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Race as a Genuine Kind

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Race realism can be defined as the belief that our racial categories pick out real kinds in nature. Picking out real kinds in nature is a necessary condition for race realism to be true. I’ve extensively covered Hardimon’s (2017) and Spencer’s (2014) arguments on the existence of race. They definitively prove that, all though there is a social/cultural dimension to race, biological racial realism is true, since our racial categories truly do pick out real kinds in nature.

In the philosophy of race, questions such as “What is race?” and “Is race biological?” are asked. Philosophers of race use many tools at their disposal to attempt to answer these and other questions regarding the metaphysics of race. Four main views on race exist: racial anti-realism, the belief that race does not exist; race realism, the belief that race is real; social constructivism, the belief that race is a social construct; and biological racial realism, the belief that race is biologically real (Spencer, 2011).

Note that social constructivists about race are race realists; they believe that race is real but that it is strictly a social reality. Racial anti-realists take the belief that race does not exist at all; so those who make the claim that social constructivists about race say that race is not real, they really mean to say that racial anti-realists claim that race is not real. People hear the phrase “social construct” and automatically assume that that individual is attempting to argue that race is not real. But social constructivists about race do believe that race is real—that is, they are race realists, but only in a social, not biological, manner.

Spencer (2011: 9) argues that genuine kinds are kinds that contribute to long-term scientific progress, meaning that genuine kinds are “a valid kind in a well-ordered SRP [scientific research program].” Spencer (2011: 9) states that valid kinds in an SRP are “useful for playing an epistemic role of scientific kinds in that SRP, as well as a kind that is adequately epistemically justified in its SRP” while also stating that “ a valid kind in an SRP must be useful for playing an epistemic role of scientific kinds in its SRP.” Kinds are valid in SRPs when they can help scientists generate observations for understanding the natural world. Genuine kinds can be epistemically useful without being inductively useful.

Genuine kinds can be epistemically real or just a human (social) construct. Genuine kinds are real enough to use in scientific research—because they tell us just enough about the world to be epistemically useful in a SRP. That a kind is genuine means that it is “real enough” to be used in scientific research.

Now let’s look at Spencer’s argument that biological racial realism should mean “race is a genuine kind in biology”:

(1) The meaning of ‘biological racial realism’ in the race debate should be a metaphysically minimal interpretation of important scientific kindhood that also does the most justice to what counts as an important scientific kind.

(2) A “metaphysically minimal” interpretation of important scientific kindhood is one that does not adopt unnecessary and contentious metaphysical assumptions.

(3) The interpretation of important scientific kindhood that does the most justice to what counts as an important scientific kind is the one that best captures epistemically important scientific kinds—or ‘EIS kinds’ for short.

(4) The candidates for important scientific kindhood in the race debate are naturalo kinds, naturali kinds, naturalu kinds, naturalp kinds, realp biological kinds, reali biological kinds, and genuine kinds.

(5) No kind of kind in the race debate is both metaphysically minimal and does a better job of capturing EIS kindhood than genuine kinds.

(6) Therefore, the meaning of ‘biological racial realism’ in the race debate should be ‘race is a genuine kind in biology’.

This argument provided by Spencer establishes the fact that biological racial realism in the race debate should be ‘race is a genuine kind in biology.’ Now that I have laid out that an entity being biologically real in the race debate is not whether or not it is objective but whether it is epistemically justified in a biological research program, I will now turn to other author’s views on biological racial realism.

The topic on “Race as a Biological Kind” on PhilPapers states that:

One option is to say that one’s ancestor is a member of race X in virtue of sharing similar phenotypic, or observable, properties specific to other members of one’ s reproductively isolated breeding population.  A second option is to say that one’s ancestor is a member of race X in virtue of sharing similar genotypic, or genetic, properties specific to other members of one’s reproductively isolated breeding population.

While “… ancestral relations among reproductively isolated breeding populations and either genotypic or phenotypic properties is one way to develop a naturalistic account of race.” Note how this is almost, to the tee, Hardimon’s (2017) populationist race concept.

Andreason (2000) writes that “Most constructivists assume that biological realism and social constructivism are incompatible views about race; I argue that the two conceptions can be compatible.” Indeed, the claim that race is a social construct of a biological reality is a tempting view to take (and one I take to myself). That we socially construct groups does not mean that there is no biological reality to them, as Spencer (2014) shows with his Blumenbachian partitions. The claim that race is a social construct of a biological reality is completely at ends with the claim that race is purely social/political (as Dorothy Roberts argues) and the claim that race is purely biological. Though, we cannot separate ‘social/political’ and ‘biological’ terminology from our ontology. We must use both in conjunction in order to tease out what ‘race’ truly means. Stating that race is a social construct and only a social construct betrays the biology behind race. Stating that race is only biological betrays the social aspects of race. (Though, Hardimon (2017) has one race concept—the minimalist race concept—in which there is nothing ‘social’ about his proposed concept of race.)

Hardimon has four concepts of race: (1) the racialist concept of race—the claim that significant intellectual and moral differences exist between races (which he dispatched in his book); (2) the minimalist concept of race—the claim that groups that exhibit patterns of visible physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry satisfy the conditions of minimalist race; (3) the populationist race concept of race (the scientization of the minimalist race concept)—the claim that “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” (Hardimon, 2017: 99); and (4) the socialrace concept of race—the claim that race is a social, not biological, reality, and that society constructs what ‘race’ is.

Our racial categories pick out real kinds in nature, therefore race realism is true. This is established by both Hardimon (2017) and Spencer (2014), who discuss Rosenberg et al’s (2002) paper on the existence of population clusters deemed continental-level minimalist races by Hardimon (2017) and Blumenbachian partitions by Spencer (2014). Both arguments provided by Hardimon and Spencer are sound—they answer numerous objections that critics bring up to argue against Rosenberg et al’s (2002) study and other’s interpretation of what they say.

This article discusses Rosenberg et al (2002), and has this to say about the Kalash (the sixth cluster in that Rosenberg et al (2002) found):

The sixth population which is composed entirely of members of the Kalash, an isolated population in central Pakistan, is omitted by Wade on the grounds it “makes no genetic or geographic sense”. But the Kalash have a significant degree of genetic isolation from others, comparable in magnitude to that of other groups such as Native Americans. Moreover, they all live in the same place.

This is nonsense. That Structure labels a population as genetically distinct does not entail that that population is a continental-level minimalist race. That Structure picks out the Kalash as a genetically distinct group does not undercut Hardimon’s (2017) arguments on the existence of continental-level minimalist races. So, both K=6 and K=5 show that continental-level minimalist races are genetically structured (Hardimon, 2017: 88). (Further responses to critiques of Rosenberg et al can be found here and in Hardimon, 2017, chapter 5 and Spencer, 2014.)

Lastly, I’ll take some time to respond to commenter Oliver D. Smith’s objections to cranial measures and geographic ancestry.

Smith cited Sierp and Henneberg’s (2015) paper Can ancestry be consistently determined from the skeleton? in which the authors show that “no one individual was identified as belonging to only one ‘racial class’” (Sierp and Henneberg, 2015: 23). I don’t find this to be a problem. If we take Hardimon’s minimalist and populationist race concepts, the three conditions that need to be satisfied to delineate races are differences in phenotype which correspond to geographic ancestry, geographic location, and geographic ancestry. The critique from Sierp and Henneberg (2015) only counts against one parameter—if that—which are skulls. When delineating races, we don’t only look at skulls (one visible physical feature), we look at the whole suite of traits that make a “race” “racial.” Therefore, Sierp and Henneberg’s (2015) critique has no bearing on Hardimon’s (2017) or Spencer’s (2014) arguments.

Is race a genuine kind in biology? Do our racial categories pick out real kinds in nature? The answer to both questions is “yes.” Race is a genuine kind in biology since it captures EIS kindhood; our racial categories do pick out real kinds in nature, as shown by Spencer (2014) and his Blumenbachian partitions. Hardimon’s and Spencer’s arguments are definitive: biological racial realism is true.

(i) If biological racial realism is true, then our racial categories would have to pick out real kinds in nature.
(ii) Our racial categories pick out real kinds in nature.
(iii) Therefore, biological racial realism is true.

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2 Comments

  1. I really don’t get your response about the Kalash.

    The number of K is completely arbitrary as shown in many studies, e.g. Tishkoff et al. used STRUCTURE with a global data set of population samples and produced K = 14 instead of K = 6, in fact they found K = 6 in a single continent (Africa). This shows clustering is a computational artefact meaning there’s no objective categorisation or amount of clusters, and the clustering is entirely the result of bias and the programmer, e.g. someone could create K = 2, 11, 50, 97, 5585 etc.

    There’s really nothing objective about Spencer’s “Blumenbachian” clusters at all. If someone wanted they could arbitrarily cluster all populations across Eurasia, merging 3 or more of Blumenbach’s races into one race. Now what? This would be no more objective than not splitting them.

    The designers of the programme STRUCTURE itself always noted that in the case of isolation-by-distance: clustering is an arbitrary exercise because of the continuous allele frequencies across geographical space (Pritchard et al. 2000).

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  2. I’m guessing Spencer is conceding his “Blumenbachian” clusters are in fact arbitrary, hence why he tries to defend them based on pragmatism or what he considers to be epistemically useful to science rather than arguing the clusters are objective categories.

    So he’s arguing similar to Shiao et al. (2012) who acknowledge genetic variation between populations is gradual/clinal but nevertheless argue for what they call “clinal classes” (aka races) can be useful categories, e.g. in medicine.

    Shiao, J. L., Bode, T., Beyer, A., Selvig, D. (2012). “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race”. Sociological Theory. 30(2): 67-88.

    This is a weakening of the race concept that is criticised by Hochman:

    Hochman, A. (2013). “Against the New Racial Naturalism”. J. Philos. 110(6): 331-351.

    Hochman, A. (2014). “Unnaturalised racial naturalism”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 46(1): 79-87.

    Hochman, A. (2016). “Race: Deflate or Pop?”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 57(1): 60-68.

    However, lets for sake of argument accept this weakening of the race concept to what Shiao et al. (2012) and Spencer are saying. Are they justified?

    Nope. For example if we look at medicine:

    “big groups… are too heterogeneous to lump together in a scientific way… if you’re doing a DNA study to look for markers for a particular disease, you can’t use ‘Caucasians’ as a group. They’re too diverse” (Naggert, 2000)

    Spencer’s Blumenbachian” clusters have no utility in medicine because they’re far too large in the sense of containing too many diverse local populations.

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