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. SocraticGadfly

    I agree in general with your take on the biological nonreality of race, but the sociological reality of “race.”

    That said, I want to briefly tackle this issue of “conventionalism.”

    Assuming that sociological ideas are based on pseudo-biological ideas that used to be more commonly held, but are not today, and in fact are being ever more strongly questioned today, how long before we should remove the “conventionalism” label from the sociological side?

    I don’t want to sound like Chief Justice John Roberts, but isn’t challenging conventions on the sociological side, and the reframing that results, part of how we make sociological ideas about race, and more importantly, the baggage that many people put into the connotative discussion along with that?

    In other words, to riff on Hume, what is today’s majoritarian conventionialism on “race” ought not to remain that in the future. How do we enlighten and better societies (and, per the old joke about scientific advances, wait for some to die off if needed) to create a new conventionalist baseline.

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  2. Coel

    Kaplan and Winther conclude … antirealism about biological races, …

    While I don’t disagree with any of the substance, I’d say that that wording is not ideal since bio-genomic clustering is a real biological phenomenon. Thus there is indeed a real biological aspect to what are called `races’.

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  3. SocraticGadfly

    Coel, given that the genetic difference between two “races” is still less than that between two breeds of dog, and given the connotative baggage of the word “race” and past attempts to prove something about it, I very strongly disagree.

    And, if you don’t believe what I said about the lack of genetic difference, there’s a boatload of information to back it up. Massimo will gladly provide some, I’m sure.

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  4. Massimo Post author

    Socratic,

    “How do we enlighten and better societies (and, per the old joke about scientific advances, wait for some to die off if needed) to create a new conventionalist baseline”

    That, indeed, is the question. I’m not too optimistic at the moment.

    Coel,

    “since bio-genomic clustering is a real biological phenomenon. Thus there is indeed a real biological aspect to what are called `races’.”

    But the point is that bio-genomic clustering is not a natural kind: depending on the purpose, the (arbitrarily set) level of resolution, and so forth, you get widely different clusters. So Kaplan and Winther are exactly right at being conventionalist about them.

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  5. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    So Kaplan and Winther are exactly right at being conventionalist about [bio-genomic clustering].

    Agreed, though it’s the wording that implies there is no biological aspect to what are called “races” that I was suggesting isn’t ideal.

    Hi Socratic,

    … given the connotative baggage of the word “race” and past attempts to prove something about it, I very strongly disagree.

    The problem is that if one tries to deny that there is any biological aspect to “races” for reasons of political expediency, then it leads into a mess, and you leave yourself open to valid counter-argument.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    “it’s the wording that implies there is no biological aspect to what are called “races” that I was suggesting isn’t ideal”

    I think the wording is precisely right because genomic differences are real, but specific clusters are conventional. That’s why they say that they are anti-realists about biological races (since they don’t exist in any meaningful sense, other than the social, in which respect they are realists).

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  7. SocraticGadfly

    Beyond the minimal degree of genetic difference, Coel, as Massimo said. Coel, do you really want to fight for what is neither scientifically supported nor morally acceptable? I’ll whistle up Dan to sic Wittgenstein on you.

    Massimo, I’m not totally optimistic, either. That said, yes, totally agreed that this is the locus of the battle.

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  8. Robin Herbert

    I don’t really get the category of conventionalism. Looking at the example that was used for illustration: ” numbers, like all mathematical objects, are human inventions, which are constructed in certain ways but could have been constructed differently. ”

    If there is a mathematical object A and a differently constructed object A’ then there is a fact of the matter about whether A and A’ are equivalent or not.

    Suppose we receive a signal from outer space and on examination it is a description of a method of computation that is constructed differently to any method of computation devised on Earth. We can then work out if that method of computation is equivalent to a Turing Machine, just as we can determine that the various differently constructed methods of computation devised on Earth can be determined to be equivalent to each other. We then will know a whole hosts of facts that were true about the aliens’ computation that were true of it before we had received the message.

    So what does the conventionalist say of the fact that we can determine whether or not the formulations are equivalent (and the sending aliens could do the same had we sent them the formulation of a Turing Machine)?

    Does she say that the concept of mathematical equivalence is, itself, a human invention, constructed in a certain way and could have been constructed differently?

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  9. SocraticGadfly

    Or, Robin and Massimo, let’s go back to language. It’s “conventional” that those Brits still use “s” instead of “z” on many words, or “ou” instead of “o” and “ae” instead of “e.” (Ditto if the folks Down Under do this.)

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  10. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo,

    Thanks for the links.

    I didn’t say I didn’t like the example, I was just asking a question about the conventionalist position with respect to it. My question could equally be applied to the fact that we can determine whether or not the extra terrestrial mathematical object is equivalent to chess, ie can all the theorems of chess be applied to this object and proved.

    By the way it seems to me that Poincare was a conventionalist about the axioms of mathematics, not necessarily about mathematics in general. Really most people are conventionalists about the axioms of mathematics – ie there is no fact of the matter about whether or not they are true.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/convention/#Con

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  11. brodix

    With complex issues like race, the levels of heat and emotion tend to quickly overwhelm any rational effort to unravel the many complexities. There are inescapable reasons for this, in that there is no universal top down point of view, where all is clear and problems are solved. Different points of view and angles of approach will be to the advantage of different objectives.

    So maybe there will come a time when the discussion does get around to this larger reality and how mortal humans on a finite planet can address how the inherently subjective and reductionistic mental frames we use to make sense of this complex reality, can be understood as the effective but limited tools that they are and not allow those with the most emotional attitudes to proclaim their views to absolute and God given.

    Certainly the priests and politicians are never going to admit to this, but it seems the philosophers have already tied themselves into such intractable knots, as to have already taken themselves out of the game.

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  12. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    But can you be conventionalist about axioms and not about the math you derive from those axioms? That’s the sense in which genomic cluster are conventional: their boundaries are defined for practical human purposes, but once so defined their properties are objectively reproducible.

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  13. brodix

    Massimo,
    Wouldn’t that amount to like cause yields like effect? Otherwise reality would be complete chaos.
    Which would still be a function of emergence.

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  14. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo,

    But can you be conventionalist about axioms and not about the math you derive from those axioms?

    I don’t see why not. After all you can say that it is a convention to adopt or not adopt the axiom of choice. But how can you say that it is a convention that the Banach-Tarski Theorem can be proved on ZF + Axiom of Choice? It is not, because you could not adopt the convention that the Banach-Tarski Theorem is false in ZF + Axiom of Choice.

    In fact, the concept of a convention seems redundant. If a claim of mathematical truth is “P is true of axioms {a1,a2,a3,…,an}” then we do not need to say that {a1,a2,a3,…,an} are conventions.

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  15. Robin Herbert

    But what I am getting at is this. Does a conventionalist have a conventionalist position with respect to conventionalism? That is to say, does a conventionalist say that it is only a convention that the mathematical facts about chess were not true until the rules of chess were formulated?

    Or does a conventionalist say that it is a fact that the mathematical facts about chess were not true until the rules of chess were formulated?

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  16. ejwinner

    It occurs to me, reading this, that if one were to grant ‘race’ status to all the genetic differences that pass down through generations within given populations, expressing themselves in physical differences, we would have a multitude of ‘races,’ maybe hundreds; maybe even thousands. Pygmies, Bush People, Zulus, Swahili – these are all so phenotypically different, that we must reject any notion that there is a ‘race’ we can call “Negroid.” Similarly with the Irish, the Swedish, Hungarians, Southern and Northern Italians – etc., and the out-dated classification “Caucasian.” (And I admit I have enough Irish in me – part Pict, part Celt, part Moor, part Norse – that I would hate to be classified with the British! Up the Republic!)

    The effort to define ‘races’ biologically is really an effort to find some meaningful way to categorize according to skin color. And you can’t get there from here.

    Along with Socratic, I also wonder about the willingness “to fight for what is neither scientifically supported nor morally acceptable.” If we’re talking about a political “mess,” well, politics is messy, especially given long established traditions and biases. But if we’re talking about a possible scientific “mess,” the whole notion of biological-realism ‘race’ seems to be about as messy – and as a-historical – as one could get.

    Socratic,
    You seem much in the spirit of the season; I’m not so much, but I appreciate your willingness to share alternatives.

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  17. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    Coel, do you really want to fight for what is neither scientifically supported nor morally acceptable?

    I’m not sure what you think I’m arguing for. What I am arguing for is bio-genomic clustering, which is a real biological property. Further, that bio-genomic clustering correlates with what are called “races”.

    To quote Kaplan and Winther: “… while the match is not perfect, populations socially identified as races overlap significantly with some populations that can be picked out using, for example, modern genomic clustering techniques and hence that at least some bio-genomic clusters/races are also social races (see Kaplan 2011; Kaplan and Winther 2013)”.

    Thus there is a biological aspect to what are called “races”. That concept is not *purely* a social construction, but also has biological aspects.

    From there, Kaplan and Winther deny that “biological races” are real because they adopt quite a high threshold of distinctiveness to qualify as a “biological race”, whereas bio-genomic clustering is fuzzier. But then, of course any grouping/clustering at the sub-species level is going to be fuzzy, since all species (by definition) interbreed, and interbreeding inevitably makes clustering fuzzy edged.

    Thus the wording they adopt seems largely chosen as political. It would be equally valid to use the fairly-informal and largely-social term “race” to refer to fuzzy-edged bio-genomic clusters, which is actually what people largely do (though of course, owing to the fuzziness, one should not over-interpret the concept).

    As for the “morally acceptable”: I don’t think we should adapt ideas of how the world is to fit how we want the world to be (that would be very theological!).

    An example of where that goes wrong is the idea — seriously espoused in some quarters — that gender is a purely social construct that has *no* biological underpinning. Again, that is arrived at from an ideological or moral starting point, rather than from how the world actually is.

    Kaplan and Winther also give the quote: “But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality”.

    We are all quite comfortable with the fact that, in our nations, someone with an IQ of 70 counts equally, legally and morally, to someone with an IQ of 130. (Yes, I know, lots of red flags in mentioning IQ.) That principle is really not disputed. Thus one does not need to argue for an identikit humanity in order to argue for moral equality.

    Lastly:

    … given that the genetic difference between two “races” is still less than that between two breeds of dog, …

    That really is not saying very much. No-one would argue against genetic underpinnings of different dog breeds. No-one is going to argue that the only difference between an Alsatian and a Poodle is how you treated it when it was young, and whether you gave it a pink-coloured chew toy or a blue-coloured chew toy.

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  18. Philip Thrift

    Apparently the meaning and use of “race” is domain-specific, which can differ in the language(s) of biologists and in the language(s) of sociologists. I think from a pragmatist perspective, it is not more or less “real” in one domain (biology) than another (sociology). It differs perhaps by its usefulness.

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  19. brodix

    Robin,
    Might it be more accurate to say the mathematical facts about chess are emergent from the rules?

    So that from our particular frame of convention, we can better understand how forms emerge from their foundations and order them in that regard, rather than assuming there to be that platonic mathematical structure, pre-existing its own manifestation.

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  20. SocraticGadfly

    And, Coel, per Massimo’s comment about those clusters, and per what I said about human genetic diversity being much less than that between two breeds of dog, by wanting to call that “race,” in my opinion …

    you are arguing for a pseudoscientific concept.

    Period.

    You’re also coming close to leaving yourself open to being called a racialist, in my eyes.

    You may not be one, but you’re coming close to leaving yourself open to being called out.

    Why else would you argue for a pseudoscientific concept, per what EJ said?

    ==

    Phillip, sorry, but per Massimo’s biogenetic groupings, if you ignore skin tone, how such groupings group together varies a lot depending on what genetic markers are being looked at. There’s nothing really pragmatic about it, when used as an attempt for labeling.

    Take some blood protein sensitivities. I can find four or five “races” within sub-Saharan Africans.

    Although it’s been overhyped to a fair degree so far, individual genomic medicine may be pragmatic. Trying to do ad hoc genetic marker clustering and define “races” on that basis is not.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    … by wanting to call that “race,” in my opinion …you are arguing for a pseudoscientific concept.

    Well I’m not. Bio-genomic clustering is a fact about how humans are. It is not a “pseudoscientific” concept, it is established science.

    Whether one uses the term “race” about those bio-genomic clusters is purely an issue of labeling. The term “race” does not have a formal definition, it is a more informal and vague word. It is also true that people do use the term “race” to refer to different (groupings that correlate with) bio-genomic clusters.

    The authors Kaplan and Winther recognise this, and in their article repeatedly use the phrase “bio-genomic cluster/race” (they also define another term, specifically “biological race”, which is different from what they refer to “bio-genomic cluster/race”).

    You seem to be wanting to deny that there is any bio-genomic clustering in humans. That desire can only be ideological.

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  22. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    first, what both Socratic and ej said. Second:

    “It is also true that people do use the term “race” to refer to different (groupings that correlate with) bio-genomic clusters.”

    No, they don’t. Again, one can build a number of different types of bio-genetic clusters, depending on what one is interested in (geographic differences, responses to specific diseases, etc.). Pretty much none of them correspond to the classical races — of which, by the way, historically there have been a highly variable number, depending on who you ask.

    “You seem to be wanting to deny that there is any bio-genomic clustering in humans. That desire can only be ideological.”

    You seem to want to equate bio-genomic cluster with the common concept of race. Might that desire be only ideological?

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  23. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    Pretty much none of them correspond to the classical races …

    True, they don’t correspond to the *classical* “races” (since the classical divisions were simply wrong cladistically). But, to quote Kaplan and Winther: “… while the match is not perfect, populations socially identified as races overlap significantly with some populations that can be picked out using, for example, modern genomic clustering techniques and hence that at least some bio-genomic clusters/races are also social races (see Kaplan 2011; Kaplan and Winther 2013)”.

    … of which, by the way, historically there have been a highly variable number, …

    Given the fuzziness inherent in the concept, it follows that one can divide up the clustering in multiple different ways.

    You seem to want to equate bio-genomic cluster with the common concept of race. Might that desire be only ideological?

    That depends on what you mean by the “common concept of race”. The term “race” has a range of different interpretations, so I don’t think there is one single “common concept”. What I am wanting to suggest is that such concepts, while being largely socially constructed, do have biological aspects.

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  24. SocraticGadfly

    Coel, I was going to say “I’m sorry,” but I’ve resolved to stop doing that when I’m not sorry. I’m going to have to consider you not just engaging in your normal for you, abnormal for average population, stubbornness, but, as I said above …

    sounding like a racialist.

    So, you’re a racialist.

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