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Thread: Race: a Social Destruction of a Biological Concept

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    Race: a Social Destruction of a Biological Concept

    It is nowadays a dominant opinion in a number of disciplines (anthropology, genetics, psychology, philosophy of science) that the taxonomy of human races does not make much biological sense. My aim is to challenge the arguments that are usually thought to invalidate the biological concept of race.
    I will try to show that the way ‘‘race’’ was defined by biologists several decades ago (by Dobzhansky and others) is in no way discredited by conceptual criticisms that are now fashionable and widely regarded as cogent. These criticisms often arbitrarily burden the biological category of race with some implausible connotations, which then opens the path for a quick eliminative move.
    However, when properly understood, the biological notion of race proves remarkably resistant to these deconstructive attempts.
    Moreover, by analyzing statements of some leading contemporary scholars who support social constructivism about race, I hope to demonstrate that their eliminativist views are actually in conflict with what the best contemporary science tells us about human genetic variation.

    Those who subscribe to the opinion that there are no human races are
    obviously ignorant of modern biology.

    Ernst Mayr, 2002


    It is interesting that none of these sources cites any empirical evidence for these race-undermining claims. Furthermore, these claims clearly go against the entrenched common sense belief that racial recognition is not actually based on a single trait (like skin color) but rather on a number of characteristics that are to a certain extent concordant and that jointly make the classification not only possible but fairly reliable as well (a point that Diamond himself actually acknowledges sotto voce but which, buried at the end of his article, has been completely lost on most readers amidst his thundering denunciations of the race concept).
    Worse still, forensic anthropologists are quite successful in correctly inferring a person’s race from the skeletal characteristics of human remains, which would of course be impossible if the statements in the above quotations were true. This prompted one bewildered and exasperated scientist to write an article with a provocative title: ‘‘If Races Do Not Exist, Why Are Forensic Anthropologists So Good at Identifying Them?’’ (Sauer 1992).

    Sauer explained that in forensic anthropology race is assigned with high probability on the basis of an algorithm that combines a series of measurements. According to him, it is taken for granted among forensic anthropologists that race is determinable from the skull and postcranium, and ‘‘if such a determination is not possible, the problem is usually attributed to the incomplete nature of the remains or mixed ancestry’’ (ibid. p. 109). Indeed, a quick look into the literature confirms this.
    For instance, a study that covered 17 populations over the world and that relied on 34 different measurements managed to assign 98% of the specimens to their correct major racial group (Brues 1990, 6). Another more recent study had a success rate of 80% in distinguishing between American Whites and Blacks, although it used just two variables. With seven variables, however, it reached the reliability of 95%, and with 19 variables the probability of correct classification rose to 97% (Ousley et al. 2009).

    Also, estimating generally the reliability of attributing a given data point to one of the five racial categories, another team of experts calculated that under some realistic conditions it is sufficient to use as few as 13 characteristics to have the posterior probability of the correct classification attain the value of 99% (Konigsberg et al. 2009). The empirical reality appears to refute decisively the claim so confidently advocated by many philosophers that ‘‘as the number of traits increases, racial classification becomes increasingly difficult’’ (Andreasen 2004, 428), or that ‘‘multiplying phenotypic racial traits has the result … that … they correlate with one another in no particular order, throwing the alleged features for biological racial reality into an unorganized mess’’ (Glasgow 2009, 88).
    This is exactly backwards: multiplying relevant phenotypic racial traits brings more order and structure, and indeed lays ground for an objective biological classification.

    Here is another example of conflicting statements coming from philosophers and working scientists. Philosophers: ‘‘Assigning an individual to a race does not buy the inferential power you are usually warranted to expect from a biological kind term’’ (Machery and Faucher 2005, 1209). Geneticists: ‘‘It may be possible to infer something about an individual phenotype from knowledge of his or her ancestry’’ (Witherspoon et al. 2007, 358).
    Philosophers have put too much trust in those strongly worded proclamations against the reality of race that are often issued to the wider public by high-profile scientists or learned societies.
    The problem with these public statements about such a politically sensitive issue is that they are not always driven just by a desire to transmit current knowledge. They do not necessarily correspond to what is really going on in scientific discussions in peer-reviewed journals.

    As mentioned above, it is particularly in physical anthropology that there is this acute clash between declarations directed to the public at large and the actual scientific practice, with the former often being governed less by science and more by ‘‘the reasons of the heart’’. This kind of a homo duplex situation produces a lot of frustration and confusion, but it has also once prompted a comment that those anthropologists who deny that races exist ‘‘have their heart, but not their heads in the right place’’ (cited in Gill 1990, viii).

    One of the leading physical anthropologists warned about the tendency of some scientists to misrepresent the true view of their scientific community. He said that the idea widely propagated by many scientists that race is only skin deep ‘‘is simply not true, as any experienced forensic anthropologist will affirm’’ (Gill 2000). He went further and stated that the bias of the race-denial faction ‘‘seems to stem largely from socio-political motivation and not science at all’’ (ibid.). And finally: ‘‘At the beginning of the twenty-first century, even as a majority of biological anthropologists favor the reality of the race perspective, not one introductory textbook of physical anthropology even presents that perspective as a possibility. In a case as flagrant as this, we are not dealing with science but rather with blatant, politically motivated censorship’’ (ibid.).

    There is also evidence from a content-analysis of the scientific literature that in the very period of the widespread public denigration of the race concept, the racial terms were actually used with increased frequency in scientific publications: ‘‘Based upon my findings I argue that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on’’ (Gissis 2008, 438—italics in the original).

    Some other scientists agree with Gill that race denial is not based merely on scientific considerations: ‘‘The proposal to scrap the concept of race altogether is currently only one extreme in a range of views. It is certainly not shared by all anthropologists and is by no means the majority opinion of the public at large. It appears to be a conclusion reached more on the basis of political and philosophical creeds than on scientific arguments’’ (Klein and Takahata 2002, 384).
    These are strong words and I am not suggesting that we should immediately agree with them. But if, as seems to be the case, many serious and responsible scientists complain that the scientific opinion in their disciplines has been badly misrepresented because of the pressure of political correctness, there is every reason to be very cautious and make an effort to study primary sources, rather than rely too heavily on scientists’ pronouncements and proclamations addressed to the general public. Given this smoke and mirror situation in the debate about such a politicized issue as race, where emotions run high and where huge dangers of a wrong step are obvious to everyone, do not take at face value what scientists merely say about these topics. Instead, look at what they actually do about it in their real work. As Henry Harpending astutely observed: ‘‘A poll about views of race would be like a poll about Marxism in East Germany in 1980. Everyone would lie’’ (Harpending 2000)


    My aim in this paper was not to prove the biological reality of race.
    Rather, more modestly, I have tried to show that typical attempts to disconnect the concept of race from genetics have too quickly and too uncritically been accepted by many ‘‘race critics’’, including most philosophers of science who have discussed this issue.
    The arguments for deconstructing race are fundamentally unsound because they ignore, misinterpret or distort relevant scientific facts. Therefore, it is time to abandon the mantra about the biological meaninglessness of race. Instead of wasting our time on ‘‘refuting’’ straw-man positions dredged from a distant past or from fiction, we should deal with the strongest contemporary attempts to rehabilitate race that are scientifically respectable and genetically informed.
    Philosophers (and others) have too long tried to destroy the scientific notion of race in different ways; the point, however, is to understand it.

    A very interesting truth that should be spread widely. It's actually nothing short of a miracle that something like this is even still allowed to be published.
    And the day they sold us out, Our hearts grew cold
    'Cause we were never asked, No brother, we were told!
    What do they know of Europe, Who only Europe know?

    Ancient DNA: List of All Studies analyzing DNA of Ancient Tribes and Ethnicities(post-2010)

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    The Goodrum race faq needs updating: see also Peter Frost's demolition of Lewontin's fallacy and more. I could write one, honestly.

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