People look different depending on where their ancestors derived from; this is not a controversial statement, and any reasonable person would agree with that assertion. Though what most don’t realize, is that even if you assert that biological races do not exist, but allow for patterns of distinct visible physical features between human populations that then correspond with geographic ancestry, then race—as a biological reality—exists because what denotes the physical characters are biological in nature, and the geographic ancestry corresponds to physical differences between continental groups. These populations, then, can be shown to be real in genetic analyses, and that they correspond to traditional racial groups. So we can then say that Eurasian, East Asian, Oceanian, black African, and East Asians are continental-level minimalist races since they hold all of the criteria needed to be called minimalist races: (1) distinct facial characters; (2) distinct morphologic differences; and (3) they come from a unique geographic location. Therefore minimalist races exist and are a biological reality. (Note: There is more variation within races than between them (Lewontin, 1972; Rosenberg et al, 2002; Witherspoon et al, 2007; Hunley, Cabana, and Long, 2016), but this does not mean that the minimalist biological concept of race has no grounding in biology.)
Minimalist race exists
The concept of minimalist race is simple: people share a peculiar geographic ancestry unique to them, they have peculiar physiognomy (facial features like lips, facial structure, eyes, nose etc), other physical traits (hair/hair color), and a peculiar morphology. Minimalist races exist, and are biologically real since minimalist races can survive findings from population genetics. Hardimon (2017) asks, “Is the minimalist concept of race a social concept?” on page 62. He writes that social concepts are socially constructed in a pernicious sense if and only if it “(i) fails to represent any fact of the matter and (ii) supports and legitimizes domination.” Of course, populations who derive from Africa, Europe, and East Asia have peculiar facial morphology/morphology unique to that isolated population. Therefore we can say that minimalist race does not conform to criteria (i). Hardimon (2017: 63) then writes:
Because it lacks the nasty features that make the racialist concept of race well suited to support and legalize domination, the minimalist race concept fails to satisfy condition (ii). The racialist concept, on the other hand, is socially constructed in the pernicious sense. Since there are no racialist races, there are no facts of the matter it represents. So it satisfies (i). To elaborate, the racialist race concept legtizamizes racial domination by representing the social hierarchy of race as “natural” (in a value-conferring sense): as the “natural” (socially unmediated and inevitable) expression of the talent and efforts of the inidividuals who stand on its rungs. It supports racial domination by conveying the idea that no alternative arrangment of social institutions could possibly result in racial equality and hence that attempts to engage in collective action in the hopes of ending the social hierarchy of race are futile. For these reasons the racialist race concept is also idealogical in the prejorative sense.
Knowing what we know about minimalist races (they have distinct physiognomy, distinct morphology and geographic ancestry unique to that population), we can say that this is a biological phenomenon, since what makes minimalist races distinct from one another (skin color, hair color etc) are based on biological factors. We can say that brown skin, kinky hair and full lips, with sub-Saharan African ancestry, is African, while pale/light skin, straight/wavy/curly hair with thin lips, a narrow nose, and European ancestry makes the individual European.
These physical features between the races correspond to differences in geographic ancestry, and since they differ between the races on average, they are biological in nature and therefore it can be said that race is a biological phenomenon. Skin color, nose shape, hair type, morphology etc are all biological. So knowing that there is a biological basis to these physical differences between populations, we can say that minimalist races are biological, therefore we can use the term minimalist biological phenomenon of race, and it exists because there are differences in the patterns of visible physical features between human populations that correspond to geographic ancestry.
Hardimon then talks about how eliminativist philosophers and others don’t deny that above premises above the minimalist biological phenomenon of race, but they allow these to exist. Hardimon (2017: 68-69) then quotes a few prominent people who profess that there are, of course, differences in physical features between human populations:
… Lewontin … who denies that biological races exist, freely grants that “peoples who have occupied major geographic areas for much of the recent past look different from one another. Sub-Saharan Africans have dark skin and people who have lived in East Asia tend to have a light tan skin and an eye color and eye shape that is difference from Europeans.” Similarly, population geneticist Marcus W. Feldman (final author of Rosenberg et al., “Genetic Stucture of Human Populations” ), who also denies the existence of biological races, acknowledges that “it has been known for centuries that certain physical features of humans are concentrated within families: hair, eye, and skin color, height, inability to digest milk, curliness of hair, and so on. These phenotypes also show obvious variation among people from different continents. Indeed, skin color, facial shape, and hair are examples of phenotypes whose variation among populations from different regions is noticeable.” In the same vein, eliminative anthropologist C. Loring Brace concedes, “It is perfectly true that long term residents of various parts of the world have patterns of features that we can identify as characteristic of they area from which they come.”
So even these people who claim to not believe in “biological races”, do indeed believe in biological races because what they are describing is biological in nature and they, of course, do not deny that people look different while their ancestors came from different places so therefore they believe in biological races. We can then use the minimalist biological phenomenon of race to get to the existence of minimalist races.
Hardimon (2017: 69) writes:
Step 1. Recognize that there are differences in patterns of visible physical features of human beings that correspond to their differences in geographic ancestry.
Step 2. Observe that these patterns are exhibited by groups (that is, real existing groups).
Step 3. Note that the groups that exhibit these patterns of visible physical features correspond to differences in geographical ancestry satisfy the conditions of the minimalist concept of race.
Step 4. Infer that minimalist race exists.
Those individuals mentioned previously who deny biological races but allow that people with ancestors from differing geographic locales look differently do not disagree with step 1, nor does anyone really disagree with step 2. Step 4’s inference immediately flows from the premise in step 3. “Groups that exhibit patterns or visible physical features that correspond to differences in geographical ancestry satisfy the conditions of the minimalist concept of race. Call (1)-(4) the argument from the minimalist biological phenomenon of race” (Hardimon, 2017: 70). Of course, the argument does not identify which populations may be called races (see further below), it just shows that race is a biological reality. Because if minimalist races exist, then races exist because minimalist races are races. Minimalist races exist, therefore biological races exist. Of course, no one doubts that people come from Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands, even though the boundaries between them are ‘blurry’. They exhibit patterns of visible physical characters that correspond to their differing geographic ancestry, they are minimalist races therefore minimalist races exist.
Pretty much, the minimalist concept of race is just laying out what everyone knows and arguing for its existence. Minimalist races exist, but are they biologically real?
Minimalist races are biologically real
Of course, some who would assert that minimalist races do not exist would say that there are no ‘genes’ that are exclusive to one certain population—call them ‘race genes’. Of course, these types of genes do not exist. Whether or not one individual is a part of one race or not does not rest on the basis of his physical characters, but is determined by who his parents are, because one of the three premises for the minimalist race argument is ‘must have a peculiar geographic ancestry’. So it’s not that members of races share sets of genes that other races do not, it’s based on the fact that they share a distinctive set of visible physical features that then correspond with geographic ancestry. So of course if the minimalist concept of race is a biological concept then it entails more than ‘genes for’ races.
Of course, there is a biological significance to the existence of minimalist biological races. Consider that one of the physical characters that differ between populations is skin color. Skin color is controlled by genes (about half a dozen within and a dozen between populations). Lack of UV rays for individuals with dark skin will lead to diseases like prostate cancer, while darker skin is a protectant against UV damage to human skin (Brenner and Hearing, 2008; Jablonksi and Chaplin, 2010). Since minimalist race is biologically significant and minimalist races are partly defined by differences in skin color between populations then skin color has both medical and ecological significance.
(1) Consider light skin. People with light skin are more susceptible to skin cancer since they evolved in locations with poor UVR radiation (D’Orazio et al, 2013). The body needs vitamin D to absorb and use calcium for maintaining proper cell functioning. People who evolved near the equator don’t have to worry about this because the doses of UVB they absorb are sufficient for the production of enough previtamin D. While East Asians and Europeans on the other hand, became adapted to low-sunlight locations and therefore over time evolved lighter skin. This loss of pigmentation allowed for better UVB absorption in these new environments. (Also read my article on the evolution of human skin variation and also how skin color is not a ‘tell’ of aggression in humans.)
(2) While darker-skinned people have a lower rate of skin cancer “primarily a result of photo-protection provided by increased epidermal melanin, which filters twice as much ultraviolet (UV) radiation as does that in the epidermis of Caucasians” (Bradford, 2009). Dark skin is thought to have evolved to protect against skin cancer (Greaves, 2014a) but this has been contested (Jablonski and Chaplin, 2014) and defended (Greaves, 2014b). So therefore, using (1) and (2), skin color has evolutionary signifigance.
So as humans began becoming physically adapted to their new niches they found themselves in, they developed new features distinct from the location they previously came from to better cope with the new lifestyle due to their new environments. For instance “Northern Europeans tend to have light skin because they belong to a morphologically marked ancestral group—a minimalist race—that was subject to one set of environmental conditions (low UVR) in Europe” (Hardimon, 2017: 81). Of course explaining how human beings survived in new locations falls into the realm of biology, while minimalist races can explain why this happened.
Minimalist races clearly exist since minimalist races constitute complex biological patterns between populations. Hardimon (2017: 83) writes:
It [minimalist race] also enjoys intrinsic scientific interest because it represents distinctive salient systematic dimension of human biological diversity. To clarify: Minimalist race counts as (i) salient because human differences of color and shape are striking. Racial differences in color and shape are (ii) systematic in that they correspond to differences in geographic ancestry. They are not random. Racial differences are (iii) distinctive in that they are different from the sort of biological differences associated with the other two salient systematic dimensions of human diversity: sex and age.
An additional consideration: Like sex and age, minimalist race constitutes one member of what might be called “the triumverate of human biodiversity.” An account of human biodiversity that failed to include any one of these three elements would be obviously incomplete. Minimalist race’s claim to be biologically real is as good as the claim of the other members of the triumverate. Sex is biologically real. Age is biologically real. Minimalist race is biologically real.
Real does not mean deep. Compared to the biological associated with sex (sex as contrasted with gender), the biological differences associated with minimalist race are superficial.
Of course, the five ‘clusters’ and ‘populations’ identified by Rosenberg et al’s (2002) K=5 graph, which told structure to produce 5 genetic clusters, corresponds to Eurasia, Africa, East Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, are great candidates for minimalist biological races since they correspond to geographic locations, and even corroborates what Fredrich Blumenbach said about human races back in the 17th century. Hardimon further writes (pg 85-86):
If the five populations corresponding to the major areas are continental-level minimalist races, the clusters represent continental-level minimalist races: The cluster in the mostly orange segment represents the sub-Saharan African continental-level minimalist race. The cluster in the mostly blue segment represents the Eurasian continental-level minimal race. The cluster in the mostly pink segment represents the East Asian continental-level minimalist race. The cluster in the mostly green segment represents the Pacific Islander continental-level minimalist race. And the cluster in the mostly purple segment represents the American continental-level minimalist race.
The assumption that the five populations are continental-level minimalist races entitles us to interpret structure as having the capacity to assign individuals to continental-level minimalist races on the basis of markers that track ancestry. In constructing clusters corresponding to the five continental-level minimalist races on the basis of objective, race-neutral genetic markers, structure essentially “reconstructs” those races on the basis of a race-blind procedure. Modulo our assumption, the article shows that it is possible to assign individuals to continental-level races without knowing anything about the race or ancestry of the individuals from whose genotypes the microsattelites are drawn. The populations studied were “defined by geography, language, and culture,” not skin color or “race.”
Of course, as critics note, the researchers predetermine how many populations that structure demarcates, for instance, K=5 indicates that the researchers told the program to delineate 5 clusters. Though, these objections do not matter. For the 5 populations that come out in K=5 “are genetically structured … which is to say, meaningfully demarcated solely on the basis of genetic markers” (Hardimon, 2017: 88). K=6 brings one more population, the Kalash, a group from northern Pakistan who speak an Indo-European language. Though “The fact that structure represents a population as genetically distinct does not entail that the population is a race. Nor is the idea that populations corresponding to the five major geographic areas are minimalist races undercut by the fact that structure picks out the Kalash as a genetically distinct group. Like the K=5 graph, the K=6 graph shows that modulo our assumption, continental-level races are genetically structured” (Hardimon, 2017: 88).
Though of course there are naysayers. Svante Paabo and David Serre, Hardimon writes, state that when individuals are sampled from homogeneous populations from around the world, the gradients of the allele frequencies that are found are distributed randomly across the world rather than clustering discretely. Though Rosenberg et al responded by verifying that the clusters they found are not artifacts of sampling as Paabo and Serre imply, but reflect features of underlying human variation. Though Rosenberg et al agree with Paabo and Serre in that that human genetic diversity consists of clines in variation in allele frequencies (Hardimon, 2017: 89). Other naysayers also state that all Rosenberg et al show is what we can “see with our eyes”. Though a computer does not partition individuals into different populations based on something that can be done with eyes, it’s based on an algorithm.
Hardimon also accepts that black Africans, Caucasians, East Asians, American Indians and Oceanians can be said to be races in the basic sense because “they constitute a partition of the human species“, and that they are distinguishable “at the level of the gene” (Hardimon, 2017: 93). And of course, K=5 shows that the 5 races are genetically distinguishable.
Hardimon finally discusses some medical significance for minimalist races. He states that if you are Caucasian that it is more likely that you have a polymorphism that protects against HIV compared to a member of another race. Meanwhile, East Asians are more likely to carry alleles that make them more susceptible to Steven-Johnson syndrome or another syndrome where their skin falls off. Though of course, the instances where this would matter in a biomedical context are rare, but still should be at the back of everyone’s mind (as I have argued), even though instances where medical differences between minimalist races are rare, there are times where one’s race can be medically significant.
Hardimon finally states that this type of “metaphysics of biological race” can be called “deflationary realism.” Deflationary because it “consists in the repudiation of the ideas that racialist races exist and that race enjoys the kind of biological reality that racialist race was supposed to have” and realism which “consists in its acknowledgement of the existence of minimalist races and the genetically grounded, relatively superficial, but still significant biological reality of minimalist race” (Hardimon, 2017: 95-96).
Minimalist races exist. Minimalist races are a biological reality because distinct visible patterns show differences between geographically isolated populations. This is enough for the classification of the five classic races we know of to be called race, be biologically real, and have a medical significance—however small—because certain biological/physical traits are tied to different geographic populations—minimalist races.
Hardimon (2017: 97) shows an alternative to racialism:
Deflationary realism provides a worked-out alternative to racialism—it it a theory that represents race as a genetically grounded, relatively superficial biological reality that is not normatively important in itself. Deflationary realism makes it possible to rethink race. It offers the promise of freeing ourselves, if only imperfectly, from the racialist background conception of race.
It is clear that minimalist races exist and are biologically real. You do not need to speak about supposed mental traits between these minimalist races, they are irrelevant to the existence of these minimalist biological races. As Hardimon (2017: 67) writes: “No reference is made to normatively important features such as intelligence, sexuality, or morality. No reference is made to essences. The idea of sharp boundaries between patterns of visible physical features or corresponding geographical regions is not invoked. Nor again is reference made to the idea of significant genetic differences. No reference is made to groups that exhibit patterns of visible physical features that correspond to geographic ancestry.”
The minimalist biological concept of race stands up to numerous lines of argumentation, therefore we can say without a shadow of a doubt that minimalist biological race exists and is real.