Science doesn’t really think of people being
different races. People who have ancestors from
very different places may look very different
though. They also may have very different
languages. I am a biologist and we usually leave
language study to professionals called
linguists, but the two parts to your
questions have one basic answer: change.
The people who were the ancestors of all people
lived in Africa, but their descendants slowly
spread all over the world. As groups traveled,
they probably settled in clumps where the living
was good. It may be hard to imagine how isolated
groups of people used to be, now that you can have
breakfast on one continent, lunch on another, and
dinner on a third. But back then, each clump would
have been pretty isolated from the other clumps.
Walking was the only way to get around except for
boats with no motors or navigation equipment.
These groups would be sort of like islands,
whether they were actual islands or not. The
people in these clumps would probably only be
having children with people from the same
settlement or ones nearby. The random changes
in genes (mutation) that happened in one place
would be different than the mutations that
happened in another group.
People also became adapted to their environments.
As I said, mutation is random. You don’t
get a mutation that protects you from skin cancer
because you need it. But in an environment that
kills a lot of people, the people lucky enough to
get mutations that protect them from skin cancer
are more likely to survive and reproduce. The same
mutation, randomly occurring in a place where
there is very little sunlight, might be a problem.
It might prevent people from making enough vitamin
D, leading to weak bones. The mutation would
probably die out in that area.
Red hair might be found in only 1 of 1,000 people
in a big population, but if 10 people go to an
island, and one has red hair, the frequency of red
hair on the island is 10% to start with, and it
may always be high. This is called the “founder
Another process that can happen in small
populations is “genetic drift.” Imagine
that 10% of the people in a big population carry a
gene for blue eyes. 10 of 100 people who go to an
isolated place have the gene for blue eyes, but
for a variety of reasons, all 10 of them die
before they have kids. None of their descendants
will have the gene for blue eyes.
The ability to speak is genetic. It
requires certain areas of the brain and the
ability to use the tongue, lips, and throat in
certain ways. But the different languages do
not have a genetic basis. I was raised
speaking English. If I had been raised in a family
speaking Urdu, Swahili, or Korean, that language
would be the one I spoke. We don’t know what
language the first humans had. As the groups
became isolated, their languages would have
changed. We can actually trace how certain
languages have changed over time. For example,
English came from German. Even in one
country, language changes over time. You might
laugh at the slang your parents used when they
were young. Someday, kids will laugh at words that
you think are neat, the cat’s pajamas, tubular,
rad, or ill now.
Do you think that modern transportation will
influence our ideas about ethnicity in the future?
To learn more about how groups of people came to
be unique, you may want to study anthropology.
Thanks for asking,
Race and language both evolve over time in a
way that depends on the environment. For race,
I'm mostly talking about climate--melanin (the
pigment that makes skin tan or dark) is believed
to reduce the risk of skin cancer, so peoples that
deal with harsh sunlight most frequently tend to
have darker skin. Culture plays a role too,
because the current perception of beauty can
affect choices of mates, which affects how often
physical features are passed on to the next
Language also evolves due to culture. Over
time, people sometimes come up with new words,
pronounce words differently, use existing words in
different contexts, or take words from other
languages. If it catches on, eventually the change
becomes a part of the language. One example of
this is the difference between American English
and British English. In the beginning, Americans
and Britons spoke the same way, but over time,
because they talk among themselves so much more,
their language evolved in different ways.
In the field of linguistics (the study of
language), people trace the history of how
every language evolved and keep track of common
ancestry using language families.