Home » Philosophy » Helmuth Nyborg on the Social Construction of Race

Helmuth Nyborg on the Social Construction of Race

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2000 words

Helmuth Nyborg published an article in Psych titled Race as Social Construct (Nyborg, 2019). In the article, he responds to a National Geographic article There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label. In the article, Nyborg quotes, what apparently are quotations, from the article. Yet, for example when it comes to this:

‘There’s No Scientific Basis for Race’—‘It’s a Made-Up Label’… ‘Races do not exist because we are equals’, ‘the concept of race is not grounded in genetics’, etc.

The second quote “Races do not exist because we are equals” is not in the article. (Though this is probably a general call-out to so-called “social constructivists about race.”) Now, I won’t’ nit-pick about it, since he is apparently speaking to his critics who make these claims. In any case, Nyborg’s article is titled Race as Social Construct. Where are constructivists about race said to be anti-realists or eliminativists about race? If Nyborg is really speaking to constructivists about race, then he’s strawmanning their position. Because social constructivists about race are realists about race.

Take the new AAPA Statement on Race and Racism, where they write:

… race has become a social reality that structures societies and how we experience the world. In this regard, race is real, as is racism, and both have real biological consequences.

“race” as a social reality — as a way of structuring societies and experiencing the world — is very real.”

So, if constructivists about race claim that “Races do not exist”, then why are social constructivists about race literally saying “race is real” and “”race” as a social reality … is very real”? Weird… Almost as if Nyborg is strawmanning the constructivist position. Nyborg asks if “NG also think[s] of species as a social construct?“. See Elstein (2003) for a view that species are socially constructed. In any case, I don’t think that Nyborg is familiar with the philosophical literature on the status of species.

Here is Nyborg’s first syllogism:

Samuel Morton is a reprehensible model racist with a fixed defintion of race.

1. Samuel Morton is the father of scientific racism.

2. (We “know” that the father of scientific racism has THE correct understanding of race).

3. Morton thinks that races represent separate acts of creation.

4. Morton thinks that races are ranked in a divine hierarchy.

5. Morton did not think that races were closely related.

6. Morton thinks that races has distinct characters which:

(a) Are immutable or “fixed” across generations (i.e., no transmutation, aka evolution).

(b) Are homogenous of “fixed” (in these senses of fixation) across individuals within races.


Morton is wrong about 3-6, and thus represent the opposite of reality. We can then say, given 1-2 and 3-6, that races do not exist.

This is ridiculous. Where has anyone written anything like this, that since Morton was a “racist” that “races do not exist”? Did Gould make that claim in Mismeasure? I personally think that Morton’s analysis was flawed by his own biases, but I do not make the claim that “races do not exist” because of it.

In any case, when it comes to Gould’s critique of Morton’s skulls, contra Jensen (1982)Rushton (1997) , and Lewis et al (2011), Gould’s arguments about Morton were largely correct (Weisberg, 2014; Kaplan, Pigliucci, and Banta, 2015; Weisberg and Paul, 2016). Specifically, Weisberg (2014) writes that “Although Gould made some errors
and overstated his case in a number of places, he provided prima facia evidence, as yet unrefuted, that Morton did indeed mismeasure his skulls in ways that conformed to 19th century racial biases.

Now when it comes to this one, we’re getting somewhere:

Race does not Relate to Geographic Location

1. There are no fixed traits with specific geographic locations …” because …

2. “… as often as isolation has created differences among populations, migration and mixing have blurred or erased them.


3. “… our pictures of past ‘racial structures’ are almost always wrong” and harmful.

This is a good argument. However, it fails, in my opinion. Yes, there is no sharp delineation in traits between what are purported to be racial groupings. However, for biological racial realism to be true, there do not need to be. Take my article You Don’t Need Genes to Delineate Race. By looking at average facial and morphological features that exist in any continent, we can say that, although there is no sharp gradation and there are clines in phenotypes, that does not mean that there is no what we can say “average look” for the group. (Nyborg discusses “IQ” there, but I won’t get into it.)

Now take this one:

Races do not exist: We are Equals and Africans

1. “… all humans are closely related.”

2. In a very real sense, all people alive today are Africans.”

3. Genetic diversity in Africa is much larger than outside this continent.”

4. Because they [migrants] were just a small subset of Africa’s population, the migrants took with them only a fraction of its genetic diversity.”

5. Admittedly, “… the longer two groups are separated, the more distinctive tweaks [mutations] they will acquire”, BUT …

6. “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” (NG here refers to a Craig Venter statement at a White House meeting, June 2000; see later).


7. “Science tells us there is no genetic or scientific basis for race. Races do not exist because we are [all] equals.”

1-5 are true; though 6-7 are false. In any case, the existence of race is not a scientific matter. The questions “What is race?”, “Is race real?”, and “If race is real, how many races are there?” are philosophical, not scientific, matters. Nyborg brings up “Lewontin’s fallacy”, but take what Hardimon (2017: 22-23) writes about the matter:

It is worth noting that the force of the argument against the existence of racialist races from Lewontin’s data analysis is unaffected by the critique A.W.F. Edwards made in his 2003 paper “Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy.” The fallacy Edwards imputes to Lewontin consists in inferring that racial classification has no taxonomic signifigance from the finding that the between-race component of human genetic diversity is very small. The inference is fallacious because the fact that the between-race component of human genetic diversity is small does not entail that racial classification has no taxonomic signifigance. Lewontin’s locus-by-locus analysis (which does not consider the possibility of a correlation between individual loci) does not preclude the possibility that individual loci might be correlated in such a way that people could be grouped into traditional racial categories. The underlying though is that racial classification would have “taxonomic signifigance” were it possible to group people into traditonal racial categories by making use of correlations between individual loci. However, Lewontin’s argument that there are no racialist races because the component of within-race genetic variation is larger than the component of between-race genetic variation is untouched by Edwards’ objection. That conclusion rests solely on Lewontin’s statistical analysis of human variation (the validity of which Edwards grants) and does not pressupose the absence of correlational structure in the genetic data. In short, Lewontin’s data do not preclude the possibility that raciual classification might have taxonomic signifigance but they do preclude the possibility that racialist races exist.

Nyborg is, obviously, pushing the concept of racialist races, though Hardimon has shown that they do not exist. Nyborg says that “Educability and IQ are arguable [sic] physiological (Spearman, 1927)“. Nope.

Nyborg then presents his next syllogism:

Admixture and Displacement Have Erased All Race Differences

1. Race implies unadmixed groups between which there are fixed—“fix”, in the sense of fixation index—traits.

2. (From Reich (2018) race implies “primeval” groups…separated tens of thousands of years ago”.

3. Genetics shows that mixture and displacement have happened again and again”… and … as a result “Differences have been blurred or erased”.

4. Thus, “there are no fixed traits associated with specific geographic locations…”

5. And “our pictures of past ‘racial structures’ are almost always wrong” and harmful.


Since human descent groups are mixed and do not exhibit fixed trait differences and since there are no 10-thousand-year-old primeval groups, there are no races.

This one is strong, and if an eliminativist/anti-realist about race were to use this argument (remember, Nyborg doesn’t understand that social constructivists are realists about race), then it would be strong. But that human populations are mixed and do not exhibit trait differences does not mean that race does not exist, that does not follow. That is a carry-over from the racialist concept of race, which is false.

Nyborg then presents his fifth syllogism:

Race is only Skin Color Deep

1. “When people speak about race, usually they seem to be referring to skin color and, at the same time, to something more than skin color.”

2. “This is the legacy of people such as Morton, who developed the “science” of race to suit his own prejudices and got the actual science totally wrong.”

3. “Science today tells us that the visible differences between people a re accidents of history. They reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, and not much else.”

4. There is no homogenous African race.


Since race is only based on skin color, it is made up by racists.

I have heard an argument similar to this, and it fails. Race isn’t ONLY BASED ON skin color, but it is a marker of race, along with ancestry and location. Of course, morphology and other phenotypic traits ground the scientific concept of “race” (minimalist/populationist race). Race, of course, does not mean only skin color, there are many other ways to delineate races, with skin color being but one tell.

Nyborg then writes:

Ducrest, Keller, and Rouling, 2008) [79] thus observed that darker color is associated with greater aggressiveness in 10 mammal species, three kinds of birds, and more Lizard forms entirely evaded them. They condemned the color analogue with respect to humans, and reacted forcefully when Rushton and Templer (2009) [80] drew data from no less than 113 countries and found that “… murder, rape, and serious assault were associated with darker skin color, lower IQ, higher birth rate, higher infant mortality, higher HIV/AIDS rate, lower life expectancy, and lower income”

Yea, Ducrest, Keller, and Rouling (2008) is one study that Rushton loved, as it, supposedly, gave a basis for darker color being associated with aggressiveness in a slew of different animals. I rebutted Rushton and Templer, in any case. Their study was ridiculous and they did not even heed what Ducrest, Keller, and Rouling (2008: 507) stated “… that human populations are therefore not expected to consistently exhibit the associations between melanin-based coloration and the physiological and behavioural traits reported in our study.” Must be hard for Rushton and Templer to read.

In sum, Nyborg is wrong that racial constructivists claim that “Races do not exist”, for if they did not exist, then what would constructivists be fighting for? Nyborg seems to be talking to anti-realists/eliminativists about race. Nyborg pushes a racialist concept about race, which was refuted by Hardimon (2017: Chapter 1). Races exist in a minimal sense (Hardimon, 2017) and U.S. sense (Spencer, 2014), but not in the racialist “HBD” sense. In this case, biological racial realism (Spencer, 2011) is true, but if we are going by Kaplan and Winther’s (2014) definitions, Rushton, Jensen, Lynn, and Nyborg would be the biological racial realists, whereas myself, Hardimon and Spencer would be biogenomic/cluster race realists. It seems that Nyborg needs to brush up on the philosophical literature, because what he claims that social constructivists about race believe are not true; he just strawmanned their position. In any case, I’ve shown that constructivists about race do not believe that race is not real. They may not believe that race is real in a biological manner, but they do in a social one, and that is enough for them to be race realists and believe that race exists.

(Also note how Kaplan and Winther (2014) note that “Social racial realism defends the existence of distinct human groups in our ordinary discourse and social interactions. Such groups are often identified and stabilized by “surface” factors such as skin color or facial features.” So, again, those who push a socialrace-type concept do not deny that race exists, on the contrary, they are realists about race. Nyborg got it wrong, and some of his critiques are good against those who deny the reality of race, but his racial ontology is false.



  1. I had hoped that I made it crystal-clear that my race paper is specifically addressing what I find are National Geographic’s April 2018 “Race Issue” many misrepresentations. There is no doubt in my mind that there are many reasoned and empirically based race realists out there, and I have absolutely
    no axe to grind with them.


    • Your paper is filled with misrepresentations, straw man arguments and is extremely poor quality. Just looking at the second opening paragraph:

      “United Nation’s declaration(s) (UNESCO Publication 1950: later repeatedly revised) [8] thus banned biological race research, in an otherwise fully understandable reaction to unacceptable Nazi misuse around the Second World War.”

      Total nonsense. The UNESCO’s statement on race didn’t ban anything, furthermore it argued for the existence of three (or four) human races and even lists them. The UNESCO statement on race predated the first papers to deny the existence of races that appeared a decade after (Livingstone, 1962).

      “Ashley Montagu published a popular book (1942/1945/1946) [9], arguing that the folk or ordinary concept of race is just a social notion with no biological or genetic basis. Montagu was a student of determined race critics Frantz Boas at Columbia University, USA, and was also influenced by Ruth Benedict. Both commented on an early version of Montagu’s book, and Montagu co-authored the first version of the UNESCO publication.”

      Again, total nonsense. Montagu in those publications did not deny human races exist. He argued for their existence only changing his opinion after Frank Livingstone published the first paper to deny races in 1962. You clearly have never read Montagu’s book, nor know the change in his views.

      And even after Livingstone published his paper denying races exist, Montagu did not deny biological or genetic differences between breeding populations (not did Livingstone), but both clarified breeding populations are not races. Montagu in the 1960s even coined the term “genogroup” for geneticists to study population genetic differences.

      You use these misrepresentations of Montagu/UNESCO to set up a straw man to claim there has been some sort of censorship or persecution, when there never has. “Race realists” have a similar persecution complex as creationists.


    • Catherine Adams says:

      Oliver, studies into populations and intelligence might not have been officially banned, but they are unofficially banned, which is why nobody dares finance studies into it as they will get labelled a racist, nazi or white supremacist.

      Any academic who studies it gets vilified and cast out like what happened to the likes of Phil Rushton.

      If there was nothing to hide then studies into populations and intelligence wouldn’t be so controversial and would be getting funding, so it seems like there is something that many people want kept hidden.


    • RaceRealist says:


      I agree there were some misrepresentations, but they were correct on some (like Morton’s skulls).

      The point of this article was to show that constructivists about race don’t deny the reality of race—and I successfully showed that.


      I agree.


      I see where you’re coming from and I disagree with de-facto banning—controversial things should be studied, but we should be weary of their limitations and explanatory value. There is nothing, though, that’s being “kept hidden.” No one denies that blacks score lower than whites on “IQ” tests—the debate is on causes.


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