A Radical Solution to the Race Problem

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2015-12-24 21:11Z by Steven

A Radical Solution to the Race Problem

Philosophy of Science
Volume 81, Number 5 (December 2014)
pages 1025-1038
DOI: 10.1086/677694

Quayshawn Spencer, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
University of Pennsylvania

It has become customary among philosophers and biologists to claim that folk racial classification has no biological basis. This paper attempts to debunk that view. In this paper, I show that ‘race’, as used in current U.S. race talk, picks out a biologically real entity. I do this by, first, showing that ‘race’, in this use, is not a kind term, but a proper name for a set of human population groups. Next, using recent human genetic clustering results, I show that this set of human population groups is a partition of human populations that I call ‘the Blumenbach partition’.

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Social Construction and the Concept of Race

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2010-09-07 22:29Z by Steven

Social Construction and the Concept of Race

Philosophy of Science
Volume 72, Number 5 (December 2005)
pages 1208-1219
DOI: 10.1086/508966

Edouard Machery, Associate Professor of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh

Luc Faucher, Professor of Philosophy
Université du Québec, Montréal

There has been little serious work to integrate the constructionist approach and the cognitive/evolutionary approach in the domain of race, although many researchers have paid lip service to this project. We believe that any satisfactory account of human beings’ racialist cognition has to integrate both approaches. In this paper, we propose to move toward this integration. We present an evolutionary hypothesis that rests on a distinction between three kinds of groups—kin-based groups, small scale coalitions, and ethnies. Following Gil-White (1999, 2001a, 2001b), we propose that ethnies have raised specific evolutionary challenges that were solved by an evolved cognitive system. We suggest that the concept of race is a byproduct of this mechanism. We argue that recent theories of cultural transmission are our best hope for integrating social constructionists’ and cognitive/evolutionary theorists’ insights.

1. Introduction. A dominant view about races today is the so called “social constructionist” view. Social constructionists propose that the concept of race—i.e., the belief that a classification based on skin color and other skin-deep properties like body shape or hair style maps onto meaningful, important biological kinds—is a pseudo-biological concept that has been used to justify and rationalize the unequal treatment of groups of people by others.

Social constructionism became prevalent mainly because from the 1970s on, it has been widely recognized that the biological concept of subspecies, that is, of populations of conspecifics that are genetically and morphologically different from each other, could not be applied to humans. For one thing, it has been shown that there is more genetic variability within human racial groups than between them (Lewontin 1972; Brown and Armelagos 2001). Moreover, assigning an individual to a race does not buy the inferential power you are usually warranted to expect from a biological kind term. Finally, classifications based on different phenotypic traits (skin color, body shape, hair, etc.) usually cross-cut each other (Brown and Armelagos 2001). Thus, the racialist tenet that skin color and other skin-deep properties pick up different biological groups has been assumed to be false.

Biology has thus fuelled the recent racial skepticism of social constructionists, that is, the view that races do not exist. But social constructionists about race are not mere skeptics. They usually underscore the instability and diversity of human beings’ concepts of races. For instance, Omi and Winant note that an “effort must be made to understand race as an unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle” (2002, 123; see also Root 2000). Others suggest that the notion is a modern invention, rooted in the eighteenth century taxonomies of Linnaeus and Blumenbach. For them, there were times or places where people did not have any concept of race (Banton 1970).

The constructionist contribution to the understanding of racialism is important (for a critical review, see Machery and Faucher 2005). It rightly suggests that human beings’ concepts of race do not occur in a social vacuum: social environments are important to explain the content of our concepts of race. It also correctly emphasizes the diversity of human beings’ concepts of race across cultures. Any account of racialism has to be consistent with these facts. However, it is not without difficulties either. First, it does not explain why many cultures have developed some concept of race and some classification based on phenotypic features. Moreover, the social constructionist approach does not explain the commonalities between the culture-specific concepts of race, e.g., the concepts of race in contemporary North America, in nineteenth-century France, in Germany during the Nazi era, and so on. Some aspects of the folk concepts of race vary little across cultures (Hirschfeld 1996), while others vary much more. This should be explained.

In recent years, there has been a growing literature in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology about racialism. Although no consensus has yet emerged, several proposals have recently attempted to describe the underlying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the production of racial concepts (e.g., Hirschfeld 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001; Gil-White 1999, 2001a, 2001b; Kurzban et al. 2001; Cosmides et al. 2003; Machery and Faucher 2005). Researchers agree that racialism has not been selected for: it is a byproduct of an evolved cognitive system, which was selected for another function. However, they disagree on the nature of this system.

The cognitive and evolutionary approach to racialism is a needed supplement to the social constructionist approach. The recurrence of racial classification across cultures and the commonalities between them suggest that racial classifications are the product of some universal psychological disposition. However, evolutionary theorists face a challenge that is symmetric to the challenge faced by social constructionists. Since they posit a species-typical cognitive system to explain racial categorization, they have a hard time explaining the cultural diversity of the concepts of race. It has to be shown that the claim that a species-specific human cognitive system underlies racialism is consistent with the evidence that racial concepts vary across cultures and times and are influenced by culture-specific beliefs.

Thus, we are confronted with two explanatory approaches to racial categorization that are symmetrically incomplete. This point has been recognized by several evolutionary-minded researchers. Indeed, they have paid lip service to the project of integrating the constructionist approach and the cognitive/evolutionary approach in the domain of race (e.g., Hirschfeld 1996). However, in the domain of race, few have walked their talk.

In this paper, we propose that the theory of cultural evolution is the proper framework for integrating both approaches to racialism. In line with the social constructionists’ emphasis on the social environment, we claim that the concept of race—how race membership is thought of—is culturally transmitted: one acquires the concept of race from one’s social environment. However, we insist that social learning is determined by several factors. Following Gil-White (1999, 2001a, 2001b), we emphasize particularly the importance of an evolved, canalized disposition to think about ethnies in a biological way. We argue that our proposal accounts for the similarities between culture-specific concepts of race as well as for their differences.

Our strategy is the following. In Section 2, we distinguish three kinds of groups, kin-based groups, small-scale coalitions, and ethnies. Following Gil-White (1999, 2001a, 2001b), we propose that ethnies have raised specific evolutionary challenges that were solved by an evolved cognitive system. The concept of race is shaped by this mechanism. We thereby meet the challenge faced by the social constructionist view: we account for the similarities between concepts of race. In Section 3, we build on Boyd and Richerson’s theory of cultural evolution (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Richerson and Boyd 2004) in order to integrate social constructionists’ insights and cognitive/evolutionary theorists’ insights.We thereby meet the challenge faced by the cognitive/evolutionary approach: we account for the differences between concepts of race…

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