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date: 14 November 2019

(p. 135) Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science

Abstract and Keywords

Philosophical concerns about the reality of race often depend on the examination of our ordinary race concepts, and whether the biological sciences might support the existence of those concepts. We can approach these philosophical concerns by looking at how we might define a race concept from both ordinary discourse (the folk definition), and from the viewpoint of the biological sciences (as a subspecies or population cluster). After noting the difficulties with giving a satisfactory definition of race in both domains, we can see more clearly why our race concepts cannot claim any obvious support from the biological sciences.

Keywords: folk definition, subspecies, population cluster, race realism, race definition, race, deflation, population genetics, Noah Rosenberg, minimalist races, biological anthropology, genetic variation, DNA, modern human origins, population genetics, race, meaning, description, Sally Haslanger, theories of race, eliminativism, constructionism, reductionism, neo-realism, race and ethnicity

In 1990, Anthony Appiah published “But would that still be me? Notes on Gender, ‘Race,’ Ethnicity as Sources of Identity” in the Journal of Philosophy. While interrogating different foundations for personal identity, Appiah, in an almost offhand way, mentioned that the biological sciences offered no support for the idea of human races. There then insued a discussion in academic philosophy of race known as “the race debates.” Several questions were examined from different perspectives, discussion was sometimes at cross purposes, and not everyone participating or observing has been satisfied that these issues have been resolved: Is race real? Does race have a foundation in biology? Should race be eliminated?

It is not difficult to answer the foregoing questions if beginning terms are clarified, although that is not to say such answers will be satisfactory to all involved or invested in the debate. Is race real? This question depends on what is meant by “real.” Obviously “race” is a real form of social division and to name a person’s race is to say something factual and meaningful about her. However, the question of whether race is real is usually intended to cut deeper in a metaphysical sense so that it becomes: Are social racial divisions and individual racial identities based on objective facts or truths about the natural world as many have claimed and believed? The answer to this question in terms of the modern idea of race invokes human physical reality as first studied by biologists and anthropologists, who were joined over the twentieth century by human geneticists, evolutionary biologists, epidemiologists, and population scientists (to name just a few specialists). The consensus about human physical reality is that the idea of human races is neither supported by reliable data concerning human differences, nor does it add any meaningful information to such data. And so the answer to the next question, Does race have a foundation in human biology? is No.

(p. 136) Notice that the lack of a foundation for race in human biology undermines the reality of race only to the extent that ideas about human racial divisions and identity depend on the existence of such a scientific foundation. If racial divisions and identities were to be regarded as only spiritual, superstitious, mythical, or ideological, then the lack of the scientific biological foundation would have little effect on how people regard race and neither would it change their attitudes or behavior. But, insofar as the idea of human races as developed in the modern period has been welded to physical science, without that foundation, somewhat panicky questions about what should be done have cropped up: Should race be eliminated? First and foremost, eliminating race would be a conceptual project that could not be enforced in democratic societies with strong free speech rights. Such societies have no legal mechanisms for changing or eliminating spiritual, superstitious, mythical, or ideological ideas and beliefs. The only way race could be eliminated would be through education, and the only thing that would be eliminated pertaining to race would be the idea that it has a scientific foundation as a form of human social division and identity. We do not know whether “eliminating” false ideas of biological race, that is, removing them from educated discourse, would ameliorate or extinguish racism. It is possible that such elimination through education would dilute strong notions of human difference, but it is also possible that prejudice and discrimination based on ideas of racial difference would shift to nonbiological traits such as religion, culture, and perceived political opposition.

Albert Atkin approaches the question of whether there is scientific support for ideas of race by focusing on what is meant by “race,” in both ordinary usage and science. Concerning ordinary usage, Atkin distinguishes among: meanings deriving from the meaning of race in the origin of race discourse during the modern colonial period; common folk beliefs and practices concerning race at the present time; and the philosophical “method of cases” relying on professional intuition. However, these sources are inconclusive because there is variety in originating content and a number of folk authorities conflict, as do a number of philosophers. Defining race scientifically requires a scientific race concept that needs to be well motivated or recognized, applicable to human populations, and able to approximate ordinary usage. Atkin next examines subspecies and population clusters as candidates for a scientific race concept and concludes that neither meets all three criteria.

The reality of race can also be addressed more directly than through an analysis of the meaning of “race.” Michael Hardimon offers a minimal meaning of race based on population genetics, and John Relethford considers the reality of race in terms of recent DNA studies related to geography that suggest an altogether different model of racial groups than the classic Enlightenment taxonomy.

Hardimon draws on contemporary studies in population genetics to philosophically construct support for ordinary ideas of racial groups and racial difference. His aim is to develop a minimalist concept of a human race with these conceptually bare characteristics: patterns of visible physical features that are distinct to that group; common ancestry linking members; and origination in the same distinctive geographical location. Hardimon’s proposal for race is meant to apply on a group level and does not require that all individuals in a group have the same features. He suggests that five geographically associated patterns of human genetic (hereditary) differences support a taxonomy of five races or do not preclude such a taxonomy. However, Hardimon is also aware that the contemporary population geneticists who have generated this geographical data do not themselves offer it as support for, or a definition of, a scientific race concept.

(p. 137) Relethford shows how contemporary genetic studies fail to provide a scientific foundation for traditional social racial taxonomy. It no longer makes sense to consider “race” as a system of human groups with internal homogeneity. He thus concludes:

In the past, considerable attention has been given to the question of whether human races exist in a biological sense. Our current understanding of human genetic variation is at odds with traditional views of race. The past use of race as a unit of evolutionary change has been rejected. What remains today is the use of “geographic race” as a rough description of global genetic variation.

In “A Metatheory of Race,” Joshua Glasgow seeks to determine whether “the race debate” is on firm ground. He notes that disagreement about the reality of race often involves arguments from reference: “They say what ‘race’ is supposed to refer to, and then they argue that there is or is not such a thing in the world.” Glasgow considers whether classificatory constructivism, the view that race is real because we classify each other racially, could be correct. He rejects it in favor of a referential meaning of race as “a relatively large group of people that is distinguished from other groups by having certain visible traits to a disproportional extent.” That is, Glasgow argues that the mode of reference relevant to race is descriptive and that there is no privileged nondescriptive mode of reference that is (can be) relevant to the race debates.

In discussing race, ethnicity is often left out, and yet the two ideas have been closely related in the twentieth century. An old distinction was that racial differences are physical, whereas ethnic differences are cultural. But to see the limits of that distinction one has only to consider the notion of black culture and the fact that Hispanics and Latinos experience discrimination in the United States that is related to skin color. The final essay in this part, Jorge Gracia’s “Race and Ethnicity,” reintroduces “race” as metaphysically real or ontologically stable, in the wake of skeptical discussion such as the foregoing contributions to the race debates. Gracia here defends his thesis that “the concepts of race and ethnicity, and the distinction between them, can be preserved through their proper understanding.” Gracia advises a Genetic Common-Bundle View of Race and the Historical-Familial View of Ethnicity. For race, some inherited features must be selected, but what they are is a matter of culture. And for ethnicity, family relation and shared history are the main requirements for identity. Gracia also explains how both race and ethnicity are relational properties that connect individuals with groups.

Appiah, Anthony. (1990). “But Would That Still Be Me? Notes on Gender, ‘Race,’ Ethnicity as Sources of Identity.” Journal of Philosophy 87 (10): 493–499.Find this resource:

Jablonski, Nina G. (2012). Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Ruse, Michael, ed. (2008). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Sollers, Werner, ed. (1989). The Invention of Ethnicity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Sussman, Robert Wald. (2014). The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (p. 138) Find this resource: