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Races and Populations: Existence and Reality

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Over at the blog Anthropology 365 the author—Adam Johnson, biocultural anthropologist—wrote an article titled Populations, Race, and The Sorites Paradox, in which he argues that, since there are no “clear lines” and they are “wuzzy”, we cannot say where one race ends and another begins, therefore race does not exist. His whole argument is largely just the continuum fallacy—that since we cannot show where one race, in this instance, ends and another begins, therefore, race does not exist. This reasoning, however, is very flawed.

The beginning of his article is concerned with laying out the sorites paradox. Imagine zero grains of sand, then continuously add grains of sand, 1, 5, 10, 100, 1000, etc. When does the heap become a pile of sand? Johnson attempts to use this logic regarding races and populations: where does one population end and another begin? (You already know where this is headed; it seems that this is the ‘argument’ that gets the most play nowadays when it comes to race-denialism and racial eliminativism when there are better, non-fallacious, arguments out there to attack the concept of race in our ontology. Using the old and tired “continuum fallacy” no longer makes sense because the objection that “Race does not exist because we cannot tell where one race ends and another begins” has been responded to numerous times, most recently (and forcefully) by philosophers of race Michael Hardimon and Quayshawn Spencer.)

He defines “population”, stating that—in biocultural anthropology—that a population is simply a group of like kinds that interbreed with each other which are separated by geographic barriers. Nothing wrong with that—it’s true. He then makes the huge leap in logic to a within-country comparison (America), showing two arbitrarily circled “populations” on the east and west coasts of America. He admits the circles are “arbitrary”, then adds another purple circle in the middle, and finally a green and purple circle in between the original circles, signifying five populations (the image can be seen below).

continn

He says that “It is often impossible to draw neat boundaries around a group”, but I am aware of no author making any claim that it IS possible (and easy) to draw neat boundaries around groups. To do so, you only need simple conditions; and if there is any deviation out of those conditions, then the population in question do not fit the definition of what you were constructing and they can thus be removed. Johnson says “where does yellow end and purple begin?” since there is so much overlap between all five colors in this image. He says that this reasoning shows how “crude” the concept of population is regarding the accepted definition: a group of like kinds that can interbreed but are geographically separated.

One who denies Hardimon’s (2017) 3 conditions for to establish that populations are minimalist races (C1. visible patterns of distinct physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry; C2. that the members in this group are linked by a common ancestry; and C3. they must originate from a distinct geographic location) may then take to this idea that these arbitrarily drawn circles which are supposed to be “populations” (to Johnson) are then races; but Johnson never left any conditions, only a vague definition. One could argue that two of those clusters satisfy C1-C3 (that the cluster in question shares visible patterns of distinct physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry [the people who, say, make up one town in one of the arbitrarily drawn circles may have different visible patterns of distinct physical features which correspond with their ‘geographic ancestry’], that the members are linked by a common ancestry [the town they now live in, say], and they derive from a distinct geographic location [the arbitrarily drawn circle is a distinct geographic location].

However, for one to say that C1 holds for these arbitrarily drawn circles, they have to stretch the definition in order to accept random populations within a country. They then need to say that C2 refers to any type of “common ancestry” of a certain town; and that C3 then shows that they derive from a distinct geographic location. However, in regard to C2 and C3, one who would attempt such an argument would be equivocating on “geographic ancestry” and “distinct geographic location”, thusly claiming that an infinitude of races exist because the conditions are vague. While I do admit that minimalist concept is vague, in my view, it does not allow for one to equivocate on certain words used in the argument to show that any and all arbitrary populations can be called “races”; it does not work like that because there are distinctive conditions that must be met before further thinking on whether or not a population in question is a “race” or not.

Johnson then quotes Scientific American writer John Terrel who writes in his article “Plug and Play” Genetics, Racial Migrations and Human History:

“Distinguishing between races and populations is effectively making a distinction without a difference. If this comes across as sounding crazy to you, then tell me this. What is a population? How can you tell whether you are “inside” a population or “outside” it? How many of them are there “out there” in the real world? How many did there used to be? More than today, or fewer? (Now substitute in these simple questions the word “race.” Doesn’t make much difference, right?)”

What is a population? Good question. The definition left by Johnson above is alright, but we can refine it. I can simply cite Michael Hardimon’s definition of “populationist race” (Hardimon, 2017: 99; my emphasis):

“A race is a subdivision of Homo sapiens—a group of populations that exhibits a distinctive pattern of genetically transmitted phenotypic characters that corresponds to the group’s geographic ancestry and belongs to a biological line of descent initiated by a geographically separated and reproductively isolated founding population.”

Using this definition of race, a race is a group of populations that exhibits a distinctive pattern of genetically transmitted phenotypic characters that corresponds to the groups’ geographic ancestry. Thus, with “population” having a much more non-vague definition, we can then begin to look for populations that exist in reality (not arbitrarily demarcated “populations” like Johnson did—using arbitrary circles as population groups in America).

Now that population is defined, what about the next question: “How can you tell whether you are “inside” a population or “outside” it?” Since we now have a better grasp of what “population” means in this context, then this question is simple to answer. You can tell whether you are “inside”‘ or “outside” a population by looking in a mirror and then thinking about any “population” as defined above. It really is that simple. However, it is hard when “population” is defined so vaguely, and so you get flaws in reasoning like the one from Johnson.

Now that we know that we can tell whether or not we are “inside” or “outside” a population, his next question is: “How many of them are there “out there” in the real world?” According to the definition presented by Hardimon above, there are 5 current races in the human subspecies. That’s the number of races that are ““out there” in the real world” (as opposed to a possible world we can imagine—which is not the topic of contention).

Now that we know how many of “them” [races] exist, the next questions are: “How many did there used to be? More than today, or fewer?” I won’t pretend to know the answer to this question, but I will say one thing: the number of races that used to exist in the past comes down to the number of populations that exhibit a distinctive pattern of visible physical features which are genetically transmitted by geographically and reproductively isolated founding populations. Though, the number of races that “used to” exist is irrelevant to the fact that races exist today and the number of races that do exist today.

Johnson then claims that we, in the West, have a “long history” of constructing different races. And while this is true, this does not go against the claim that biological racial realism is true. Johnson says that “We homogenized entire continents of people into essential “types” and used the assumptions intrinsic to those types to make grand statements about the “natural” divisions in the human species and the value and meaning associated.” Well, these “entire homogenized continents of people” DO fit into “types”—though they are not “essential”; there are “natural” divisions within the human species BUT one does not have to put value and meaning onto the existence of these populations that we call ‘races’, since they are based solely on distinct pattern of genetically transmitted characters which then correspond with the group’s geographic ancestry.

Anthropology has since moved on from it’s [sic] assumption that the human species is divided up into natural kinds“, Johnson writes. It seems that Johnson is ignorant to the work of Hardimon (2017) and his racial typology using the minimalist concept of race along with its “scientific equivalent” the populationist race concept. Minimalist races are a biological kind “if only a modest one” (Hardimon, 2017: 91), and so, just because “Anthropology has since moved on from it’s [sic] assumption that the human species is divided up into natural kinds” DOES NOT MEAN THAT there are no “kinds” within the human species. The argument for the existence of minimalist races establishes the claim that the human species is, in fact, divided up into kinds:

P1) There are differences in patterns of visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry
P2) These patterns are exhibited between real groups, existing groups (i.e., individuals who share common ancestry)
P3) These real, existing groups that exhibit these physical patterns by geographic ancestry satisfy conditions of minimalist race
C) Therefore race exists and is a biological reality

Minimalist races exist and are biologically real; if minimalist races exist, then populationist races exist; populationist race is the “scientization” of minimalist race; minimalist races entail kinds, and so since minimalist races entail kinds then so do populationist races; therefore both concepts speak to kinds within the human species and their biological reality.

Either way, we can also accept that anthropology has moved away from the assumption that the human race is divided into kinds and not have to give up the argument for the existence of race. Instead of arguing that human races are “kinds” as Hardimon (2017) does, Spencer (2014) argues that since Americans defer to the US Census Bureau regarding race, the must be referring to biologically real groups. The US Census Bureau defers to the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB discusses “sets of” populations. K= 5 delineates populations that Americans refer to when referring to race. So since Americans defer to the Census Bureau and the Census Bureau defers to the OMB, when we Americans talk about race, we talk about proper names for population groups as denoted by the OMB—even though ‘race’ looks like a ‘kind’ term, according to Spencer (2014: 1028)its current use in US racial discourse is that of a proper name. It is a term that rigidly designates a particular set of “population groups.” This means that race is a particular, not a kind.

So, there are two sound arguments for the existence of race (the argument for the existence of populationist races from Hardimon and the argument for the existence of Blumenbachian partitions—which both use the same population genetics paper (Rosenberg et al, 2002) to buttress their claims that their “kinds” (Hardimon, 2017) and “partitions” (Spencer, 2014) exist in reality.

Lastly, Johnson cites Galanter et al (2012) who genotyped “populations” throughout South America:

PLOS

He then states that we have a bunch of South American populations here, all with differing amounts of admixture (which, of course, coincide with three of the five populationist races). He pretty much says, “How can we draw neat circles around these populations to call them “populations”, and what about those other populations not sampled in the analysis?” It makes no sense; when you’re just drawing circles anywhere on any map and then claiming that they are “populations” that satisfy a vague criteria/definition, then you don’t understand any of the newer arguments put forth by philosophers on the existence and reality of racial population groups.

He concludes the article simply:

To conclude, it’s always important to parse in our assumptions and take into account that our levels of analysis (the unit we are studying) may not represent reality. When we equivocate levels of analysis with levels of reality when examining human diversity, as Terrell says, we end up making a distinction between race and populations with no real difference. However, if we understand that the “population(s)” of interest are not reflections of reality, but merely constructed entities that represents an amalgamated web of kinship, political, biological, economic, and random histories at a particular time and place, we can avoid the trap of racial thinking (without using ‘race’) that some scholars fall in to.

He seems to be conflating two concepts here: how we view these visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry (our socialview of these populations) and their actual existence completely removed from our social conventions. Yes, socialraces are groups that are taken to be racialist races (that is to say, they are taken to have a specific essence particular to that race and only that race); but the concept of socialrace—the types of social values we give to these populations (think that the minimalist concept of race denotes certain social groups on the basis of distinct visible patterns which correspond to geographic ancestry; the socialrace concept is a good concept since it presents a way of thinking about (1) social groups that are taken to be races (such as ‘Latinos’/’Hispanics’); (2) the social positions that the social groups occupy; and (3) the systems of social structure of which those positions are parts (Hardimon, 2017: 139).

The “populations of interest”, are, indeed, of interest because they pick out what ‘we already know to be’ races.

Races, then, are both socially and biologically constructed. The minimalist concept of race shows the phenotypes that the socialrace concept chooses out when denoting a population its socialrace status in a given society. It shows that there are both biological and social underpinnings to racial categories—that is, there is both a “biological” and “social” realm to race in our ontology, and if we want to understand both ontologies, then we must first think of the consequences of thinking of “race” as only a biological concept and only a social concept and then—after we have thought of “race” as a biological and social concept on its own—we can think of “race” as both a social and biological phenomenon because that’s the best way to describe race in out ontology.

I find it funny how Johnson brings up “population thinking”; but I am probably thinking of it in a different way then he was in his article. When he brings up “population thinking” he wants you to think in terms of his definition of “population”, which pretty much means any group he circles is deemed a population, and thus, since there is no easy way to delineate populations from each other, therefore race does not exist (we must be eliminativist about race). Though when I think of the term “population thinking”, I think of Ernst May’s use of the phrase populationist thinking is more apt: “populationist thinking” is directly opposed to “typological thinking”: “populationist thinking” holds that there are no intrinsic “biological essences”, nor any property—or set of properties—that all, and only all, members of a population share.

For the populationist “all organisms and organic phenomena are composed of unique features and can be described in collectively only in statistical terms. Individuals, or any kind of biological entities, form populations of which we can determine the artihmetic mean and the statistics of variation. Averages are merely statistical abstractions. . . . For the typologist the type (eidos) is real and the variation is an illusion, while for the populationist the type (average is an abstraction and only the variation is real (Mayr, 1976; quoted in Hardimon, 2017: 20).

For example, “Caucasian” is a valid taxonomic category when discussing populationist races. One classified as “Caucasian” might have absolutely none of the genotypic or phenotypic markers associated with “Caucasian-ness”; that is, population thinking does not assume that any one genotype or phenotype is essential to any one population. Thus, there are no intrinsic properties that all members of a race—and only members of that race—share.

To conclude, contrary to the claims of Johnson and Terrel, race does exist and there are reasons why we should accept the existence of these population groups we call races. Johnson largely uses the old and tired continuum fallacy—the fallacy of the beard, whichever name you like—to attempt to argue that “race” does not exist. But he did not even state any conditions on what “population” entails; he just drew random, overlapping circles proclaiming “Ha! Where does X color end and Y color begin!!??” This type of thinking, though, is fallacious, as can be seen. It is completely possible to delinate races on the basis of visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry.

Articles like Johnson’s and Terrel’s are easy to come by: they just adopt a racial eliminativist stance on race (that it should be removed from our ontology entirely). They use fallacies like the continuum fallacy to show that since there is no clear ‘genetic line’ (see my article You Don’t Need Genes to Delineate Race) separating so-called races, therefore races do not exist (we must then take an eliminativist approach to race). I’m of the belief that the answer to the question “Does race exist?” will be—and only can be—answered by philosophers of race. We know that geographic variation exists—however small it may be. We know that we can distinguish continental populations on the basis of visible physical features. From there, it’s only a short bit of reasoning to reason, correctly, that race exists and is a biological reality (as the arguments in Spencer, 2014 and Hardimon, 2017 attest to).

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