“Race” is a coherent biological category, as much as is “species,” and the cases against it simply don’t add up. This essay is drawn from the book Making Sense of…
“Race” is a coherent biological category, as much as is “species,” and the cases against it simply don’t add up.
This essay is drawn from the book Making Sense of Race, which can be purchased here.
Is “race” an outmoded, morally dubious idea that was deservedly cast into the dustbin of history, along with Stalinism, astrology, and blood-letting? Many say so. Indeed, there is a vociferous movement in anthropology, as well as in the mass media, opposed to the use of race as a biological category. Their opposition functions through a series of “memes” or “variations on themes,” which recur again and again. It is to these arguments that we now turn an informed and critical eye.
How Can You Draw a Line Between Different Races?
A chapter summary in Race and Intelligence includes the lines:
There are no biological races. Human physical appearance varies gradually around the planet, with the most geographically distant peoples generally appearing the most different from one another.1
In other words: there is no clear way to divide different races. They merge into each other, with great variation in-between. A version of this argument is that there is no specific gene that is found only in one specific race. It can be countered that races are, of course, not entirely discrete categories because, if they were, they would be more like species, or perhaps genera, families, or orders on up the taxonomic scale.
Even if it were true that no unambiguous line can be drawn between races, this does not undermine the utility of race. The line between Grizzly bears and Brown bears is blurry, too—but you still know one when you see one and making distinctions between these subspecies is meaningful. Moreover, even if we were to accept that a species varies in small ways due to slightly different environments, then those at the extremes would differ so much, and in consistent ways, that it would become useful to distinguish between them.
Ultimately, it seems like people who make this argument are flirting with a kind of “tactical nihilism.” After all, no concept about the real world is mathematically pure. If “race” is “problematic” because it has blurry borders, then the concept of “history” is equally “problematic”—indeed, the term “problematic” is “problematic.” We use categories to divide our world into manageable chunks and thus negotiate it successfully. If we could not do that, we’d die. So the “blurry borders” argument fails the philosophical test of pragmatism. There exist population clusters that differ profoundly due to varying degrees of evolutionary isolation. These allow correct predictions to be made. That is all that is being argued.
Race is a “Western” Concept
Some say that race is illegitimate or immoral because it is steeped in Western history (and thus things like slavery and oppression), as well as the supposedly myopic and suffocating outlook of “Western science.” But this same argument could be made about almost any concept—including the ones that supposedly undermine or overcome Western hegemony. At some point, we have to accept a basic framing.
And the central question is whether race is a predictive category or not. If race is “problematic” because it’s Western, then, presumably, we cannot use Western concepts at all to analyze anything non-Western. Following this logic, we shouldn’t even talk about anything that is non-Western using a Western tongue. Such argument may sound profound, but under inspection, they’re rather shallow. And for what it’s worth, non-Western cultures clearly have words and concepts that track with the Western notion of “race.”
Race Has Meant Different Things
It has been noted that the word “race” can mean different things. Historically, it has been used in ways that “culture,” “ethnic group,” “nation,” or even “family” are now employed. Lord Acton’s Cambridge Modern History, for instance, referred to the “Habsburg race” in reference to the dynastic line.2 While the history of words is interesting, the fact that the meaning of words change over time is simply irrelevant to our purposes here. We are clear that by “race” we mean breeding populations separated in prehistory and adapted to different environments. If anyone uses race to mean anything else, then our use of race and his are merely homonyms. For what it’s worth, the word “mean” has meant different things historically. In Middle English, it meant “to intend.” Only by 1834 was “mean” widely being used in the way in which it is above.3 Does that “mean” that we cannot use the concept of “meaning”?
Studying Race Leads to Bad Things
Another supposed problem with race is that developing the concept leads to bad consequences. It legitimizes “racist groups,” “inspires hatred,” and so forth. That it might do this is clearly of no relevance to whether or not it is a scientifically justifiable and predictive category. This argument commits the fallacy of an “appeal to consequences” and, depending on how the consequences are described, an “appeal to emotion.” Firstly, it’s obvious that concepts of all kinds can have bad effects. Ecology—as well as awareness about pollution and natural degradation—has, on some level, “inspired” eco-terrorism and murder. Does that mean that research into cleaning the oceans and preserving their ecosystems should cease because it has led, in some way, to violence? To ask the question is to answer it.
Beyond that, it can be convincingly argued that suppressing the concept of race leads to very bad consequences. If a South Asian person has a kidney transplant and is given the kidney of a White person, then his body will likely reject it, elevating the possibility that the patient will die of kidney failure. This scenario is the reason why Britain’s National Health Service regularly appeals for more Black and South Asian organ donors.4 During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, it was found that mortality was particularly high among Blacks and South Asians living in Northern Europe, something that was argued to be for genetic reasons. Specifically, Vitamin D deficiency rendered one more susceptible to serious complications from Covid-19, and non- Europeans were much more likely to be deficient due to their darker skin, leaving them less able to absorb Vitamin D from the sun.5
There are consistent genetic racial differences in the prevalence of many serious medical conditions. Sometimes these stay in populations because a single inherited allele had positive consequences in ancestral environments, overwhelming the negatives consequences for individual carriers of two alleles. An example is sickle cell anaemia, a condition associated with Sub-Saharan Africans. If you carry two copies of the mutant allele, then you develop this debilitating condition. If, however, you carry one copy, then you will likely be immune to malaria.6 Cystic Fibrosis, a congenital disease among Northern European, is similar.7 It only appears when two carriers of the faulty allele have a child, there being a 50 percent chance that such a child will have Cystic Fibrosis. Various hypotheses have been advanced to explain why Cystic Fibrosis has remained in European populations. One states that carrying a single copy of the faulty allele causes carriers to be better able to fight off tuberculosis.8
In some cases, something is adaptive under Darwinian conditions but is maladaptive under modern conditions. For example, South Asians are particularly good at storing fat, and this is useful in the context of food scarcity, for obvious reasons. But with food abundance brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the use of fossil fuels, South Asians become diabetic more easily than Europeans.9 Helping South Asians deal with these problems can only occur with a proper understanding of their nature.
There is evidence that Northeast Asians are less well-adapted to flu-like viruses than either Europeans or Sub-Saharan Africans. This may be because flu thrives in cold and wet or hot and wet ecologies, meaning that Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans would be more strongly selected to be resistant to flu.10 Moreover, races that never developed complex agriculture—such as the Inuit, the Australian Aborigines, the Pacific Islanders, and many Native American groups—have low resistance to flu because animal husbandry often causes viruses to jump the species barrier, and races that evolved in such a context developed better adapted immune systems.11 This would imply that, during an influenza pandemic, East Asians in Western countries should get special protection from the flu. Denying that race exists would simply put people in danger. All of these are poignant illustrations of why race is definitely not a “social construct” and a proper understanding of it is literally a matter of life and death.
A more scientifically informed criticism of race can be found in the common criticism, “There are more differences within races than there are between them.” This is wheeled out with great profundity by biased scientists when interviewed in biased newspapers, without any references. It has come to be known as “Lewontin’s Fallacy,” named after biologist Richard Lewontin (b.1929), who argued that 85 percent of human genetic differences are due to individual variation, and only 15 percent due to differences between populations and ethnic groups; ergo, “there are more difference within races than between them.”
This fallacy can be easily dispatched. The sheer number of differences is less important than the direction of the differences. If a variety of small differences all push in the same direction—which they will in the case of subspecies evolved to different ecologies— then this can add up to significant overall differences between average members of different races.12
British biologist A.W.F. Edwards presented a systematic critique of Lewontin’s argument (along the way, coining the phrase “Lewontin’s Fallacy”).13 He noted that Lewontin simply looked at a small number of genetic loci and found that, indeed, 85 percent of human variation was due to individual differences. However, argues Edwards, if you look at lots of loci, then you will find these loci correlate differently in different groups, due to gene frequency differences, leading to very different results. Indeed, this leads to races being very different in numerous predictable ways, rendering “race” a scientific category. Edwards pointed out that, using Lewontin’s logic, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between different tree structures, because these differences are hidden in the correlational data, just as race differences are. But using only genetic data, scientists were able to correctly highlight 15 forms of tree structure. As Edwards notes, Lewontin’s argument could only work if each of the genetic loci highlighted were randomly distributed between races, but it is in the very nature of races—being adaptations to different ecologies—that genes are not randomly distributed. Thus, Lewontin presents us—albeit wrapped up in abstruse scientific language—with nothing more than a circular argument.
To make matters worse, the loci which Lewontin used do not vary substantially between races. He used markers such as blood-type, and, as anthropologist Peter Frost has noted, these are “not particularly selectively important. . . . [W]hen genes vary within a population, despite similar selection pressures, it’s usually because they have little or no selective value.”14 When methods were used with markers that do vary between races, such as craniometric variation and skin color, it was found that 81 percent of the variation is between races.15 Lewontin, therefore, only uncovered the findings he did by using genetic loci that aren’t especially relevant to regional evolution—despite evolution to different regions being the essence of race. So, Lewontin’s argument is a kind of sleight of hand.16 What he is actually proclaiming is this: When you use genetic loci that are distributed very similarly in all races, and in which there is much variation within races due to these loci not being very important to selection to different ecologies, then there are, indeed, more differences within races than between them. He hardly disproved the reality of race.
We’re All 99% The Same
In recent years, an argument against race has arisen that is much like the Lewontin fallacy: “Science has proven that every individual is more than 99 percent identical to every other.” This meme of “99%” was introduced at the turn of the century by none other than the Human Genome Project.17
On the individual level, tiny genetic differences (humans only differ by 0.0012 percent on average) have important consequences, and it is highly misleading to downplay them. The genetic differences in heritable musical ability between a professional musician and Mozart are probably rather small, but they are obviously profound. Moreover, on the level of species, humans share a remarkable amount of genetic similarity (upwards of 98 percent) with our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee. We even share much in common with other animals, like pigs and dogs. Clearly, small differences can have dramatic physical, psychological, and behavioral effects. And no one is willing to assert that since humans and chimpanzees are “98% the same,” we should not make distinctions between the two.
The Concept of Race Makes Me Uncomfortable
Another argument—and there are many versions of it—amounts to an appeal to emotion, in which a person essentially argues that “race” makes him feel unhappy. All that can be said is that this is manifestly fallacious and thus should be dismissed out of hand. How you feel is irrelevant to whether or not something is true. If being told that you have a rare blood disorder makes you feel unhappy, does that mean that it is not true or that you shouldn’t be told about it?
On a deeper level, we should understand that science is fundamentally amoral. It is about the relentless search for the objective truth. New scientific discoveries almost always offended some vested interest or other. This is why the kind of scientists who tend to make really important discoveries—so-called “geniuses”— seem to combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness (altruism and empathy) and moderately low Conscientiousness (impulse control, rule following). This means that they can “think outside the box,” not bound by conventional rules—maybe they even take pleasure in slaughtering sacred cows. It also means that they either don’t care about offending people or they are sufficiently high on the “autism spectrum” that they wouldn’t be able to anticipate offending people even if they did care.18
If You Are Interested in “Race,” Then You Are Probably “Racist”
This criticism—that discussing race is “racist”—amounts to a so-called “fact-value conflation.” That a person presents something as being a “fact” has no bearing at all on his “values.” Facts are value-neutral. If a doctor tells you that you only have a week to live, does that mean he wants you to die? Furthermore, we should probably be, at the very least, suspicious of those who regularly employ the word “racist.” The first recorded use of the word “racist” was in 1932, with “racism” first observed in 1928. These terms gradually came to replace “racialist,” which was first recorded in 1910, and “racialism,” first noted in 1882.19 In 1928, “racism” meant the belief that each “race” (meaning “ethnic group”) should have their own state and that civic society was optimal if states were racially based.20 “Racialism” referred to prejudices against other races and the belief that one’s own race was superior.
In the wake of World War II, “racist” gradually came to mean what “racialist” had once meant.21 However, the term “racist” has been extended far beyond this, to refer to anybody who is seen to deviate from ideological orthodoxy with regard to the issue of race. Terming such a person the “racist” associates him with that which is accepted as somehow evil and immoral. As this association is damaging, the term “racist” is an emotionally manipulative means of keeping people on the “correct” ideological path. In other words, it is an ad hominem criticism. The essence of the accusation is that the subject has strayed sufficiently far from orthodoxy that he is immoral; he is a heretic. There are many terms of this kind. As English historian Alexandra Walsham summarizes, in her analysis of Early Modern religious non-conformity in England, the accusation of “atheist” was “available for the expression and repression of disquiet about ‘aberrant’ mental and behavioral tendencies—for the reinforcement and restatement of theoretical norms.” Both “atheist” and “papist” were “categories of deviance to which individuals who were even marginally departed from the prescribed ideals might be assimilated and thereby reproved.”22
There is simply no logical reason to reject the concept of race, and there are very persuasive reasons to accept it as what it is—a scientific category. On this basis, one should be rather guarded about the motives of those who refuse to accept it, who resort to name-calling and obfuscation, or who are mired in the contradictions and incoherence.
- Jefferson M. Fish, ed., Race and Intelligence (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2011) ↩︎
- Lord Acton, Stanley Mordaunt Leathes, Sir Adolphus William Ward, and G. W. Prothero, eds., Cambridge Modern History, vol. 2 (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1902). ↩︎
- Online Etymology Dictionary (2019), “Mean,” https://www.etymonline.com/ word/mean (accessed May 15, 2020). ↩︎
- Sandish Shoker, “The Health System’s Struggle to Get More Black and Asian Donors,” BBC News, July 4, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england- nottinghamshire-33101610 (accessed May 15, 2020) ↩︎
- Susanne Bejerot and Mats Humble, “Inhabitants of Swedish-Somali Origin Are at Great Risk for Covid-19,” British Medical Journal, 368 (2020): m1101. ↩︎
- Lucio Luzatto, “Sickle Cell Anaemia and Malaria,” Mediterranean Journal of Hematology and Infectious Diseases, 4(1) (2012): e2012065. ↩︎
- Brian P. O’Sullivan and Steven D. Freedman, “Cystic Fibrosis,” Lancet, 373 (2009): 1891–1904. ↩︎
- Joanne K. Tobacman, “Does Deficiency of Arylsulfatase B Have a Role in Cystic Fibrosis?” Chest, 123 (2003): 2130–2139. ↩︎
- Emma Pomeroy, Veena Mushrif-Tripathy, Tim J. Cole, et al., “Ancient Origins of Low Lean Mass Among South Asians and Implications for Modern Type 2 Diabetes Susceptibility,” Scientific Reports, 9 (2019): 10515. ↩︎
- Office of the Ministry of Health, Monthly Bulletin of the Ministry of Health (1954), 173. ↩︎
- C. L. Chen, Li Xiao, Y-P. Zhou, et al., “Ethnic Differences in Susceptibilities to A(H1N1) Flu: An Epidemic Parameter Indicating a Weak Viral Virulence,” African Journal of Biotechnology, 8 (2009): 25. ↩︎
- Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009). ↩︎
- A.W.F. Edwards, “Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy,” BioEssays, 25 (2003): 798-801. ↩︎
- Peter Frost, “Lewontin’s Fallacy?” Evo and Proud, July 31, 2008, http:// evoandproud.blogspot.com/2008/06/lewontins-fallacy.html (accessed May 15, 2020). ↩︎
- John H. Relethford, “Apportionment of Global Human Genetic Diversity Based on Craniometrics and Skin Color,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 118 (2002): 393-398. ↩︎
- Nathan Cofnas, “Science Is Not Always ‘Self-Correcting’: Fact–Value Conflation and the Study of Intelligence.” Foundational Science, 21 (2015): 477-492. ↩︎
- Eric S. Lander, John Sulston, Robert H. Waterston, et al., “Initial Sequencing and Analysis of the Human Genome,” Nature, 4 (2001): 860–921. ↩︎
- Dean K. Simonton, “Varieties of (Scientific) Creativity: A Hierarchical Model of Domain-Specific Disposition, Development, and Achievement.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (2009): 5. ↩︎
- Online Etymological Dictionary, “Racist,” https://www.etymonline.com/word/ racist (accessed May 15, 2020). ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Robert Miles, Racism (London: Routledge, 1989). ↩︎
- Alexandra Walsham, Church Papists: Catholicism, Conformity, and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999), 108. ↩︎