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Nina Jablonski on Race

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Nina Jablonski’s work on vitamin D and the implications that lighter skin had not only on our evolution but our health are extremely important for understanding how we evolved after the out of Africa migration. However, Jablonski then takes what she has written about skin color over the past few decades and concludes that race doesn’t exist. Jablonski believes that the term “race” should be discontinued from our lexicon, but as most may know, the term “race” does not need to disappear from our lexicon. (Watch her TED Talk Skin Color is an Illusion.)

In 2014, Nina Jablonski stated that the term “race” was ready for scientific retirement. In the article—and her book (Jablonski, 2012: chapters 9 and 10)—she states that race was a “vague and slippery concept”, eschewing the views of Kant and Hume as “racist”. She talks about how Kant was really one of the first people to recognize and categorize groups of people as “races”, stating that skin color, hair type, skull type etc—along with differing mores, aptitudes, and capacity for civilization—arranged in a hierarchical manner with Europeans at the top. A climatic theory was held, which stated that the original humans were light and became darker since “the transformation from light to dark was a form of degeneration, a departure from the norm” (Jablonski, 2012: 143).

She then discusses how, in Biblical history, skin color was meaningful, meaningful because it was believed that darker-skinned races were descendants of Ham:

And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. (Genesis, 9: 18-26)

So Noah’s three sons—Ham, Japheth and Shem—were seen to be the three modern-day races of man—Africans, Europeans, and Asians, respectively. The term “servant of servants” was taken to mean that the descendants of Ham would serve the descendants of Shem and Japheth. This, according to those who believed the authority of the Bible, was enough to justify chattel slavery.

Jablonski—in an interview with the magazine Nautilus—stated that there “are no clean breaks between human populations. Individuals have different groups of genes” and that “Only a tiny fraction of alleles, and a small fraction of allelic combinations, is restricted to a single geographic region, and even less to a single population” which “is why attempts to identify races in humans have failed.” She commits the continuum fallacy, and the argument form is thus: “One extreme is X, at another is Y. There is no definable point where X becomes Y. Therefore, there is no difference between X and Y.” This has also been called the “Argument of the Beard”: at what point does a man not become clean shaven?

The use of the continuum fallacy, that there “are no clean breaks between human populations” shows how far the “race is a social construct” line has come (it is, but that race is a social construct does not also mean that it cannot also be a significant biological reality). The continuum fallacy is one of the most-used fallacies by those who deny race. Though, those who use the continuum fallacy are only attempting to argue that the claim is “too vague” because it is not as precise as they would like it to be. It does not matter that there “are no clean breaks between human populations“; what matters is that patterns of visible physical features correspond to geographic ancestry, and this is what we find.

Her second problem arises when she says that “Only a tiny fraction of alleles, and a small fraction od allelic combinations, is restricted to a single geographic region, and even less to s single population“. That there are no “race genes” or “genes for race” does not mean that race does not exist as a biological reality; these rigid “either this or that” definitions that some people have for race, such as race-specific genes are strawmen: people who believe that race is a significant biological reality do not believe in race-specific genes. That there are no race-specific genes does not mean that race doesn’t exist, as we know that genes are expressed differently in different races.

Finally, she claims that this “is why attempts to identify races in humans have failed“, though these attempts have not failed, of course. So-called races are distinguished by patterns of visible physical features; these patterns are observed between real, existing groups; these real existing groups that share these patterns of visible physical features satisfy the requisites of minimalist race; therefore race exists. Of course, Jablonski has reservations about acknowledging the reality of race due to how the transatlantic slave trade was promogulated through so-called differences that stemmed from Noah and Ham’s curse, but I fail to see why she would discard the argument just provided for the existence of race since differences in mores, intelligence, physical and mental abilities, are not discussed in the argument. ONLY the observable differences between populations are observed, with no value-judgment put onto each race, such as having lower “intelligence” or differing mores compared to another race.

She also states, in an interview with the New York Times, that skin color is not about race, “it’s about sun and how close our ancestors lived to the Equator. Skin color is what regulates our body’s reaction to the sun and its rays. … That shows that color is not a permanent trait.” That the differences in skin color observed in human populations can change over time does not mean that skin color “is not about race” as Jablonski claims. Skin color is one physical trait to delineate races, along with hair type, physiognomy, and anatomy, that groups peoples into groups we call “races”. This is not a good argument against the existence of race; of course anatomy, physiology, and physiognomy can change over time: but this does not mean that race does not exist!

Michael Hardimon’s race concepts (Hardimon, 2017) show that one does not need to believe that races differ in “intelligence”, mores, etc to believe in the existence of race. The concept takes everything from the racialist concept and “minimizes it”, taking the aspect of visible differences in physical features, while leaving the so-called mental differences (“intelligence”, mores) alone. This is enough to recognize that race exists and, as Jablonski has noted for decades in her career, being displaced from the environment where your skin color evolved causes an environmental mismatch which then—in the case of black Americans—may lead to vitamin D deficiency. This is one significant aspect that shows that race has an impact on health policy.

The minimalist concept of race is “deflationary” in that it does not discuss what we “can’t see” with our own eyes; it only discusses physical traits which should be enough for Jablonski to say that race is real and exists as a biological reality. Combined with the known health effects of, for instance, living in differing climates with differing amounts of UV radiation that is not “for” your skin color has further consequences and is why, in some cases, race-based medicine should stick around (though I am aware that, first and foremost, the individual matters first in a medical context, racial membership is secondary).

In sum, Jablonski refers to old and outdated individuals when speaking about the biological reality of race. She does a good job chronicling how and why the concept of race arose, especially through Biblical history and the curse of Ham. However, she takes it too far and claims that race does not exist, nor is it a significant biological reality since there are no “race-specific genes” (also remember that you do not need genes to delineate race, using differences in physical traits and then correlating them to geography is sufficient) and there “are no clean breaks between human populations“. These fallacies aside, it is possible, as I have noted before, to denote racial classifications sans the use of “intelligence” or “mores” in the concept. Skin color is just one of many observable traits that differ by geography that make the basis for separating groups on the basis of race.

The minimalist race concept from Hardimon is non-hierarchical: meaning that it doesn’t discuss anything that would put races in a hierarchy like the racialist concept does (with mores and “intelligence”). If anything, this strictly physical definition of races (and the simple argument for it) should be enough to sway race-deniers to become race-believers.

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