Is Race Genetic or Socially Constructed? | Philip Kitcher


So what should we make of the concept of race? There are a lot of anthropologists who would
say we should just throw this concept away completely. There’s no basis for it. And those people are responding to what many
scholars call essentialist notions of race. There’s something about this particular
group of people, perhaps about their anatomy or their physiology or their brains or their
genes or something like this, that differentiates them from various other groups of people. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned
from biological science and psychological science over the last century it’s that
there’s an enormous amount of variation within the groups that we’ve traditionally
thought of as races, far more than there is between the groups we’ve traditionally thought
of as races. It turns out that if you look at things from
a genetic point of view the certain kinds of molecular sequences are more common in
some groups than in other groups. That’s because during the course of human
history these groups have been separated from one another. They haven’t intermarried and that’s given
various chances for various kinds of genetic material to become prevalent in some groups
but not in others. But the first thing to say about that is that
these differences are trivial! Largely trivial; there are some cases, such
as well known diseases that tend to affect some groups more than others, that is not
trivial for the sufferers. But by and large these differences are perfectly
trivial. Now about 15 years ago a tremendously brilliant
study was done by researchers at Stanford that actually divided the human population
into groups that the researchers themselves called interbreeding populations. They didn’t want to call them races but
very quickly the popular press picked this up and started referring to them as races. So you might start out with the human population
and ask the following question: on the basis of biological evidence, gene frequencies,
molecular frequencies of DNA sequences in different populations, what would you get
if you wanted to divide the population into two? Well you’d get actually Africans and most
Asians, central and western Asia, and Europeans as forming one group, and the rest of the
human populations forming another group. Now what would happen if you did it into three
groups? Well then you’d get the Africans separated
out from the Eurasian population. What would happen if you did it for four groups? Five groups? Six groups? Seven groups? Eight groups? Nine groups? The first five or so of these give you something
like sort of standard racial groups with a few odd little twists. The sixth gives you—as there’s sixth of
these groups—gives you a tiny little population that has been isolated because of mountain
barriers in Asia. Now those are genuine divisions that have
come out of our human history and that are still present in the DNA sequences of the
genomes of various people. But whether we want to draw any distinctions
at all within the human population is completely up to us. Remember how I did this: I said ‘If you want
to divide the human population into two, to three, to four, to five, to six, to seven,
this biology will tell you how to make the biologically significant decisions.’ But why should we want to do that? Is there a point in doing that? Well sometimes there is a point. Sometimes there’s a point in recognizing
that certain people are more closely related to other people, if you want to do medical
transplantation, for example. There is a point in saying, well what you
need is somebody to give you a kidney who comes from this particular group. But there are other people who say this is
just the sort of stuff that breeds discrimination and prejudice as it has in the past, and there
are yet other people who say precisely because of that discrimination that we’ve had in
the past it’s important to acknowledge these groups. So I want to say there’s a certain kind
of biological phenomenon that stands behind the historic process of dividing people into
racial groups. But actually these racial groups are constructed
by us. It’s we who decide that we want to draw
the lines and the basis on which we should decide that is an ethical basis. We should decide how we actually treat people
most fairly. So the issue is really not whether there are
racial groups. I mean we could think about racial groups
as one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and so on, in divisions in this initial human
population. But it’s a question of what divisions, if
any, are useful from the point of view of justice and fairness. And that I think is the right way to think
about race. So is it scientific? Well there’s sort of something scientific
lurking in the background. Is it socially constructed? Yes, it’s socially constructed. And the social construction ought to proceed
on the best ethical basis we can find.

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