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Defending Minimalist Races: A Response to Joshua Glasgow

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Michael Hardimon published Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism last year (Hardimon, 2017). I was awaiting some critical assessment of the book, and it seems that at the end of March, some criticism finally came. The criticism came from another philosopher, Joshua Glasgow, in the journal Mind (Glasgow, 2018). The article is pretty much just arguing against his minimalist race concept and one thing he brings up in his book, the case of a twin earth and what we would call out-and-out clones of ourselves on this twin earth. Glasgow makes some good points, but I think he is largely misguided on Hardimon’s view of race.

Hardimon (2017) is the latest defense for the existence of race—all the while denying the existence of “racialist races”—that there are differences in mores, “intelligence” etc—and taking the racialist view and “stripping it down to its barebones” and shows that race exists, in a minimal way. This is what Hardimon calls “social constructivism” in the pernicious sense—racialist races, in Hardimon’s eyes, are socially constructed in a pernicious sense, arguing that racialist races do not represent any “facts of the matter” and “supports and legalizes domination” (pg 62). The minimalist concept, on the other hand, does not “support and legalize domination”, nor does it assume that there are differences in “intelligence”, mores and other mental characters; it’s only on the basis of superficial physical features. These superficial physical features are distributed across the globe geographically and these groups are real and exist who show these superficial physical features across the globe. Thus, race, in a minimal sense, exists. However, people like Glasgow have a few things to say about that.

Glasgow (2018) begins by praising Hardimon (2017) for “dispatching racialism” in his first chapter, also claiming that “academic writings have decisively shown why racialism is a bad theory” (pg 2). Hardimon argues that to believe in race, on not need believe what the racialist concept pushes; one must only acknowledge and accept that there are:

1) differences in visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry; 2) these differences in visible features which correspond to geographic ancestry are exhibited between real groups; 3) these real groups that exhibit these differences in physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry satisfy the conditions of minimalist race; C) therefore race exists.

This is a simple enough argument, but Glasgow disagrees. As a counter, Glasgow brings up the “twin earth” argument. Imagine a twin earth was created. On Twin Earth, everything is exactly the same; there are copies of you, me, copies of companies, animals, history mirrored down to exact minutiae, etc. The main contention here is that Hardimon claims that ancestry is important for our conception of race. But with the twin earth argument, since everything, down to everything, is the same, then the people who live on twin earth look just like us but! do not share ancestry with us, they look like us (share patterns of visible physical features), so what race would we call them? Glasgow thusly states that “sharing ancestry is not necessary for a group to count as a race” (pg 3). But, clearly, sharing ancestry is important for our conception of race. While the thought experiment is a good one it fails since ancestry is very clearly necessary for a group to count as a race, as Hardimon has argued.

Hardimon (2017: 52) addresses this, writing:

Racial Twin Americans might share our concept of race and deny that races have different geographical origins. This is because they might fail to understand that this is a component of their race concept. If, however, their belief that races do not have different geographical origins did not reflect a misunderstanding of their “race concept,” then their “race concept” would not be the same concept as the concept that is the ordinary race concept in our world. Their use of ‘race’ would pick out a different subject matter entirely from ours.

and on page 45 writes:

Glasgow envisages Racial Twin Earth in such a way that, from an empirical (that is, human) point of view, these groups would have distinctive ancestries, even if they did not have distinctive ancestries an sich. But if this is so, the groups [Racial Twin Earthings] do not provide a good example of races that lack distinctive ancestries and so do not constitute a clear counterexample to C(2) [that members of a race are “linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members of that group”].

C(2) (P2 in the simple argument for the existence of race) is fine, and the objections from Glasgow do not show that P(C)2 is false at all. The Racial Twin Earth argument is a good one, it is sound. However, as Hardimon had already noted in his book, Glasgow’s objection to C(2) does not rebut the fact that races share peculiar ancestry unique to them.

Next, Glasgow criticizes Hardimon’s viewpoints on “Hispanics” and Brazilians. These two groups, says Glasgow, shows that two siblings with the same ancestry, though they have different skin colors, would be different races in Brazil. He uses this example to state that “This suggests that race and ancestry can be disconnected” (pg 4). He criticizes Hardimon’s solution to the problem of race and Brazilians, stating that our term “race” and the term in Brazil do not track the same things. “This is jarring. All that anthropological and sociological work done to compare Brazil with the rest of the world (including the USA) would be premised on a translation error” (pg 4). Since Americans and Brazilians, in Glasgow’s eyes, can have a serious conversation about race, this suggests to Glasgow that “our concept of race must not require that races have distinct ancestral groups” (pg 5).

I did cover Brazilians and “Hispanics” as regards the minimalist race concept. Some argue that the “color system” in Brazil is actually a “racial system” (Guimaraes 2012: 1160). While they do denote race as ‘COR’ (Brazilian for ‘color), one can argue that the term used for ‘color’ is ‘race’ and that we would have no problem discussing ‘race’ with Brazilians, since Brazilians and Americans have similar views on what ‘race’ really is. Hardimon (2017: 49) writes:

On the other hand, it is not clear that the Brazilian concept of COR is altogether independent of the phenomenon we Americans designate using ‘race.’ The color that ‘COR’ picks out is racial skin color. The well-known, widespread preference for lighter (whiter) skin in Brazil is at least arguably a racial preference. It seems likely that white skin color is preferred because of its association with the white race. This provides a reason for thinking that the minimalist concept of race may be lurking in the background of Brazilian thinking about race.

Since ‘COR’ picks out racial skin color, it can be safely argued that Brazilians and Americans at least are generally speaking about the same things. Since the color system in Brazil pretty much mirrors what we know as racial systems, demarcating races on the basis of physical features, we are, it can be argued, talking about the same (or similar) things.

Further, the fact that “Latinos” do not fit into Hardimon’s minimalist race concepts is not a problem with Hardimon’s arguments about race, but is a problem with how “Latinos” see themselves and racialize themselves as a group. “Latinos” can count as a socialrace, but they do not—can not—count as a minimalist race (such as the Caucasian minimalist race; the African minimalist race; the Asian minimalist race etc), since they do not share visible physical patterns which correspond to differences in geographic ancestry. Since they do not exhibit characters that demarcate minimalist races, they are not minimalist races. Looking at Cubans compared to, say, Mexicans (on average) is enough to buttress this point.

Glasgow then argues that there are similar problems when you make the claim “that having a distinct geographical origin is required for a group to be a race” (pg 5). He says that we can create “Twin Trump” and “Twin Clinton” might be created from “whole cloth” on two different continents, but we would still call them both “white.” Glasgow then claims that “I worry that visible trait groups are not biological objects because the lines between them are biologically arbitrary” (pg 5). He argues that we need a “dividing line”, for example, to show that skin color is an arbitrary trait to divide races. But if we look at skin color as an adaptation to the climate of the people in question (Jones et al, 2018), then this trait is not “arbitrary”, and the trait is then linked to geographic ancestry.

Glasgow then goes down the old and tired route that “There is no biological reason to mark out one line as dividing the races rather than another, simply based on visible traits” (pg 5). He then goes on to discuss the fact that Hardimon invokes Rosenberg et al (2002) who show that our genes cluster in specific geographic ancestries and that this is biological evidence for the existence of race. Glasgow brings up two objections to the demarcation of races on both physical appearance and genetic analyses: picture the color spectrum, “Now thicken the orange part, and thin out the light red and yellow parts on either side of orange. You’ve just created an orange ‘cluster’” (pg 6), while asking the question:

Does the fact that there are more bits in the orange part mean that drawing a line somewhere to create the categories orange and yellow now marks a scientifically principled line, whereas it didn’t when all three zones on the spectrum were equally sized?

I admit this is a good question, and that this objection would indeed go with the visible trait of skin color in regard to race; but as I said above, since skin color can be conceptualized as a physical adaptation to climate, then that is a good proxy for geographic ancestry, whether or not there is a “smooth variation” of skin colors as you move away from the equator or not, it is evidence that “races” have biological differences and these differences start on the biggest organ in the human body. This is just the classic continuum fallacy in action: that X and Y are two different parts of an extreme; there is no definable point where X becomes Y, therefore there is no difference between X and Y.

As for Glasgow’s other objection, he writes (pg 6):

if we find a large number of individuals in the band below 62.3 inches, and another large grouping in the band above 68.7 inches, with a thinner population in between, does that mean that we have a biological reason for adopting the categories ‘short’ and ‘tall’?

It really depends on what the average height is in regard to “adopting the categories ‘short’ and ‘tall’” (pg 6). The first question was better than the second, alas, they do not do a good job of objecting to Hardimon’s race concept.

In sum, Glasgow’s (2018) review of Hardimon’s (2017) book Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism is an alright review; though Glasgow leaves a lot to be desired and I do think that his critique could have been more strongly argued. Minimalist races do exist and are biologically real.

I am of the opinion that what matters regarding the existence of race is not biological science, i.e., testing to see which populations have which differing allele frequencies etc; what matters is the philosophical aspects to race. The debates in the philosophical literature regarding race are extremely interesting (which I will cover in the future), and are based on racial naturalism and racial eliminativism.

(Racial naturalism “signifies the old, biological conception of race“; racial eliminativism “recommends discarding the concept of race entirely“; racial constructivism “races have come into existence and continue to exist through “human culture and human decisions” (Mallon 2007, 94)“; thin constructivism “depicts race as a grouping of humans according to ancestry and genetically insignificant, “superficial properties that are prototypically linked with race,” such as skin tone, hair color and hair texture (Mallon 2006, 534); and racial skepticism “holds that because racial naturalism is false, races of any type do not exist“.) (Also note that Spencer (2018) critiques Hardimon’s viewpoints in his book as well, which will also be covered in the future, along with the back-and-forth debate in the philosophical literature between Quayshawn Spencer (e.g., 2015) and Adam Hochman (e.g., 2014).)

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