Are races “real”?

human racesFrom time to time I write about the ever delicate, and seemingly never exhausted, issue of race. For instance, this year I published a paper on the famous Morton skulls controversy, co-authored with Jonathan Kaplan and Joshua Banta (a Plato Footnote summary is here). Back in 2013 I co-wrote a paper with my friend Guido Barbujani on races from a biological perspective, and in the same year I published a solo paper on the same topic from the combined point of view of a philosopher and a scientist. Way back in ’03 Jonathan and I wrote a piece for Philosophy of Science on the applicability to humans of the biological concept of race.

Here I want to highlight a commentary I published in The Philosophers’ Magazine online on a recent paper co-authored by Jonathan Kaplan and Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther on “Realism, Antirealism, and Conventionalism about Race.”

Realism, antirealism and conventionalism are technical philosophical terms usually deployed in discussions of philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and ethics. Say we are talking about the existence of mathematical objects (or of moral truths, which in many respects is an analogous concept). If one is a realist about these objects one is saying that there is a ontologically thick sense in which, say, numbers “exist.” Ontologically thick here means that numbers exist in a mind-independent way, though not in the physical sense that you can point a telescope somewhere and see them. More along the lines of “if there are any other intelligent beings in the cosmos they will independently ‘discover’ the concept of numbers.”

Being antirealist about numbers (or moral truths) means, of course, exactly the opposite: the antirealist doesn’t deny that numbers, once defined in a certain way, have certain objective properties. But she denies that it makes sense to think of any such definition in a mind-independent fashion.

The conventionalist, then, provides one possible antirealist account of numbers (or moral truths) to counter the realist one: numbers, like all mathematical objects, are human inventions, which are constructed in certain ways but could have been constructed differently. They are not “discovered,” they are invented.

This distinction among realism, antirealism and conventionalism is well deployed by Kaplan and Winther to make sense of discussions about race. Briefly: “races” are real, not real, and conventional — depending on the context. This is possible because the authors distinguish three possibilities: races as bio-genomic clusters, as biological entities, and as social entities.

To think of races as social entities is to take the standard “nurturist” position: human races are not biologically grounded, but they are the result of social practices. Conversely, to say that races are biological is to adopt the classic “naturist” stand: races are identified by some deep genetic dissimilarities among certain human populations, of which external markers such as skin color are the most obvious outward manifestation. Lastly, a bio-genomic cluster is a technical term from population genetics, which indicates the fact that one can study genetic similarities and dissimilarities among individuals belonging to different populations and objectively “cluster” them (using a number of well known statistical techniques) into distinct groups.

Kaplan and Winther conclude (and, I think, are obviously correct) that the most sensible positions concerning race are: conventionalism about bio-genomic clusters, antirealism about biological races, and realism about social races. The full paper can be found here.

39 thoughts on “Are races “real”?

  1. Massimo Post author


    I’ll refrain from throwing around labels, and you know I respect your intelligence. But in to case you are simply wrong. If you don’t trust my judgment as a human population geneticist, or Kaplan’s as a philosopher of science, I can tell you that the majority of human population biologists don’t think that races exist in anything like the folk concept. Yes, there are genetic clusters (again, fluid in accordance to a researcher’s interests) and there are people with different tonalities of skin. But that’s it, and none it comes even close to resemble what people mean by “race” (which, incidentally, changes from time to time and place to place). Biologically, “race” is just a hopeless conduct that doesn’t do any good. Genetic differences among populations, however, exist, and can be mildly useful, mostly for medical purposes.


  2. brodix

    Part of the problem is that our cognitive functions are designed to extract information, then make distinctions and judgments on it, as a basic function of existence. Necessarily the frames we use are dependent on the information being extracted and the functions for which we want to use it.

    The rest of the problem is when we start doing this with each other.


  3. Philosopher Eric

    Yes Massimo, I must also agree entirely with Kaplan and Winther. Furthermore I agree with you that this argument probably won’t settle much of anything regarding “race” for most people. It’s a shame for them I suppose, but also for humanity. Nevertheless if most of us here do agree (or all?), that’s surely something to potentially build upon.

    It seems to me that the method which they used does correspond with a far more broad theory of my own. (It’s one of two philosophical models which I have left, since I’ve recently classified most of them under mental/behavioral science.) The concept is that there are no “true” definitions, but rather just more and less “useful” ones in respect to their associated arguments. I do consider it a shame that someone like Ludwig Wittgenstein didn’t practically sort humanity out in this regard, since this would surely help others understand my own ideas.

    What I believe must generally become known, is that any author must be given the freedom to define any term however he/she finds useful for an associated argument. Here it shall be the recipient’s obligation to accept an implicitly or explicitly given definition as such, in the attempt to under understand what is being said. Observe that Kaplan and Winther have provided three exceptionally useful ways of defining “race,” effectively taking realist, anti realist, and conventionalist forms.

    Consider the power which theorists would have if such a reader obligation were generally understood. Today physicists are somewhat hamstrung by standard conceptions of “time,” for example. Thus they interpret their data and build their models, largely around standard notions of it. But consider how liberating it should be to instead present your own definition for “time,” or “life,” or “consciousness,” and personally know, that the reader knows that he/she is obligated to accept it in order to potentially comprehend what you are saying.

    If philosophers were to finally sort this business out, and thus eliminate the “What is…” perspective associated with our encyclopedias and such, I do believe this would be quite helpful.


  4. ejwinner


    “The term “race” has a range of different interpretations, so I don’t think there is one single “common concept”.” And: “The term “race” does not have a formal definition, it is a more informal and vague word.”

    If these sentences are true, then of course “race” can have no scientific value whatsoever; notably (and Massimo can correct me if wrong), it appears that the only scientists continuing to use it in a meaningful way are those with open social agendas, such as ‘bio-criminologists,’ who hope that certain behaviors can be tagged to certain populations for better monitoring and therapeutic interventions. The problem is, these social agendas engender as many political problems as they seek to resolve.

    Historically, the term ‘stars’ once referred to any object seen in the night sky.

    The term ‘star’ was made scientifically useful only by re-definition, exclusively encompassing those objects that could be interpreted as suns within given planetary systems. The question then is whether ‘race’ can also be salvaged by redefinition. The answer would appear, no; because it carries far too much weight politically, socially, culturally, historically, none which can be adequately stripped from it.

    One reason I mentioned tribal and ‘national’ phenotype differences, is because in the past, and in some regions still today, these have been taken as establishing “racial” identities – which has led (and still leads, in some places) to useless wars and genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing.’

    Why hold on to a term that has been used for highly questionable purposes, when it lacks the precision needed to be useful in biologic categorization?

    Finally, you continue to try to quote Kaplan and Winther against themselves, regarding their deployment of the term ‘bio-genetic cluster/race.’ Apparently, you didn’t read, or didn’t understand, their first footnote:

    “We introduce a forward slash here because this kind of realism is not necessarily about a “race” concept (see note 1, Winther and Kaplan 2013). As made evident in the workshop on “Genomics and Philosophy of Race,” some influential and socially responsible population geneticists have no desire to become involved in debates over race. However, genomic work of this sort is often *taken to be* about race, and it is not clear that the slippage is avoidable (see for example Reardon 2005, Feldman 2010, Morning 2011, Donovan (forthcoming)).”

    In other words, Kaplan and Winther are trying to accommodate the expectations of some of their presumed readers (which they admit may be currently unavoidable), but they are not ascribing to the notion that bio-genetic clusters are equivalent to ‘race.’ Indeed, they make very clear that they don’t. It is almost as if you are charging, ‘if they can’t avoid the term, then there must be some inherent value in it.’ No; it may simply be a social signifier misused when applied to genetic studies (which is part of what they are trying to clarify).

    I’m reminded here of the earnest young person, studying a billboard seen for the first time, insisting, ‘there must be some reason that things go better with Coke.’ Yeah, it’s called a sales pitch.

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  5. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, there are various estimates of exact percentages, but, as much as 3-4 percent of “white” people in America are likely not “sangre azul.” If you had white ancestors here before 1865, and even more, if any of them lived below the Mason-Dixon, your personal odds of that number rise even higher.

    Indeed, if you’re “white” and in the South today, there’s more than a 10 percent chance, in some places, you ain’t “white,” especially not per the old South’s “one drop” idea:


    And, this applies to within ethnicities, too. My dad bragged about tracing back his German heritage for hundreds of years. Given that part of my dad’s family was from Prussia and a fair chunk from Saxony, I have no doubt there’s a Slav or two up the family tree.

    And since part of my mom’s ancestry is from the upper Rhineland, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a Jewish milkman back there somewhere. Maybe that’s why I look somewhat like a thinner version of Topol, playing Tevye. (Actually, I look as much like Motol, from the movie, with less hair on top.)

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