Does ‘Race’ Have a Future?

Does ‘Race’ Have a Future?

Philosophy & Public Affairs
Volume 35, Issue 4 (Fall 2007)
pages 293–317
DOI: 10.1111/j.1088-4963.2007.00115.x

Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy
Columbia University

There are simple and powerful arguments against the biological reality of race. Although the phenotypic characteristics, the manifest features that have traditionally been used to divide our species into races, are salient for us, they are superficial, indicating nothing about important differences in psychological traits or genetic conditions that constitute some racial essence. Throughout history, allegations of deep differences in temperament and capacity, claims grounded in no evidence, have done incalculable harm. Contemporary genetic studies of human populations have revealed that there are no alleles distinctive of this race or of that, and, although a few researchers like J. Philippe Rushton—”ogre naturalists,” as Ian Hacking aptly dubs them—continue to seek such simple genetic differences, there is a widespread consensus among anthropologists that races are not “biologically real.”

If you have a particular view of natural kinds, the line of reasoning I have just sketched will appear overwhelming. Suppose you believe that natural kinds are distinguished by some special underlying feature that explains the behavior of members of the kind- like atomic number, for example, in the case of the elements-then you will infer directly from the absence of special genetic or chromosomal markers of race to the biological insignificance of racial divisions. But there is a serious mistake here. The essentialist/explanationist approaches to natural kinds that have dominated much philosophical discussion in past decades have always been woefully inadequate as accounts of biological kinds. Indeed, anyone familiar with the writings of two of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the last century, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr, can only wonder at philosophical insistence on the idea that natural kinds have essences. As Dobzhansky and Mayr tirelessly pointed out, biological taxa are not demarcated by essential differences; in general, there is no analogue of atomic number, no genetic feature, say, that separates one species of mosquito or mushroom from another; there are occasional exceptions, cases in which species of lizards are formed by hybridization or species of grasses result from doubling, or tripling, of chromosomes, but these are relatively rare.

Many of the premises from which eliminativists about race begin are correct, and important enough to repeat, again and again: there are no genes distinctive of the groups we call races, no biological markers of psychological or behavioral differences. In their studies of nonhuman organisms, however, biologists typically do not appeal to distinctive genes in their demarcation of taxa. Once this fact is appreciated, the question of race as a biological category should be recast. Is there a biological basis for dividing species into smaller units, and does appeal to this basis generate a division of our own species into races?…

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