WAR ON WORDS: Why Race Is NOT A Social Construct

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A group of race-diverse people from Asia

Image via Wikipedia

Over the last few decades, a strange idea has taken root that I am in fact quite sympathetic to, at least in spirit. Now, the view of race as a social construct is not necessarily wrong, depending on what one means by ‘race’, and especially by ‘social construct’. Yet as I’ve proposed elsewhere, scientists are often poor communicators, and the reality of what they’re arguing can be muddied by everything from word choice to an inability to meaningfully parse definitions. Usually, the science, itself, is not at fault. It is really the packaging of science to an even less sophisticated audience that’s at issue, particularly when it deals with a highly politicized topic whose buzzwords are valued over nuance and hard data. No, race is not a social construct, but what does this mean, exactly? Moreover, what does it mean politically? Finally, what should it mean for liberals who are uncomfortable with what is, at bottom, a simple misunderstanding of their own principles?

Prior to deconstructing all this, let us look at the key claims, and – perhaps even more importantly – how these claims get articulated. The position of the American Anthropological Association is clear- race’s primary importance is social rather than biological. The issue, however, is that one can construe any number of sentences, within, as either attesting to or rejecting the existence of race as a taxonomic category. This is unfortunate, and many political activists have latched on to the statement as ‘proof’ that race is biologically meaningless. Others, like this study from 2012, note that the sentence “No races exist now or ever did” found only 17% agreement among scientists 40 years ago, with 53% agreeing today. Yet even 53% is still a far cry from ideological certainty on the Left about what is, in essence, a semantic question whose answer might very well change based on the conceptual categories the word calls to mind.

In ‘pop’ science, writers often lay out some of the most common objections to race, which, while on one level quite valid, are also quite incomplete. There is much to comb through (most of it not worth the time), but I’ve distilled them into six basic arguments laid out in ascending order of correctness. If anyone gets tripped up by my handling of earlier points, read all of my responses to them, first, to get a better sense of the science:

1. There is no race gene, which means the genetic underpinnings of race are quite tenuous

The first part of this statement is obvious, and undeniable. There is no ‘race’ gene because race is not any one thing. Rather, it is a genetic complex which encompasses everything from skin color, to disease propensity/resistance, to facial proportions, to the distribution of sweat glands, hair color, and more. No, you cannot simply use one marker for determining race and ancestry, but the more genetic markers are used, the greater the likelihood (in fact, it is a near-certainty) of being able to trace one’s roots. By contrast, there is no such thing as a ‘gay’ gene. Yet would liberals be comfortable arguing that therefore there is NO genetic basis for sexual preference? Obviously, there is, much to right-wing dismay, although it is not the simplification progressives wish it to be, either, partly because- from a political standpoint- it ought not matter either way. There is also no such thing as the ‘basketball’ or ‘math’ gene, although it would be silly to suggest that at least the predisposition for a given skill, all other variables being equal, has no genetic basis whatsoever. In the same way, race is, to the naked eye, a very rough but pragmatic way of dividing some (actually, a tiny fraction of) human characteristics that, due to accidents of evolution, happen to be quite visible much of the time, despite being none too salient from a purely biological standpoint. Yet ‘salience’ is a very different quality from ‘existence’, and it is their conflation that is often at the heart of such disagreements.

2. Race-based thinking has been quite dangerous in the past, and any attempts to further use such is simply… [insert moral panic here]

This is absolutely true, but also misleading. In short, while it is true that race-based thinking has and will continue to be abused for questionable political goals, the solution cannot be to shy away from biology-first discussions of race…if only we engage in such for the purpose of discrediting them. It really bears repeating that the reason why liberals tend to hate concepts like human nature or sexual dimorphism is because they don’t understand their own politics. Liberals ought not preach tolerance and equality due to a proposed lack of innate differences, but in spite of them: meaning, whatever we might discover of human variation should not figure into deeper issues of rights and dues. Otherwise, this would degrade liberalism into mere right-wing lunacy, which is often their de facto position because- whether they admit it or not- it strikes so many of them as reasonable, since they lack an intellectual framework from which to rebut it.

3. It is difficult, if not impossible, to categorize races genetically, or to merely ‘eyeball’ them, partly because the concept itself changes over time

Now, this is where things get interesting, since we can actually start to deal in nuance. First, for a good layman’s perspective on all this, I’d recommend watching this short video on race and genetics. Note what is said about midway in- that, from a purely genetic basis, we can (if we so choose) split the races into our modern, conventional denominations with good accuracy. This is important, since it is a de facto admission of race, even as the video’s comments are filled with ideologues who wish to cherry-pick the data for their own agenda.

Second, to get a deeper appreciation of why this is so, let us now consider Lewontin’s Fallacy, A.W.F. Edwards’s classic response to Richard Lewontin’s thesis on human variation. Edwards’s objection, in short, is that while the bulk of human variation is in fact overwhelmingly non-racial, as Lewontin claims, the pattern of this variation has tell-tale signs that indicate racial categories…if, again, we so wish to tap them over other, more salient categories. This is why complaining about a missing race gene is pointless when we could simply look at genetic clustering. To quote the Wikipedia link directly:

Edwards argued that while Lewontin’s statements on variability are correct when examining the frequency of different alleles (variants of a particular gene) at an individual locus (the location of a particular gene) between individuals, it is nonetheless possible to classify individuals into different racial groups with an accuracy that approaches 100 percent when one takes into account the frequency of the alleles at several loci at the same time. This happens because differences in the frequency of alleles at different loci are correlated across populations—the alleles that are more frequent in a population at two or more loci are correlated when we consider the two populations simultaneously. Or in other words, the frequency of the alleles tends to cluster differently for different populations.

This is undeniable, and yet, I’m often amused to the silly responses to A.W.F. Edwards. Turning back to the Wikipedia page, it is only the now-nutty Richard Dawkins who makes genuine sense in his critique – even if one might disagree with Dawkins’s concept of ‘taxonomic significance’ being defined by anything that’s merely ‘informative’. This is technically true, but opens up taxonomy to an almost infinite reduction that becomes less and less useful the deeper one goes, which is the spirit of Edwards’s original comment.

Kaplan and Winther note that Edwards is in fact correct, even as Lewontin’s argument still holds true. They note, for instance, that Edwards’s conclusions do not imply that racial categories are the most basic level of human distinction. But one merely needs to look at Dawkins’s objection to Edwards’s dismissal of racial taxonomy as ‘non-salient’ to see that Edwards was not arguing for a basic human distinction to begin with. The issue, then, is less with Kaplan and Winther than it is the way that opponents of race might latch on their critique as a critique of Edwards, himself, which – by not dealing with his real point – cannot even be a genuine criticism. It is merely a distillation of Edwards’s own beliefs on an unrelated topic. Jonathan Marks and several other anthropologists are likewise quoted as if in response to Edwards, even though, again, they are simply shedding light on the claims’ surrounds, and not engaging with the claims as written.

Reading further, Dorothy Roberts throws out a series of red herrings meant to distract one from the argument. It is strange, indeed, to read any number of correct claims, from the thinness of purely racial variation in terms of total genetic makeup, to her assertion that no racial group has an exclusive claim on a genetic marker, as if any of this has anything to do with what’s under discussion. The question Edwards addressed was NOT whether it makes good taxonomic sense to categorize people into races, but whether we can. The answer, of course, is that we can, and do, even if one could then (and only then) argue that it is a non-salient method of categorization.

In other words, we are getting a lot of uncomfortable circling about the issue, and yet, I am not exactly sure why it must be at all uncomfortable. To say ‘Edwards is right, but…’ implies that Edwards’s argument cannot, as stated, be consistent with a liberal position on race. This is simply untrue, as I’ve already pointed out, and a misunderstanding of both liberalism and science.

4. ‘Population’ is a better term for race than ‘race’

This is actually something I can get behind, provided there is some mechanism to prevent the slippery-slope thinking I’ve outlined. ‘Race’, obviously, is a very loaded word, with implications that often go well beyond what is scientifically reasonable. It is, in that sense, a poor way of communicating genetic makeup. At the same time, ‘population’ has the contextual disadvantage of having been hijacked by activists who, while denying the underlying basis of race, nonetheless use it in instances where the word ‘race’ might mean the same thing. The trick, then, is to re-organize public perceptions of what race is, not by sanitizing it, but treating it as no more (and no less!) than what we know it to be. A change of language can be useful to this end, as long as it is not used as a mask for reality.

5. The conventional notion of race is a very crude and biologically arbitrary way of categorizing human beings

The first part of the statement is true. Given that there are, literally, a million ways we can categorize human beings, from height, to eye color, to intelligence, to predisposition for patellar dislocation, with many potential categories having more intrinsic genetic weight than the genetics of race, there is something going on here other than science. But is it ‘arbitrary’? Perhaps, although one must limit one’s definition of ‘arbitrary’ to pure salience in that case: meaning, there are better categories out there, not that this category has no intrinsic basis.

6. There is a great deal of human genetic variation, but only a fraction of it (perhaps 6%) can be ascribed race

This is the least controversial of the six claims, and both the start and end point for better understanding race, as well as settling on a better way of discussing it. Consider, really, what the above means- if there is a consistent percentage of genetic material that can reliably be patterned into racial categories, the implicit admission is that there is a predictable and quantifiable basis for ‘race’, period. There is, obviously, a lot more that can be said here, but at least this much cannot be denied, and any position that hopes to occlude this fact would be dishonest.

Second, this 6% racial variation is- depending on whom you ask- either salient, or not. Those, for example, who know nothing of evolution and the origins of human intelligence will assert genuine intellectual gaps between races, while those who are troubled even a little by the concept of race might suppose this variation is purely limited to skin color. Yet when I say this variation is unimportant, I mean exactly that- it will, by itself, tell you next to nothing about the salient features of a human being. It will tell you only what we have evolved to accept as salient, which is ethnicity. This may be hard to understand, but ethnicity in the Ancestral Environment meant a lot more than skin color. It also meant- with decent probability- that ‘this’ person was a potential threat, or ‘that’ person a potential ally who might share both your values as well as your taboos. As Joseph Henrich writes in The Secret Of Our Success:

Finally, the psychological machinery that underpins how we think about ‘race’ actually evolved to parse ethnicity, not race. You might be confused by this distinction since race and ethnicity are so often mixed up. Ethnic-group membership is assigned based on culturally-transmitted markers, like language or dialect. By contrast, racial groups are marked and assigned to perceived morphological traits, like skin color or hair form, which are genetically transmitted. Our folk-sociological abilities evolved to pick out ethnic groups or tribes. However, cues such as skin color or hair form can pose as ethnic markers in the modern world because members of different ethnic groups sometimes also share markers like skin color or hair form, and racial cues can automatically and unconsciously ‘trick’ our psychology into thinking that different ethnic groups exist. And this by-product can be harnessed and reified by cultural evolution to create linguistically labeled racial categories and racism.

Underlining this point is the fact that racial cues do not have cognitive priority over ethnic cues: when children or adults encounter a situation in which accent or language indicate ‘same ethnicity’ but skin color indicates ‘different race,’ the ethnolinguistic markers trump the racial markers. That is, children pick as a friend someone of a different race who speaks their dialect over someone of the same race who speaks a different dialect. Even weaker cues like dress can sometimes trump racial cues. The tendency of children and adults to preferentially learn and interact with those who share their racial markers (mistaken for ethnic cues) probably contributes to the maintenance of cultural differences between racially marked populations, even in the same neighborhood.

My point is that because of culture-gene coevolution, humans reliably develop the psychological equipment to map and navigate a world of immense cultural diversity. However, in mapping the social world around us using both our own observation and culturally acquired categories, our folk-sociological system, like our visual system, errs on the side of providing us with only the essential landmarks and main avenues around us, while ignoring lots of detail. Thus, the dynamically shifting gradations and clines of cultural variation are often rendered as a snapshot in stark relief.

Now we’re getting closer to an actual theory of race that liberals can work with, rather than embarrassing themselves with poor word choice and wishful thinking. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to say that white and black people might, as a purely psychological tendency, prefer their own in-groups- provided, of course, that they grow up believing themselves to really be part of that group. The first point is a constant, but the second is pure acculturation. Yet if this is admitted, it must also be admitted that this tendency is nothing more than a cognitive bias no different from the other biases we have had to shutter. ‘Race realists’ (i.e., alt-right dummies) like to say ‘tough luck’, and propose wholesale segregation as a means of getting over this problem. Yet this is would be as logical as giving into the cognitive bias which offers women preferential treatment in criminal courts, or cult leaders power over their followers. These are, obviously, human failings to be weeded out, not embraced out of some vaginal approach to life’s difficulties.

These, then, are my recommendations. First, scientists ought to take a deep breath and stop putting out well-meaning but poorly executed statements on race. If publications write misleading headlines that are not in line with a more nuanced understanding of anthropology (“race does not exist”), scientists ought to push back, and stop giving straws for racist morons to grasp. If anything, the perception of science as politically-motivated is going to be far more damaging than putting out the whole story and merely hoping for the best. The point is that racists will find ad hoc rationalizations for anything, and in anything- this is how ideology works! Worrying about a subsection of idiots does nothing but encourage pandering, which brings everyone else down too.

Second, there ought to be at least a few universally agreed-upon statements on race for both scientists as well as laypersons, even if that means the willfully ignorant might do their best to cherry-pick. Put another way, if there is no point of departure, there is also no real aim. Yet science has a goal. What is it? Once this question is treated seriously, the following will no longer be too controversial:

1.  There is a vast and quantifiable difference between the words ‘salient’ and ‘real’ that should never be confused.

2. Race is not a social construct, but real, at least in the sense that we can reliably corral human beings into racial categories according to patterns in a tiny fraction of their genetic makeup.

3. Although we can taxonomically divide people into races, the deeper question is whether we in fact should, given the existence of hundreds of other potentially more salient categories.

4. This is not a political project, but a scientific one, since liberal principles should remain unchanged even with the discovery of racial hierarchies.

The question now, I guess, is whether liberals are self-secure enough to truly believe #4. Ask yourself, really, whether you’d feel comfortable advocating for equal treatment even in the face of some unfortunate race-based group tendency. If not, you best practice your best salute, and leave liberalism to the liberals.

2 Comments WAR ON WORDS: Why Race Is NOT A Social Construct

  1. Peter Clease

    Henrich is wrong when he states ethnicity is distinct from race. It is, definitionally, but they have psychological overlap. I have heard arguments that intelligence dimmers away race’s significance, but, when you look at history, former or modern, some of the greatest scientists have been bigots. To many, race is more than melanin intake; it’s a cultural marker- just as, on a more ‘ethnic’ level, gay speak is; and people, despite their supposed complexities, tend to self-segregate- not just in race, but in life. That, plus the hive-mind persisting, keeps race meaning more than it really is. I mean, think of the utter droneship of most of the human race. This can be applied to any form of grouping. Man is still very tribal, and familiarity, even on a surface level, can influence. I think, only now, humans are beginning to grow out of this tendency, but the idea of ‘The Other,’ rooted in Simian instinct, will always be there. The thing is humans are actually very stationary creatures, thus will always inject meaning in banality. This is why, as much as things progress, history has been cyclic, and goes on and on.

    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      My understanding, though, is that’s Henrich’s point, which is perhaps occluded by anthropologists’ technical use of the word ‘ethnicity’. It’s a poor choice since almost no one has those ideas in mind.

      There’s probably as much correlation between intellect and bigotry as there is between intellect and religion. Perhaps now, intelligent people tend to be less bigoted and religious than average, but historically, there’s no reason why you’d see that. Such things tend to be emotional responses stiffened up by ad hoc, post hoc rationalizations.

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