A reply to Sean Last from Krom

Editor's note: I promised Krom, the author of the RationalWiki page on "racialism," that I would publish a reply to Sean Last's critique of that page if he wrote one. I'm a man of my word, so here it is. Krom unfortunately indicated in his email to me that he wouldn't be willing to comment on this article since he won't comment here ever again. I also asked him if he would be willing to participate in a debate with Sean on our podcast, but he has not responded to any of my communications since sending me this. - ME

A subspecies (race) requires a threshold of genetic or phenotypic differentiation, otherwise it becomes synonymous with a gamodeme (breeding population). Individuals of a deme, have a higher tendency of in-group mating than with other gamodemes. What Sean is describing is not a subspecies, but a deme (population) as a unit of study in population genetics. Relethford in his textbook on biological anthropology defines a gamodeme as a “group of organisms that tend to choose mates from within the group” (The Human Species, 2003, p. 68). There is no exact proportion of in-group mating that defines a population – only it has to be higher than out-group. Therefore a village where just over half its inhabitants are married to people from the same village is a gamodeme, the same if the proportion was 80%. Examples of breeding populations include ethnic groups, isolated tribesman and economic classes like aristocracies.

The main problem with Sean re-defining a subspecies as a gamodeme/breeding population is not only semantics, but a clear “mismatch” with the traditional race concept. Sarich & Miele in their book Race: The Reality of Human Differences also attempt to re-define race like this:

“Sarich and Miele (2004, 172) judge that the Dogon, Teita, and Bushmen (their terms) are distinctive races, as are people from Athens and Copenhagen (p. 210), but most of these groups don’t seem to qualify as races as ordinarily conceived (presumably at least in part because these groups do not have readily identifiable distinctive visible traits). Of course, Sarich and Miele are entitled to use the word “race” however they want. But their central and explicit aim is to vindicate the ordinary concept of race, and so they cannot soundly replace ordinary race-talk with some other kind of talk.” (Glasgow 2009, emphasis added)

These are populations, not races. A race is an intergenerational deme, or aggregate of demes (meta-population) that is significantly differentiated via reproductive isolation to the extent it can be considered an intraspecific lineage. I agree a subspecies (race) is a population or meta-population that has been strongly isolated with little interbreeding “for a long time”. It is then strange Sean claims there are human races – when no population has been relatively isolated long enough, that is, unless you are talking about groups like the Amish or a remote jungle tribe, but here again is the “mismatch” objection to race (see Appiah, 1996 and Zack, 2002):

“Zack and Appiah offer what we can call mismatch arguments. A mismatch argument holds that the true account of the extension of a term or concept x would be sharply different from what is believed about the extension of x. In this case of race, Appiah and Zack think that the fact of the absence of reproductive isolation among major racial groups (as identified in ordinary discourse) would result in none of them being races (in the sense of being biological populations). Thus, if we allowed that the term ‘race’ does pick out biological populations, it would turn out that none of the groups commonsensically considered races are races. Conversely, other groups that are not thought of as races (e.g., Appiah suggests the Amish, and Zack, Irish Protestants) might count as races.” (Mallon, 2006)

Sean claims because the threshold to measure subspecies or racial differentiation is arbitrary, this means any human population is a race. As I explained this is wrong since gamodemes already cover the vaguer (low to moderate) captured variation and it would be nonsensical to argue economic classes like peasants or aristocracy are races, just because they are breeding populations that differ in their genetic frequency. Subspecies in zoology are ‘Evolutionary Significant Units’ (ESU’s) and their reproductive isolation over a length of time: “must be enough to allow evolutionarily important differences to accrue”. In the past, subspecies might have existed in Homo sapiens, such as the Neanderthals. No living human population though is genetically or phenotypically differentiated enough. There are living populations not races.

“If every genetically distinguishable population were elevated to the status of race, then most species would have hundreds to tens of thousands of races, thereby making race nothing more than a synonym for a deme or local population. A race or subspecies requires a degree of genetic differentiation that is well above the level of genetic differences that exist among local populations.” (Templeton, 2013)

Another assertion by Sean is that: “if you look at surveys of biological anthropologists you find that about 1 in 4 researchers in America believe in biological races as do a clear majority of researchers in eastern Europe and China”. This is true, but how are those anthropologists defining race? The answer is they are substituting race for mere population. For example the amount of Polish anthropologists who defend the traditional race concept as a subspecies is 1-5%, looking a chart from one of those surveys. “RationalWiki's incorrectness does not stop there” should then read “Sean’s incorrectness” since he is conflating many definitions of race. A “race” to most Polish anthropologists is a local ethnic group, not a “Negroid”, or “Alpine”.

Sean seems to think someone has denied the race concept when applied to humans captures zero variation. This is incorrect. Race obviously captures something, even Lewontin (1972) agrees. An “anti-realist” about race simply recognises the captured variation is far too small for race to be useful. Non-racial methods (such as clines) can now capture these rather trivial differences, and they do so more accurately. There is no need for human racial classification in the 21st century. Relethford (2009) describes the race concept when applied to humans as being “crude”. I fail to see how this supports racialism, and Sean is offering a watered-down form of it. The problem with this is what Hochman (2014) states: “weak versions of racial naturalism… do not contrast with anti-realism about biological race”. In my opinion Sean is actually an “anti-realist”. He is not defending the traditional concept of subspecies (race), but a trivial re-definition. Unless Sean can show living human populations that actually match the subspecies definition of race as shown, he is not talking about race at all, but something else.

Sean says “scientists often apply discrete categories to perfectly continuous variation”, but this pertains to the usefulness of categorizing the variation over a non-categorization method. Sean doesn’t seem to realize the non-racial method has been around since the 1960s, which is why clines replaced races as a ‘tool’ to study human biological variation (Livingstone, 1962). The clinal approach in biology as a non-categorizing method in this instance is more useful; race is not productive or a convenient method. Going along with Sean’s re-definition of race: where a race is simply a deme (which shows minimal genetic or phenotypic distinction to another) this cannot be extended to continents, since local breeding populations are structured almost continuously across the map (they do not aggregate as continental meta-populations).

Before clines were introduced to biology, it was OK to go along with classifying very crudely continental populations. This is no longer the case since clines have replaced races. Former racialists such as Joseph Birdsell by the mid-1970s adopted the clinal approach as it was then being introduced to biological anthropology. This had nothing to do with political correctness but just objectively looking what method more accurately and is useful to capture variation. Interestingly the anthropologist C. Loring Brace has made the case, racialism is in fact what is politically correct: we grow up being told by society there are “White”, “Black” people etc, and all people are meant to be pigeon-holed into a “racial group” on census forums. The anti-realist view about race is what is politically incorrect and goes against modern society norms.