Quayshawn Spencer: Is Race Real?

Is race real? Or is it an illusion? With the death of George Floyd in the custody of a police officer, we are once again asking questions about race. In our last episode, we invited Adam Rutherford to discuss his book, How to Argue with a Racist. This episode, we invite Dr. Quayshawn Spencer to a conversation with two biologists, Dr. Nathan Lents and Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass.

Dr. Spencer is a philosopher of biology at the University fo Pennsylvania. In two papers, he maps out the debate over the last few decades on the reality of biological race and “folk” conceptions of race.

Racial realism I: Are biological races real?

In this article, I discuss and critique how metaphysicians of race have conceived of and defended racial realism according to how biologists use “race”. I start by defining “racial realism” in the broadest accepted way in the metaphysics of race. Next, I summarize a representative sample of recent attempts from metaphysicians of race and biologists to defend racial realism and the main criticisms against each attempt. I discuss how metaphysicians of race have defended racial realism according to how ordinary people use “race” in Part II.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/phc3.12468 7

Racial realism II: Are folk races real?

This article is Part II in a pair of articles on racial realism. In Part I, I defined “racial realism” and discussed the major attempts in the past twenty years among metaphysicians of race and biologists to defend racial realism from the viewpoint of what biologists mean by “race.” In this article, I continue discussing and critiquing how metaphysicians of race have conceived of and defended racial realism, but with a focus on how ordinary people use “race.” I focus on two broad groups of racial realisms in this article: biological racial realism and social racial realism. After defining each one, I summarize a representative sample of recent attempts from metaphysicians of race to defend both types of racial realism. I also discuss major criticisms against each attempt. I end by sketching a new, radical pluralist way of being a racial realist, and I provide some empirical motivation for why it’s promising.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/phc3.12467 1

Dr. Spencer argues that there are many distinct meanings of “race,” and depending precisely what we mean, it can be either an illusion or real. The right answer to the question, then is “it depends.”

This contingent answer raises a whole new set of questions. In what ways is the concept of race legitimate and not? Is recognizing any legitimacy to race dangerous? These are difficult questions of ancestry. They are contentious and they are important.

Peaceful Science seeks to engage these questions with rigor and honesty, with courage, curiosity, and empathy. Join the conversation with us.

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Notable Replies

  1. Hard to

    I don’t find any such thing in the article. Where do you?

  2. One notable critic, Alan Templeton, devised a test for detecting whether an evolutionary history of populations has a tree structure—a test called “Multi‐locus nested clade phylogenetic analysis (ML‐NCPA)”—and used that test on a sample of human breeding populations similar to Cavalli‐Sforza et al.'s sample (Templeton, 2013, 269).21 His result was that “ML‐NCPA strongly rejects the null hypotheses of no gene flow and no admixture under the null hypothesis that isolated lineages did exist [in humans]” (Templeton, 2013, 269). In other words, Templeton found that (T1) is false for every breeding population represented in Figure 1.

    While the treeness objection is relevant and formidable, it is not the fatal blow that many race scholars take it to be against Andreasen’s racial realism.22 This is for two reasons. First, it can be true that the evolutionary history of human breeding populations has never had a tree structure and false that human cladistic races have never existed. Second, Cavalli‐Sforza et al. do not need to presuppose that the evolutionary history of human breeding populations has a tree structure in order to reliably use a tree to reconstruct the evolutionary history of human breeding populations. Both of these claims may sound unbelievable, so let me explain.

    In this article, I have summarized what “racial realism” means among metaphysicians of race and I have discussed a few representative attempts to defend racial realism of a particular type in the last 20 years. The type of racial realism I focused on was racial realism from the viewpoint of biologists’ use of “race”. Now, let us move on to exploring the landscape of racial realism defenses when “race” is understood in an ordinary way.

    And in the next article (which will be linked in the OP soon):

    I end by sketching a new, radical pluralist way of being a racial realist, and I provide some empirical motivation for why it’s promising.

  3. And I find nothing in the second article to suggest that the author agrees that “race” is real. “Radical racial pluralism” avoids any position.

  4. So, summarize his points then.

    As I read him, he argues that race has no fixed meaning, and in some contexts it can actually be meaningful. Because of this uncertainty and plurality in the meaning of race, our answers to “is race real?” are highly contextually and ultimately “it depends” on what precisely we mean by race in a particular context.

    This means that in some contexts, using some meanings of race, there is reality to race. In other contexts, with other meanings, there is not.

  5. But he doesn’t accept any of those answers as true even within its context, or at least he never says so.

  6. So give me your summary of what his point is. I’d love hear your take.

  7. Just a quick note of thanks for pointing to Dr. Spencer; his seems an important voice and his work is clearly important to consider. I’ll do that sometime, maybe soon, but definitely not now.

  8. I finally got to watch all of this. This was really interesting and helpful. I am interested in how we could prepare students better for these conversations.

    This last spring I really went out of my comfort zone and did a case study on skin color (from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science) with my Human Genetics class. It was my first time teaching that course and the first time talking about skin color in the classroom. I don’t think it went particularly well, but I could see if I had more tools for leading conversations about race I could do a better job. The problem is that the vast majority of “resources” are geared around social science/humanities conversations and not STEM.

  9. What did not go well?

Continue the discussion discourse.peacefulscience.org

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