Round Up The Usual Suspects

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to an item about race over at the Huffington Post. The post is an interview of David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy from the University of New England. The title of the piece is Race Delusion: Lies That Divide Us, so you know where it’s going right up front.

Professor Smith’s argument consists of making a perfunctory nod to the reality of human diversity — then setting up an enormous straw-man, knocking it down, and using a continuum fallacy to deny the existence of race.

First the nod:

The idea that races are invented will probably sound crazy to a lot of people. They’ll think of it as a silly idea that only an academic who’s out of touch with the real world could come up with. Surely, there are visible features such as skin color, hair texture, facial morphology, and body build that set the races apart from one another!

It would be foolish to pretend that there aren’t obvious biological differences between human beings and that these differences are tied to certain geographical regions. If you’re a light-skinned person with blue eyes you very probably had lots of ancestors from northern Europe, and if you’re a dark-skinned person with tightly curled dark hair you very probably had lots of ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody worth listening to denies these facts about human diversity…

Except some sweet-toothed Scotsmen, I suppose. But there you are, that’s out of the way: there are heritable human traits, and long-separated human populations differ in those traits.

Now for the straw-man:

Phenotypic diversity is a fact, but race is a theory. It’s what we call a folk-theory. It’s a way of trying to explain human diversity by positing that there are a small number of “pure” types (races) of human beings—black, white, etc. According to the folk-theory, everyone is either a member of one of these pure types or a mixture of them.

Got that? When anyone speaks of racial differences, what they mean is that there are a few (five or so, I guess) monolithic and sharply defined races, that we can think of as five genetic “knobs”. So black people have the “Negroid” knob set to 10, and the “Caucasian”, “Asian”, “Amerindian”, and “Australoid” knobs all set to zero. Barack Obama and Beyoncé have at least two knobs turned up, and maybe some people have all five.

It’s a folk-theory! (For racist folks.) Professor Smith isn’t having any of it, though, and neither should you:

This theory of race is false, for all sorts of reasons.

And so it is. We agree. The problem, though, is that pretty much nobody — very certainly nobody in the HBD or “race-realism” community — ever said such a thing. It is an absurdly simplistic caricature of the variation of human groups.

Racial differences are not, of course, a matter of five or so knobs. What distinguishes different human groups is their average position in a vast polygenetic space, with thousands of individual variables. It is the large-scale clustering of particular combinations of these variables in this multidimensional gene-space that distinguishes what we conveniently call “races”, but we can identify, and parse, these differences at many levels of granularity. (Our ability to do so is accelerating rapidly.)

As bad as this is, it gets worse:

We seem to assume that every member of a race shares some deep characteristic or “essence” that is unique to that race—something “in the blood” or in the genes that’s innate, unchangeable, and inherited biologically from one’s parents.

Here Professor Smith says that the “folk-theory” he’s up against also includes a belief in complete uniformity within races: so that whatever trait you pick, “every member” of the given race will instantiate it identically. This is an even easier target, of course; all you’d need to refute it, even for “folk-theory” folks, is a single black who doesn’t have rhythm, or an Oriental who isn’t inscrutable. But again it’s just a silly straw-man; the reality is that what varies between groups is the statistical distribution of heritable traits. (Seven-foot-tall Dinkas are far commoner than seven-foot-tall Inuits, but that doesn’t mean that they tower over them.)

So, down goes the straw-man:

The notion that there are racial essences doesn’t have a shred of scientific support. In fact, it’s totally incompatible with what science tells us about human variability.

Moreover:

It’s pure fiction, but it’s a fiction that’s stubbornly rooted in our ordinary ways of thinking.

Well, not in Professor Smith’s way of thinking, of course, and not in mine, nor that of anyone else I know. Just “ours”.

I promised you a continuum fallacy. Here it is:

…the biological traits that are conventionally associated with race—like skin color—vary continuously across geographical regions. Imagine taking a slow train from equatorial Africa to Scandinavia. As you travel north, the skin color of the people that you see lightens gradually. So any line that you choose to draw between so-called white people and so-called black people is bound to be arbitrary.

As is any line we draw between children and grownups, hot and cold, good and bad, tall and short — or wisdom and rubbish. And of course, being all of one species, and with the distributions of alleles in a given population being determined by local selection pressure, we would expect that there would be gradual transitions between them. (See this post of my own from long ago.) But Professor Smith is saying that because there aren’t sharp boundaries, all differences between human groups are nugatory.

The very same consideration applies to all the other “racialized” traits as well.

And what might those be? Let’s review:

It would be foolish to pretend that there aren’t obvious biological differences between human beings and that these differences are tied to certain geographical regions. If you’re a light-skinned person with blue eyes you very probably had lots of ancestors from northern Europe, and if you’re a dark-skinned person with tightly curled dark hair you very probably had lots of ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody worth listening to denies these facts about human diversity…

Why are the only traits Professor Smith mentions as heritable and diverse related to appearance? Nearly all human traits, including cognitive and behavioral ones, are highly heritable, which means that those supremely important qualities, too, will be differently distributed in different groups. Care must be taken, though, that this should never even cross the reader’s mind — and so, to illustrate human variability, all we may speak of are superficial variations in appearance: the color of our eyes and skin, and the curliness of our hair.

This, then, is the current condition of intellectual discourse on human biodiversity. It is a hugely important topic, with enormous ethical and social ramifications that, for everyone’s sake, we should all care about examining carefully and getting right. But to sweep reality under the rug like this is worse than unhelpful, and this article is little more than crimestop.

Read the whole thing here.

Related: the “motte-and-bailey” style of argument. Here.

Related content from Sphere

7 Comments

  1. “…the biological traits that are conventionally associated with race—like skin color—vary continuously across geographical regions.”

    A continuum of variation does not exist in this universe — except as a mathematical construct. Why? Well, because, to the best of our knowledge, every physical property, be it mass, space or even time is discretized at the Planck scale.

    What this implies about diversity is that it is not infinitely smooth. There is always some measure of predominance for any characteristic.

    This inevitably enables grouping for all characteristics. For any given characteristic, the number of groups can range from 1 (all individuals combined) to the number of individuals, each one defining its own group.

    So then if one insists that there is only one group of homo sapiens, then all differentiation between individuals is based merely on convenient labels, such as white, black, red, yellow, or brown skin (with a multiplicity of variation in hues within each group). Or seven billion plus groups, each containing one unique combination of DNA.

    The advantage of grouping, however, is that it offers the possibility of investigating correlations between groups. But for some people (perhaps even for most people) this is a scary proposition, because, you know, it leads to so-called profiling, such as: black youths have a predisposition to die of gunshot wounds in the United States; white men can’t jump; men excel at physics and math; women tend to be better caregivers; black men are much better basketball players; Asians are better students; Jews are clever with numbers (especially if prefixed with a $ sign); etc.

    So, which is preferable, to understand certain ramifications of our natural diversity, or to pretend that there is no diversity among all the individuals in the human race?

    Posted June 6, 2016 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Good comment, Henry. You’re right, of course, that nothing is truly continuous in nature — and the “Planck length” of biological diversity is the individual organism.

    Where the linked article goes off the rails is to insist that no rationally defensible grouping exists between, at one extreme, the species level, and at the other, the Planck unit. And at a legal and ethical level, there’s a case to be made there, given that every human being does get a unique deal of the cards, and that the differences between groups is, for most traits, a matter of statistical distribution, rather than the racial uniformity that characterizes Professor Smith’s “folk-theory” strawman. We should meet every person as an individual, not as a member of a group. But there is a pernicious double standard here, in which the group level is always deemed a perfectly valid taxonomic level for the airing of grievances. The recent spate of tactical assaults using “disparate impact” as a weapon against the organic order illustrates this very clearly.

    Statistical distributions begin to have explanatory (and predictive) power when we deal in terms of aggregates and collectives. When we ignore this awkward truth — as we do when, for example, we blame different group-level outcomes on racism or sexism while effectively outlawing the consideration of other possible causes — we do nobody any favors.

    There are other considerations and particularities also, such as the corrosive effect on unit cohesion and effectiveness of putting women into military combat groups.

    Finally, the insistence upon viewing human groups at the “Planck scale” is consistent with a general tendency on the Left to atomize and disintegrate natural and organic aggregations and groupings. The ideal is a completely pulverized society of deracinated individuals living in a crushed, two-level hierarchy: atoms and the State. This, I think, gets at the heart of the matter here.

    Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  3. Bluefin Tuna says

    Professor Smith’s argument is perhaps most remarkable for not being under the purview of empirical science at all. It’s nothing more than a crude, poorly-constructed rhetorical attempt at solving the age-old Problem of Universals, well-known to every undergraduate philosophy major- though I deeply doubt he understands this himself. He creates a comically extreme Platonic Realist straw-man more radical than the most fanatical neo-Platonist, concludes said straw-man is obviously wrong, then proposes absolute Nominalism as the natural solution, without ever once considering any objections. Middle positions such as Aristotelian Realism and Conceptualism, each of which can accommodate race as somehow an objectively real category, are totally ignored. Q.E.D.

    This argument is a textbook example of the sloppy, incompetent thinking nurtured by an education system that willfully ignores DWEMs like Plato, Aristotle, and Kant for being too stale, pale, and male. We are at present gripped by a veritable plague of scientists attempting to argue metaphysics despite zero training in philosophy.

    Posted June 8, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Spot on, BT.

    And even nominalists can, say, prefer dogs to cats.

    Posted June 8, 2016 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  5. BT,

    “…, incompetent thinking nurtured by an education system that willfully ignores DWEMs like Plato, Aristotle, and Kant for being too stale, pale, and male.”

    Your take on DWEM (which I have emphasized) is perfect. So I hesitate to suggest a parenthetic extension, “… stale, pale, and male (not in jail).”

    Posted June 9, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  6. Jacques says

    With a few tweaks the distinguished professor’s argument proves that the distinction between the human species and chimps or gorillas is also mythical pseudoscience. But these guys never think to extend their principles beyond the precise point needed for the evil political platform of the current year.

    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben says

    So the good professor obviously opposes “diversity” … since if race is merely a construct, diversity doesn’t confer any discernible benefits and must be irrelevant.

    Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:25 pm | Permalink