Essay:Moderate racial realism

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"The universe is a strange and wondrous place.
The truth is quite odd enough to need no help from pseudoscientific charlatans."

When it comes to the question of race, the last two centuries have seen a progression through two stages:

  • racial realism: from the 19th century through to the middle of the 20th, the idea that race is a natural, physical reality, capable of scientific study as is any other natural, physical reality
  • racial unrealism: from the mid-20th century to today, the idea that race is an arbitrary social construction, without any natural or physical reality, and not a proper topic for scientific study.

In my view, both these positions get some things right and some things wrong; the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Race is real – not perfectly real, but not absolutely devoid of reality either. I call my position, moderate racial realism. One might equal call it moderate racial unrealism – for it holds, neither that race is perfectly real, nor that race is perfectly unreal, but rather that race is a mixture of both reality and unreality.

Clearly, life as we know it permits an immense degree of variations – from the smallest bacterium, to the redwood or the sperm whale, can be classified in a taxonomic hierarchy. The name and number of levels has changed over time, and even more so the individual groupings – much of this change in response to new scientific discoveries. Undoubtedly, as firm a scientific footing as we may place it upon, there will always be a certain degree of arbitrariness and historical accident in taxonomy. But the existence of a certain degree of arbitrariness and constructedness, does not mean that it is not a real reflection of an underlying physical and natural reality which exists prior to the human mind’s encounter to it. Hierarchical classification of nature is not purely a product of the human mind, but a very real reflection of the nature of nature itself, which would still exist even if humanity never had.

The basic unit of taxonomy is the species. Among those forms of life that engage in sexual reproduction, the defining feature of the species is the ability to interbreed. Members of the same species can easily breed among themselves, while generally speaking, attempts to breed different species will fail to produce offspring. There are of course those boundary cases, such as the mule, where two closely related species can interbreed – but we will still consider them separate species, if the offspring is generally infertile. However, while the species is arguably the most basic unit of taxonomy, it is not the lowest. Many species admit various sub-specific classifications. The chief of these is the sub-species; but there can be further levels below it – sub-sub-species, sub-sub-sub-species, etc. A sub-species could be defined as any distinctive form of a species which is separated from other such means – whether by geography, or other considerations – such that interbreeding, while still physically possible, in practice only rarely occurs.

Species vary in their degree of intraspecific variety. The domestic dog, among all living things, has few competitors in terms of the very breadth of intraspecific variation. The domestic dog is itself a sub-species of one common species with the wolf, since wolves and dogs can interbreed successfully. However, while the domestic dog and the wolf are one species, they are very distinctive in temperament and way of life, which justifies considering them as distinct subspecies. The domestic dog, in turn, can be subdivided into numerous breeds. Between the level of subspecies and breed, we can identify a third level – that of breed group. One could thus speak of, for instance – species, Canis lupus; subspecies, Canis lupus familiaris; breed group, Terriers, breed, Jack Russell Terrier. The breed group can be understood as a sub-subspecies, and the breed itself as a sub-sub-subspecies.

Another amazing example of intraspecific variety is the Brassica oleracea – this single species encompasses several common vegetables, quite distinct in appearance. Who, before learning a bit of botany, would have thought that the cabbage, the broccoli, the cauliflower and the Brussels sprout were all one species?

Let us then turn to the question of human beings – in the species of Homo sapiens, what sub-species, sub-sub-species, etc., might exist? At the level of sub-species, it is commonly concluded that only one sub-species of Homo sapiens is extant, Homo sapiens sapiens; while there are ancestral groups that were sufficiently distinct to be classified as distinct sub-species (or else as closely related species), there is a lack of significant differentiation within humans as presently existent to properly speak of distinct subspecies. (It is difficult, when dealing with extinct groups such as the Neanderthals, to determine whether they are a distinct but closely related species, or a distinct sub-species of the same species)

If Canis lupus familiaris has sub-subspecies, does Homo sapiens sapiens have sub-subspecies also? How are human races and sub-races not like dog breed groups and breeds?

Objections and responses[edit]

  1. Objection: Human genetic diversity largely evolved naturally, while a great deal of canine genetic diversity has been intentionally induced through breeding. Response: No doubt this is true; but how is it relevant? Should the cause of variation be determinative for its taxonomic classification? Why?
  2. Objection: Dog breeds have greater phenotypic and genetic diversity than human races. Response: No doubt this is true; but is it a difference in kind, or merely degree? Are dogs and humans qualitatively different in their intraspecific variation, or only quantitatively so? At least some figures I have seen suggest that genetic diversity in dogs is roughly double that of humans; if dogs had one thousand times greater genetic diversity than humans, it might be justifiable to say that the intraspecific taxonomy should be so qualitatively different between humans and dogs as to justify a different taxonomic treatment – but if it is only twice, is that really significant enough?
  3. Objection: Races are not fixed over time. Response: Nor are species – so what? That something, taking the long view, is observed to transform into something rather different, with no clear boundary point, does not mean that it is not is what it is in the here and now. This is essentially the Sorites paradox applied to taxonomy; if this argument is true, then all taxonomy is worthless.
  4. Objection: The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) does not recognize any taxonomic rank beneath the subspecies. Response: That the ICZN has not chosen to define and regulate such ranks does not render them ipso facto invalid. The ICZN is no doubt responding to such issues as the difficulty of defining such ranks, especially considering the great differences in understanding of intraspecific variation between different species, a relative lack of research interest in that topic, etc. That it has no defined any such ranks so far, does not mean that it could not choose to do so at some point in the future.
  5. Objection: It is offensive to compare humans to dogs. Response: Why? We are all animals, and we are as much animals as they are. To suggest that humans are somehow "special" is to hold to a discredited religious model that humans have some kind of "divine spark" or "soul" that other species lack, when such a notion has no place in a materialist, scientific, evolutionary worldview. This is nothing more than speciesism, which is as bad as racism (which is really just sub-speciesism, or sub-sub-speciesism, or sub-sub-sub-speciesism.)
  6. Objection: The traditional racial models are contradicted by contemporary genetic research. Response: I’m not fixated on the traditional models of race. No doubt these models need to be updated in light of contemporary research, and will need to continue to be updated as we learn more about human biology. But the incorrectness of particular models does not demonstrate that the very idea itself of having such models is incorrect. Physics has been through several models, each a response to identified flaws in the model that preceded it – consider the transition from the pre-Aristotelian to the Galilean to the Newtonian to the Einsteinian and Quantum – and even now, we recognize our current models as incomplete, and awaiting some better model to replace them, which as yet has not been conclusively identified. But the limitations of individual models does not mean that the notion of having models itself is invalid.