Thursday, May 16, 2013

Razib Khan with good thoughts on why race as a biological construct matters


There seems to be a lot of dumb commentary on race and biology and a lot of equally dumb commentary on race as a social construct, and an odd sense among some people that the two ideas are at odds.

My training is principally on the "race as a social construct" side of the ledger. I've never had any professional social scientist tell me in the context of this discussion that there are no biological differences between groups identified as "races". The point is that racial identification is usually determined by some relatively superficial biological markers, and it is applied quite discretely in most cases to what is really a continuum. Social conventions like "one drop" rules typically make disadvantage relatively inclusive and advantage relatively exclusive when there is an intermediate case on these superficial markers (go figure! big surprise it would work out that way, huh?). The other point is that these social identities come with a boatload of privileges and obligations and that strongly shapes opportunity in a way that is ultimately (of course) largely socially constructed.

The other point about social construction is the naivete of being "post racial" or "ignoring race". It's precisely because race is reified that you can't just declare such a thing. That's not to say we might be "post racial" in some sense some day. We didn't always see race the way we do today and other countries today don't see race the same way we see race, after all. These things evolve. But it's a very real social category today.

None of that says "biology doesn't matter" or "we're all exactly the same except in the collection of physical identifiers". Social scientists that talk about the social construction of race generally - in my experience - don't speak to that because they don't study that. What they'll say is that genetic distributions are smooth distributions and the thing about the social construction of race is that they put discrete boundaries on those distributions. This is more of an issue in places like Brazil than the United States (as Khan points out the distribution is more discrete for blacks/whites in the United States simply because the category "black" is defined so widely... in Brazil it would be very different - you'd have the continuous genetic distribution chopped up much more haphazardly).


  1. Indeed, Razib Khan did write a good and informative blog-post. But I have a question to ask that's a little bit away from the issues of biology and race.

    Does your recurring interest in the relationship between economics and natural science (particularly biology) mean that sooner or later you will publish in one of these scholarly outlets, Daniel? :-P

  2. Whom do you think Khan is talking about when he says "What biology is doing is refuting a peculiar social construction of race," especially since two sentences later he takes the opportunity to take a swipe at sociology and cultural anthropology?

    Here is Pinker on people consciously trying to ignore these issues-

    "What can be done? In recent decades, the standard response to claims of genetic differences has been to deny the existence of intelligence, to deny the existence of races and other genetic groupings, and to subject proponents to vilification, censorship, and at times physical intimidation. Aside from its effects on liberal discourse, the response is problematic. Reality is what refuses to go away when you do not believe in it, and progress in neuroscience and genomics has made these politically comforting shibboleths (such as the non-existence of intelligence and the non-existence of race) untenable."

    Who is he talking about?

    1. I think it's a combination of some bad actors and a misconception on his part about how the term is used.

      I didn't read the whole Ta-Nehisi Coates post (they're always so long!), but I would not be surprised at all if there were a lot of bloggers posing as social theorists making some weak claims out there too.

    2. Are you thinking of a different Khan post? That sentence doesn't come up in this one.

      Certainly I'm not going to defend peculiar social constructions of race. See my very first paragraph in this post!

      Khan has been on the money on this stuff and he doesn't seem to be denying social constructions of race. We both have trouble with some bad renditions out there. If you do too, great!

    3. As with your post on this I feel like you really badly want me to think something I don't think but you're being a little coy about exactly what that is.

      I could be totally misdiagnosing but that is very much the sense I get.

    4. So both Khan and Pinker are clearly quite contrary to this:

      "Andrew writes that liberals should stop saying 'truly stupid things like race has no biological element.' I agree. Race clearly has a biological element -- because we have awarded it one. Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on 'Frankishness' in Emerson's day. Over history of race has taken geography, language, and vague impressions as its basis.

      "'Race,' writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, 'is an idea, not a fact.' Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason."

      Those rare "bad actors" are the first result I got when I googled "race is a social construct iq"

    5. To reiterate, neither Pinker nor Khan believe by any reasonable reading that the markers are "superficial." They are *weakened* in their ability to make predictions by the fact that this is a continuum, but as Khan says in the post that I linked to, "Generating a phylogeny of human populations and individuals within those populations is trivial. You don’t need many markers, depending on the grain of your phylogeny (e.g., to differentiate West Africans vs. Northern Europeans you actually can use one marker!)… [This] proposition I believe is well established. A group such as 'black American' has a clear distribution of ancestries in a population genetic sense."

      How is that consistent with the notion that "Race is an idea, not a fact"?

    6. Search on google scholar and you'll find much better treatments. Should I be looking in the comment section of for the official word on libertarianism now or Daily Kos on liberals? Or for that matter, do you want me to investigate the other side by googling "racial differences IQ"?

      If this is your standard than everyone is a bad actor. It seems worse than useless to me.

      Yes - the blogosphere produces a lot of crap. I didn't read enough of Coates to put him in one camp or the other. The Coates essay had a lot of vague claims. Take the "race does not need biology" - given one interpretation I'd agree with this and another I'd disagree with this. Think of what it takes to be "black" here and what it takes to be "black" in Brazil. It has very little to do with biology. In that sense it "does not need" biology and I agree with Coates. If you want it to mean something different I may not agree with it. But you've got to be more specific if you want to box people in like this Ryan.

    7. You are using a different definition of "market". I was basically just referring to skin color and a few other traits. The Khan point that I've never disagreed with is that these trivial markers are correlated with non-trivial markets.

      re: "How is that consistent with the notion that "Race is an idea, not a fact"?"

      I'm not entirely sure what this means so I couldn't say exactly. I don't know that Painter guy and he's a historian not a really a social scientist. I wouldn't want to vouch for him.

    8. *marker, not market

      As I've said before, I am very much with Khan on the biological point. The point is the markers he's talking about are not the markers people use when assigning race, which is of course (although since this discussion keeps dragging on maybe I shouldn't say "of course") not the same thing as saying there aren't correlated, non-trivial markers.

      Besides I'm not sure if all the markers he's talking about he claims are "non-trivial". A lot of it's just mitochondrial stuff that he can track right? He's not saying it's all actually significant stuff in practice.

    9. @Ryan

      Who is Pinker talking about? I don't really know, but there are a lot of psychologists out there who believe that race is simply a social construct. I remember seeing one on some TV show who complained about a "white" Canadian family adopting a "black" American baby. She said that they were robbing him of his "cultural heritage". He's a baby, he doesn't have a culture yet. She talked about culture when she meant race, but she couldn't say race because it is a social construct.

      As for race being an idea, not a fact, all you have to do is to look at history. As a kid I loved the Arthurian legends. In "Le Morte d'Arthur" there are occasional references to African knights. You see no sense of racial consciousness in regard to them. They are just knights from Africa. Who talks about the Nordic race these days? Yet it was a big deal to the Nazis (as, OC, was the Aryan race). My mother got a mitochondrial DNA profile done, and she has an H marker, which has been traced to a certain area in Europe. Does that mean that she and I are members of the H race? There are myriads of genetic differences between people, and they run in the family. Sometimes people make a big deal about some of these differences, and come up with the idea of "race".

    10. @Daniel This was The Atlantic, not some dipshit on wordpress like me. If people like him are abusing academic sociology, it is the responsibility of academic sociologists to take steps to correct it. Lest dipshits like me get the wrong idea.

      As I said before (or I think I said before) what matters is how well those markers correlate with the social construct of whatever society it is we are talking about. My understanding is that roughly correspond to what is commonly understood to constitute a race in the West.

      @Min The question isn't whether or not it is a social construct, but whether the biological construct is meaningful. I don't want to attack the silliness of a TV show, because then Daniel will get mad at me for not checking what it says against Google Scholar.

      I think this discussion is improved greatly if we consciously keep in mind that the group distinctions we are making here should be explicitly nominalist, because then it's clear that in no way is anyone saying that there is some "true" definition of races. I defer to whatever groupings population geneticists deem most fruitful for their line of inquiry.

    11. Coates is a journalist and an author, not some social scientist. I never said he was a dipshit. He seems like a sharp guy although he does go overboard sometimes.

      re: "If people like him are abusing academic sociology, it is the responsibility of academic sociologists to take steps to correct it."

      Having a degree in sociology myself, that's what I'm attempting to do!

      re: "My understanding is that roughly correspond to what is commonly understood to constitute a race in the West."

      Mine too. But is that really the issue here?

    12. re: "I don't want to attack the silliness of a TV show, because then Daniel will get mad at me for not checking what it says against Google Scholar."

      I'm not getting mad at you btw. I've agreed with you on a whole lot of this and been pretty clear where I don't agree. You seem to not want me to agree or to defend something I clearly don't agree with.

      Aside from all that, I don't think it's too odd for me to say "don't cite a journalist if your beef is with a social scientist - if your beef is with a journalist then by all means cite a journalist".

  3. Another trait about biological that the concept of race doesn't capture is that variation in nature is clinal and continuous rather than discrete. Skin color, for instance, comes in a spectrum rather than discrete pockets determined by race.

    This will be a bit of topic, but I'll continue anyways. As far as biology mattering, I've always been horrified with how people have treated Edward O. Wilson, going as far as dumping water on him during a conference. All that he did was point out that biology very much matters, which is something I would take as obvious, and yet so much of academia tried to destroy him for it.

  4. Ryan: "I defer to whatever groupings population geneticists deem most fruitful for their line of inquiry."

    Fine. There is a perfectly good biological term for race: sub-species. They do not correspond to races in public discourse.

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