the citadel of civilization will fall’ if the Nordic race..wiped itself out through intermarriage with the ‘brunet’ races of southern and eastern Europe.

d. According to various more or less formal attempted systems of classification: any of the (putative) major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity, and sometimes (more controversially) considered to encompass common biological or genetic characteristics.

In early use usually applied to groups of people with obviously distinct physical characteristics such as skin colour, etc. An influential early system was that of J. F. Blumenbach De Generis Humani Varietati Nativa (1775), which, on the basis of skin colour and conformation of the head, divided the human species into five races, the American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian, and assigned them qualitative ranking. A similar division into six was proposed by Goldsmith (cf. quot. 1774). In particular contexts (e.g. former European colonies or areas of the United States) adherents of a theory of race have frequently applied only a simple two-term distinction (such as ‘black’ and ‘white’).

Now often used more generally to denote groups of different cultural or ethnic origin (esp. as forming part of a larger national community), in which context it frequently overlaps with, and can be difficult to distinguish from, senses 1b and 1c; examples have been placed at this sense where distinct physical features play an important role in how race is conceptualized. In recent years, the associations of race with the ideologies and theories that grew out of the work of 19th-cent. anthropologists and physiologists have led to the word often being avoided with reference to specific ethnic groups. Although it is still used in general contexts, it is now often replaced by terms such as people(s), community, etc.

1997 Sciences Mar. 22/1 True races may not exist, but racism does.

2005 P. S. Parker Race, Gender, & Leadership i. 1 A White middle class feminine ideal that paradoxically excludes the leadership experiences of women of different races and class statuses.

0

That's a lot of words based on an incorrect initial statement.

The human race is correct. In fact there is only one race. Ethnicities exist within the human race.

This ought to be agreed on as a basic, fundamental understanding of this reality.

The phrase "human race" LONG predated the modern, incorrect idea of race being categorized by things such as skin color which are poorly defined at best.

And there are many ethnicities...but there is only one race.

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