I am a race realist, meaning that I think human races are real and important. Many people, especially in the social sciences, are race deniers, meaning that they deny either that race is real or that it is important. The vast majority of the time, race deniers will use the same handful of arguments to make their case. So in this post I am going to respond to, and hopefully refute, the eleven arguments I hear most often from race deniers. The responses that I give won’t be the only responses to these arguments that are possible, but they will be the ones that I think refute race denialism in the simplest, and quickest, way possible.
Before going into said arguments, I want to briefly state what race is and why it is a valid biological concept. A race is just a subspecies, meaning a set of populations that have evolved somewhat separately from other populations within the same species and, as a result, exhibits some interesting genetic and physical differences. These populations are defined geographically, because geography was the main limiting factor to human mating for most of prehistory. (It’s hard to mate with people who live on the other side of seas, oceans, mountains, and deserts.)
Categorizing people this way is useful because groups that evolve together end up resembling each other in countless ways. The fact that the races differ, on average, in terms of behavior, appearance, and genetics, has applications in medicine (races differ in disease rates and how they will respond to drugs for genetic reasons) (Riegos et al. 2015) (Ojodu et al. 2014), forensics (determining the race of an offender or victim via a biological criterion can be useful in identifying them) (Wade 2004), and the social sciences (the study of racial differences in crime, intelligence, personality, etc., is a major area of interest to many in these fields) (Rushton and Jensen 2005) (Lynn 2002) (Piffer 2015). Thus race is a concept rooted in biology and which is useful in science. To my mind, that makes it a valid scientific concept. With that said, let’s look at some of the most common arguments to the contrary:
No Credible Scientists Believe in Race
This is false and usually stated with no proper citation. As reviewed in (Liebermann et al. 2004), surveys show that many researchers around the world believe in the existence of human races:
As can be seen, belief in race among researchers varies depending on where in the world you look. But the only place where there is anything like a consensus is China, and the consensus there is that race exists. The claim that no credible scientists believe in race is thus clearly false.
There Hasn't Been Enough Time for Races to Evolve
If evolution is occurring at a fast enough pace, very little time is needed for subspecies to evolve. In the case of humans, the races have been evolving separately for somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 years. This is more than enough time for subspecies to evolve. For example, the Moose has evolved several subspecies in the last 100,000 years (Mikko and Andersson 1995), 2 subspecies of waterfowl evolved in less than 100,000 years (Wilson et al. 2011), 8 subspecies of tiger evolved in roughly 72,000 years (Lou et al. 2004), the Lizard Laudakia stellio evolved 2 subspecies in 12,000 years (Brammah et al. 2010) and, finally, the polar bear has only been evolving separately from the brown bear for 70,000-100,000 years (Lindqvist et al. 2010). Moreover, it only took 200,000 years for Neanderthals and modern humans to evolve into separate species (or perhaps subspecies). Thus 100,000 years is clearly enough time for the races to have evolved significant differences.
There Are No Race Genes
A “race gene” is a gene that is present in every member of one race and only members of that race. Such genes do not exist. Some people think that the non-existence of race genes shows that races don't exist either. But this does not follow, because no great racial theorist has ever utilized a notion of race that was contingent upon the existence of “race genes”. Prior to the 20th century, races were almost always defined by where your ancestors came from and what your hair, face, skull, skin color, and general anatomy looked like (Hamilton 2008). In the 20th century race continued to be tied to ancestry, but the traits scientists used to infer ancestry changed from observable physical traits to gene frequencies (Ayala 1985) (Reardon 2005 Chapter 2).
When race realists of the past talked about racial differences in gene frequencies they meant that certain genes were more common among some races than others. It never meant that every member of one race had a given gene that no member of any other race had. Because of this, the non-existence of race genes cannot be taken to demonstrate the non-existence of races.
You Can't Tell Someone’s Race by Their Genes
This is another claim which simply is not true. (Tang et al. 2004) were able to predict the self-identified race of Americans 99.8% of the time based on a moderate sampling of their genomes alone. Moreover, commercial services such as 23AndMe regularly analyze people's genomes to produce highly reliable estimates of their ancestry. Thus, contrary to what is often said, you can in fact tell someone’s race by looking at their genes.
Races Cannot Be Important Because We All Share 99% of Our DNA
We also share 95-98% of our DNA with chimps and, yet, there are some pretty big differences between us and chimps (Varki and Altheide 2009). Geneticists estimate that an average pair of humans will differ at 3 million base pairs in their DNA (Bamshad 2004). To put that in perspective, the genetic disease sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation of 1 base pair. Clearly then, there is enough genetic diversity within the human species to cause some pretty significant differences.
In fact, according to a meta-analysis of every twin study done since 1950, which adds up to a sample size of 14,000,000, roughly half of the differences between people of the same race, whether you look at simple physical differences or psychological ones, are caused by genetics (Polderman et al. 2015). Given that the genetic distance between members of the same race is smaller than the genetic distance between members of different races, this data clearly shows that there are enough genetic differences between the races to cause important physical and psychological differences.
Human Races Are Not Genetically Distinct Enough To Be Valid Biological Categories
The most commonly used measure of the genetic distance between populations is called an Fst value. Humans have a higher Fst value than many other species which have recognized subspecies, meaning that human races are more genetically distinct than the subspecies in these other species. Thus, the genetic distance between races is sufficient for them to be considered subspecies.
There is More Genetic Variation Within Races than Between Them
This is related to those Fst values I just mentioned. An Fst value is the proportion of genetic variation within a species that is contained between populations rather than within them. It is true that the human Fst value is less than 0.5, meaning that less than 50% of our genetic variation is between populations. But this is normal in the animal kingdom and it is normal among species that have recognized subspecies. The above chart clearly shows that there are several species which have less variation between populations than humans do which also have recognized subspecies. Moreover, the genetic differences between races are more than enough to ensure that members of the same race are virtually always more genetically similar to one another than members of different races (Witherspoon et al. 2007).
Further still, as was reviewed above, the genetic distance between races is greater than the genetic distance between members of the same race, and genetic differences within race are enough to cause important differences in physical and mental traits. Because of this, the proportion of genetic variation contained between human races, rather than within them, cannot legitimately be used to discard the existence, or significance, of race.
Human Variation is Clinal, Not Racial
“Clinal” just means that human traits, and genetic differences, tend to change slowly and as a function of geography. For instance, as you move further from the Equator, skin color tends to become lighter. The point that race deniers are making is that this gradual change in variation doesn’t have any “hard lines” that demarcate one race from another. Instead, races blend into one another.
This is true but irrelevant. Scientists often impose discrete categories on continuous variation. For instance, color categories like “blue” and “green” are discrete categories imposed on the perfectly continuous variation that is the color spectrum. In fact, zoologists even have a word for situations in which subspecies are connected by intermediate populations that change in a clinal fashion: intergradation.
Besides, human genetic variation is not, in fact, just like the color spectrum. Same-race populations are more genetically similar than different-race populations even when all three populations are separated by the same geographic distance (Rosenberg 2005).
In summary, human genetic variation is not perfectly clinal and, even if it was, that would not preclude the imposition of discrete categories on human variation, nor would it be abnormal within the context of subspecies taxonomy. For these reasons, the cline argument fails to discredit race.
The Traits That Races Are Based On Are Arbitrary
This argument postulates that you could come up with mutually exclusive groupings of people based on different traits and that, because there is no objective method of choosing which traits to use, which grouping you decide to go with is arbitrary. For instance, you could group people based on skin color and, as a result, Africans and certain groups of Indians might be grouped together. Or you could group people based on height, in which case Indians and Africans would most certainly not be grouped together.
Of course, populations are normally grouped based on sets of several characteristics. But the point remains: you can come up with different, mutually exclusive, ways of grouping people, and there is no obvious way of choosing which is correct. And, so the argument goes, if the basis for race is arbitrary then race itself must be arbitrary as well.
The problem with this argument is simple: races are defined by ancestry, not observable physical traits. As a consequence of being descended from different ancestral populations, the races differ in many characteristics. Such differences are correlated with race, but they do not define race. An albino African is still racially black. Thus, the argument that the characteristics that define race are arbitrary is based on a straw-man argument; again, observable traits do not define race, they just correlate with race.
A common line of response to this argument will be to say that the areas of ancestry that define race are also arbitrary. For instance, one might say that grouping together people that descend from Europe, as opposed to, say, southern Europeans and northern Africans, is an arbitrary decision.
This is wrong because the edges of the continents have historically restricted gene flow. In other words, people had a strong tendency to mate with people on the same continent as them and, as a result, they evolved together within a common gene pool. This is why, even when you take widely dispersed populations from throughout the world, when researchers have programs group people’s genetic data into 4-6 “clusters” which maximize the extent to which members of the same cluster are more genetically similar than members of other clusters, said clusters nearly perfectly align with traditional notions of race (Rosenberg et al. 2002). (Tang et al. 2005) (Rosenberg et al. 2005).
Now, it is true that the exact lines of these clusters are somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes gene frequencies change very slowly across regions and so the exact line one chooses doesn’t have an obvious justification beyond it being a line on a map. But, in spite of these fuzzy boundaries, race is still a useful scientific concept. And, besides, at this point we’ve really just returned to the cline argument addressed above. Thus, the “arbitrary traits” argument does not in any way show that race is not a valid and useful scientific concept.
Racial Categories Change Across Time and Place
Race deniers sometimes argue that people in different places, or even Westerners just a few centuries ago, had radically different ideas about who was a member of which race and that, because of this, race is invalid. But if we look back to the 18th century, we can see that when Linnaeus came up with the first major racial system he posited three races: Asians, Whites, and Blacks. A few decades later, history’s most influential racial system would be devised by Johan Blumenbach who separated humanity into five races: East Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, Whites, and Blacks (Hamilton 2008). Clearly, these systems of racial classification are highly similar to those used by most Westerners today.
Now it is true that, as exemplified by Linnaeus and Blumenbach, some authors posited the existence of more races than another. But these differences are not as serious as they might at first seem. Typically, such disagreements were the result of one author wanting to group humans into larger racial categories than the other. By the 20th century, this difference came to be seen as largely unimportant, because these racial schemes are not mutually exclusive (Boyd 1950). We can easily utilize racial schemes which differ in their level of aggregation, saying, at different times, Caucasian, White, and German, for instance, without contradicting ourselves or causing confusion. Thus, the seeming contradictions of traditional racial theories, upon closer analysis, fade away. Scientists have basically agreed on human races for a very long time.
A favorite talking point of race deniers is that the Irish weren’t considered white in early American history. This is false. If this were true, the Irish could not have immigrated here en masse, since the Naturalization Acts of the 1700s limited citizenship to free whites. And yet, millions of Irish were allowed to immigrate. Why? Because everyone has always known that the Irish are white.
It is true that the Irish were sometimes compared to blacks, but no one seriously thought that they were literally, racially, black. Any honest person who looks at 19th-century anti-Irish propaganda immediately realizes that the complaint was that the Irish were thought to be as bad as blacks in spite of them being white, not that they literally were black.
Still, it is true that some people around the world have come up with some pretty weird ideas about race. So what? What does that have to do with whether or not traditional European racial theories are useful in modern science? Nothing. And so it is irrelevant to the validity of race as a scientific concept.
Race is a Social Construct
Any time we categorize objects we decide to group things one way as opposed to another. In this sense, all categories are social constructs. If we wanted to, we could get rid of the category “table” and, in its place, invent two new categories: one for all “tables” that are brown and another for all “tables” that are not brown. Of course, it is more useful to have one single category which denotes all tables and so that is what we go with. But the point is that we choose to “go with” one category scheme and not the other. Thus, there is something “social” or “artificial” about all categories.
But this isn’t specific to race. All categories are tools and their validity must be determined by whether or not they are useful. And I have already shown that race is useful.
It is worth noting that most biologists have always known this about race. Some of the first biologists to talk about race, such as the previously referenced Linnaeus and Blumenbach, commented on the fact that racial categories were invented by culture and, to some extent, arbitrary (Stuessy 2009) (Blumenbach 1775). And yet both men knew that human races had real and significant biological differences.
Clearly then, race realists have long known that race is a “social construct” and pointing this out does nothing to refute the race realist position.
In summary, the races evolved separately for a long enough period of time to become subspecies. Moreover, their genetic differences are larger than those seen among subspecies in other species. It is true that there are no race genes, and that we share 99% of our genomes with each other, but neither of these facts excludes the possibility of important racial differences. Contrary to popular opinion, scientists can tell what your race is by looking at your DNA, and ideas about race have not changed as much as is commonly thought. It is true that, to some extent, human variation is “clinal”, but that has nothing to do with whether or not we should categorize people racially. And when we do group people racially, it is based on ancestry, not arbitrarily chosen traits.
These reasons, and others like them, are why many researchers around the world agree with the obvious truth that race exists and, in some contexts, such as medicine, social science, and forensics, is important.
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