Sunday, February 05, 2006

Race Reprised, and the Difficulties of Debate

A while ago I posted a on the vexed topic of race, and whether we can talk about race from a genetic perspective, prompted by posts on Mixing Memory and Fido the Yak. My essay wasn’t meant as an attack on MM or Fido, as Chris at MM clearly realised in his reasonable response to my post, but Fido seems to have taken umbrage at what I said – see his response in the comments section of my original post, and in a post on Fido’s blog in which I’m accused of being a racist, despite the fact that I have said nothing to support such an assertion. I want to respond to this unfair and serious charge, and some other issues, and I shall quote from both Fido’s comments on this blog and his own. Apologies if this means going over some familiar ground, and if the tone is somewhat more touchy than usual, but being called a racist is not something I take lightly.

In the comments section, Fido says:
If I believed Pinker meant to talk about human groups in way consistent with the groupings RPM [a blogger who commented on my original post, D.J.] points to, I would still say he is a racist, but I would be inclined to admit that the word could be taken in a less perjorative sense than is commonly understood.
Why would RPM’s groupings (and RPM has blogged on the reality of race here [D.J. I made an error here - it was someone else blogging on GeneExpression that wrote the post, sorry]), if adopted by Pinker, lead Fido to conclude that Pinker is a racist? Fido hasn’t provided any evidence that Pinker is a racist, and I think it’s an absurd claim — for the third time Fido, please back this charge up. And in response to my comments about finding support for Pinker’s use of the notion of race, Fido writes:
I don't understand who's supposed to be a contrarian fringe expert in this discussion. Cavalli-Sforza's vita and list of publications is quite impressive to me, though he has not to my knowledge published in Daedalus, and I am myself a contrarian fringe dilletante. So a big grain of salt there.
Well done Fido on being a “contrarian fringe dilettante”, that’s marvellous. However, I take responsibility for inducing this tone in Fido, because I omitted a crucial word in my parenthetical comment in the original post: ‘not’. So a crucial sentence should have read “But it doesn’t take much searching to challenge this idea (and NOT through selective picking of contrarian, fringe experts)…”), and I apologise for misleading readers, including Fido (who may have taken me to be implying that Fido was selecting fringe experts, which I was not). I meant to say that it was possible to challenge Fido’s comments about race, and indeed the AAA’s and AAPA’s, without resorting to quoting fringe experts, as the Republican party tends to do with the science of global warming (see Chris Mooney’s The Republican War On Science for more). The geneticists that work on the ancestry of human genes, their distribution across the globe and their clustering into geographic populations often have something to say that differs from what anthropologists might say (and I think this is part because of the different intellectual traditions of the respective disciplines, but I can happily let that slide for the moment). I agree that Cavalli-Sforza has an impressive research record, but there’s an irony in bringing him up again.

Cavalli-Sforza, as Fido no doubt knows, has said that “The classification into races has proved to be a futile exercise”, so here’s an agreed authority supporting Fido’s view. Presumably Fido wouldn’t classify him as a racist too, right? Interestingly, Cavalli-Sforza was also one of the lead proponents of the Human Genome Diversity Project, intended to catalogue at least some of the nature of human genetic diversity. And what happened to this project? Well, luckily a book has been written on this topic (Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics, by Jenny Reardon, reviewed in Nature). Here are some quotes from the Nature review:
“The Human Genome Diversity Project had a short and troubled life. The aim was to sample and preserve DNA from “isolated indigenous populations” before social changes rendered them useless for the purposes of answering questions about human evolution. But from its birth around 1991 to its unofficial death less than a decade later, indigenous-rights groups attacked the project as racist and neo-colonialist, branding it the ‘Vampire Project’ … Today research on human genetic variation flourishes, but under other rubrics and largely under the radar of Diversity Project critics.

As Jenny Reardon stresses in her book Race to the Finish, the project’s leaders were well-intentioned and had impeccable anti-racist credentials. So why did their effort draw unremitting hostility from groups representing indigenous peoples, some physical anthropologists and others? And could critics’ fears have been allayed without gutting the project? … To be tarnished with the brush of racism — especially given their personal histories — much have been galling. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza had been a trenchant critic of William Shockley’s claim of black genetic inferiority; Robert Cook-Deegan had a long record of involvement with Physicians for Human Rights; and Mary Claire King had worked with the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to identify children kidnapped during Argentina’s dirty war. But avowals of their good intentions did not mollify critics, and organizers eventually set about addressing specific concerns.” [action which was attacked along similar lines]
After some more history, the review concludes:
“The study of human genetic variation is now fashionable, but it is being pursued without the scrutiny of the deeper issues that Reardon believes essential to the pursuit of both a more reflective science and a more sensitive society. Funders have understandably tried to avoid the controversies that sank the Diversity Project. But the ironic result has been to narrow discussion of the issues at stake even further.”
It wasn’t actual racism that created fear and anger in the critics of the Diversity Project, nor a deep engagement with the underlying science, but misplaced concerns about what the project meant and would claim about human nature. Can Fido in good conscience really say that there aren’t reflections of these problems in our discussion? Physical anthropologists, one of Fido’s prosecution witnesses, are explicitly mentioned here, and not by chance either. Because of the history of the discipline of anthropology, anthropologists of many stripes have approached certain topics in certain ways, which have arguably been influenced by politically or ideologically motivated ideas about human nature, which I’ll come back to later.

There is a final twist in the story of Cavalli-Sforza. On the front of one his major books, there is a map of genetic groups derived from the sort of work Cavalli-Sforza has pioneered — a grouping that looks very much like the sorts of groups formed when you analyse genetic lineages on the basis of common heritage, which will often have a geographical correlate — the clustering of geographical variants that we’ve been discussing. Jonathan Marks, one of the panellists on the SSRC’s ‘Is Race Real?’ forum, cited favourably by Fido, has pointed out an irony in this (see also other pages on Marks’ site for criticisms of the Diversity Project, such as the charge that “The images it conveyed were colonialist, exploitative, and racialized”):

“The HGDP says that one of its aims is to show that "... in biological terms, there is no such thing as a clearly defined race.... Most importantly, therefore the results of the Project are expected to undermine the popular belief that there are clearly defined races, [and] to contribute to the elimination of racism...."
This quotation is from their summary document, on the web at:

And yet their literature has shown this figure [see map at top of blog] several times, with the caption “Four major ethnic regions are shown. Africans are yellow, Australians red, [Mongoloids blue], and Caucasoids green.” See, for example, The History and Geography of Human Genes, by Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi, and Piazza (Princeton University Press, 1995).”
So although Cavalli-Sforza has publicly rejected the notion of race, and Fido seems friendly to his analysis of human genetic variation, Cavalli-Sforza also seems to invoke genetic clusterings of the sort I’ve been alluding to, as Marks points out. Nwo there are obviously a number of ways to respond to this. Firstly, we could say that Cavalli-Sforza was being disingenuous, that he knew that he believed in race but publicly pretended he didn’t so as to avoid disapproval. Or we might more realistically say that although he rejected the usefulness of specific racial classifications, such as those commonly used in the US and Europe, he had a use for the notion of geographical variants (or human groups classified on the basis of common heritage, which will often have a geographical correlate), and just preferred not to call them races (even though this might go against the traditional use of race in evolutionary biology and taxonomy). So where does Fido now stand in relation to Cavalli-Sforza? Is he in the fold, or does he get kicked out for being a racist?

Fido’s blog makes some other different points:
When I included in Under the Sun a link to the Social Science Research Council's online forum Is Race Real?, it occurred to me that it would not do the job I wanted it do, namely, pass the question of "race" over to experts in the scientific study of human biological diversity. Now that blogger Dan Jones has taken issue with my post, I feel compelled to reiterate the distinction between Richard Lewontin's political beliefs on the one hand, and the scientific consensus that has built up around the question of "race" on the other. To that end, I now cite the American Anthropological Association's Statement on "Race", their Statement on "Race" and Intelligence, and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists' Statement on the Biological Aspects of Race. I stand by my claim that the consensus opinion among scientists is that race is "not a useful scientific concept. It doesn't describe observable human genetic variation with adequate precision, and it typically introduces more problems than it solves."
There are a number of points to reply to here. Fido suggests that Lewontin’s political beliefs (and I presume by extension those of other scientists) are separate from the scientific claims made about race, or are at least separable. Of course, this is how it should be, but I think it can certainly be contested that scientists’ views on issues as broad as human nature in general (including, but not exhausted by, such fields as behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology) and specific topics such as sex differences and the concept of race have historically been so separate (and in both directions; people have erroneously asserted that there is a scientific justification for racism or other forms of discrimination and prejudice – think Social Darwinism). Many responses to these sorts of topics have been motivated by sincerely held and entirely understandable social and political concerns, as (not exclusively) documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate (I don’t expect Fido to accept Pinker’s analysis, and I don’t expect that I could convince Fido either). Historically anthropologists have stressed the biological similarity of humans, which means that the variability of humans is to be explained in cultural terms, thus fitting in nicely with a blank slate, or nuturist, view of human nature, one that stresses the malleability of the human mind and behaviour, and our freedom from the constraints of biology. Of course, there is something in this, but I think there has been a tendency for sensitivity about discussing the biological basis of human differences, or the idea of such differences per se (whether related to sex or race or whatever), to cloud discussions of a number of important topics. Again, I don’t expect Fido to agree, and I can live with that (without further conversations we’ll have to agree to disagree for the time being), but I can’t live with being labelled a racist. Sociobiology was labelled as inherently racist and right wing, and E. O. Wilson was linked to eugenic and Nazi policies — these responses suggest less of an engagement with the arguments and more a loading of the topic with associations it shouldn’t, or needn’t, have.

Moving on to the statements from the AAA and AAPA, I also have a few remarks. Firstly, they’re from 1998 and 1996, respectively. That doesn’t make them wrong, of course, but it does mean that they do not take into account the explosion in genetics and genomics that has occurred in the intervening 8-10 years. Surely it is possible that their comments might need to be revised in the light of new evidence or new analytical tools (except of course if we rule of the possibility of race having a reality a priori, in which case why bother with an argument at all?). If we take race to mean not the racial classifications of any particular culture, but use it in a weaker sense, as denoting populations (that may be more or less geographical linked) that cluster genetically on the basis of common heritage, but not discretely, then what is Fido’s objection to the notion of race (or geographical variants for short — I assume we’re talking about the concept and not merely the name)? Is Fido claiming that the results summarised in the Scientific American article (which I cited because it’s easy to access, and accessible for other readers, as with the Daedalus essays) are just wrong? Sure, the genetic clusterings described in the SA article don’t fit neatly onto the racial classifications commonly used in the West, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them as races (or geographic variants). Of if Fido thinks that it does, can Fido explain why, and why evolutionary biologists have been mistaken in using this term, interchangeably with geographic variants, in their work.

In any case, I don’t see how citing the AAA’s and AAPA’s conclusion, which is all Fido does, shows how these scientific conclusions are untainted by social or political ideology. What it shows is the public face presented by a professional scientific organisation (and I’m not implying that the public face is necessarily different from the private one), a point I’ll return to below.

In the comments section on my blog, Fido says:
It was a mistake, I now realize, to assume that people who read my blog and genuinely cared about the scientific description of human genetic diversity would be familiar, or have the ability and the gumption to make themselves familiar, with the American Antrhopological Association's Statement on "Race", and their Statement on "Race" and Intelligence, or the American Association of Physical Anthropologists' Statement on the Biological Aspects of Race.
Fido goes on to quote some of the AAA’s and AAPA’s statements:
“Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past” Further, the AAPA states, "There is no necessary concordance between biological characteristics and culturally defined groups. On every continent, there are diverse populations that differ in language, economy, and culture. There is no national, religious, linguistic or cultural group or economic class that constitutes a race. However, human beings who speak the same language and share the same culture frequently select each other as mates, with the result that there is often some degree of correspondence between the distribution of physical traits on the one hand and that of linguistic and cultural traits on the other. But there is no causal linkage between these physical and behavioral traits, and therefore it is not justifiable to attribute cultural characteristics to genetic inheritance." That is the consensus opinion of scientists who specialize in the study of human physical diversity. I have no wish to imply that the weight of expert opinion refutes Pinker; I mean to state it flat out.
Well, I agree with the first quote, as would Pinker and as would the geneticists I’ve been quoting in support of my position. So what’s its relevance? We’re talking about a subtler notion of race amenable to a type of analyses that wouldn’t have been possible when the AAA and AAPA statements were made. The second long quote is largely irrelevant, as accepting the claims of the geneticists I quoted does not entail any of the conclusions rejected in that quote. Talk about attacking straw men! Fido goes on:
As an aside, I repeat my view that the conventional wisdom among scientists is open to revision. It is not my intention to represent the scientific consensus as monolithic, dogmatic or otherwise etched in stone. My criticism is with the way Pinker and Leroi have gone about attacking the conventional wisdom. Strawman arguments and appeals to common sense racism do not cut it in my book.

One of Mr. Jones' more curious objections, indeed it may the substantive thrust of his post, is that reasonable people ought to "be able to discuss the science of race sensibly, without racist connotations." There is in fact no "science of race" among the modern sciences, but rather sciences of genomics, human population genetics, physical anthropology, and so on. However, if one wishes to buck the conventional wisdom by holding on to the claim that races exist and ought to be studied scientifically, then one is a racist by definition, a "scientific racist" to be precise. If you take that position, and the connotations of the word "racist" bother you, then you might take that as an indication that there's a problem with your choice of words. I certainly don't have the power to change connotative meanings, or to redefine "racism" to not mean "racism," and I don't have any solutions for those who want to be racists without being "racists." It's just not my cup of tea.
So if I don’t like the idea of being a racist, then I shouldn’t use the word race, because to use the concept/word race means that I’m automatically a racist? Is this for real? So if I believe that there are two sexes, then I must be a sexist, because believing in two sexes necessarily makes me a sexist? This is barmy.

Fido claims that the scientific consensus is that race is not a useful scientific concept (well it depends on your interests, obviously – it was scientifically useful in getting the drug BiDil approved by the FDA, regardless of whether the use of race was a proxy for a genetic or environmental basis of the different efficacy of the drug in self-identified blacks and whites). Fido also claims that if you do believe in race, in the weaker sense above, then you’re de facto a racist (with or without the modifier ‘scientific’). This is ludicrous, and suggests the sort of knee-jerk reaction that often goes with discussions of sensitive topics surrounding human nature (see
The Blank Slate for a detailed history of such reactions). To be racist is, according to standard usage, to think that race is a primary determinant of physical and character traits (nothing I or Pinker or the scientists I discussed imply or endorse), or that some racial characteristics make some races inherently superior to other races; or to be prejudiced against people or groups on the basis of their race. Nothing that I’ve said makes me a racist in any of these senses, and if by scientific racist Fido means that I’m not merely a racist on the grounds of faith, but because of my faulty reading of the scientific literature, then Fido is way out of line. I’m not a racist in any sense, period, and Fido should exercise a little care and caution in bandying these terms about. And I don’t see the point of the stuff about connotative meanings, apart from as an exercise in sarcasm. If I don’t like the connotation of being a racist, don’t use the word race? If you don’t like the connotation of being a sexist, don’t use the word sex? And you don’t need to change word meanings, you just need to understand what the words mean. And finally, the implication that I want to be a racist without being called a “racist” is just way off the mark, as should hopefully be obvious by now — there is nothing that I’ve said that makes me a racist! If it’s not your cup of tea Fido, stop drinking, and don’t pour out cups for others!

And I think Fido is being disingenuous in saying:
“One of Mr. Jones' more curious objections, indeed it may the substantive thrust of his post, is that reasonable people ought to “be able to discuss the science of race sensibly, without racist connotations.” There is in fact no “science of race” among the modern sciences, but rather sciences of genomics, human population genetics, physical anthropology, and so on.”
I would’ve thought it was obvious I was using ‘the science of race’ as a rubric to cover those fields of study that are relevant to discussions of race. Fido is basically saying, “There is no such thing as race, and therefore there couldn’t be a study of it!” — this is the natural interpretation of the point of saying that there is no science of race on the basis of believing that race isn’t a real thing and that there is no scientific concept of race. Yet this begs the question of the validity of the race concept (more or less carefully defined) — and the scientists and work I alluded to are a challenge to this claim. Yes, the AAA and the AAPA have dismissed some ideas about race, but what they say doesn’t seem to affect the ideas and results I was trying to talk about — that is, these results don’t purport to assert what it is the AAA and AAPA wish to deny! The claims of the AAA and AAPA statements are quite broad, and so it is possible to agree with their broad conclusions and still continue to study races (or human groups classified on the basis of common heritage, which will often have a geographical correlate) in scientific terms. You can agree with the AAA and the AAPA, and also take into the account the research I mention — and not be a racist either.

So I ask Fido the following:

· To show that the results summarised in the Scientific American article are either invalid or to explain why can’t we use “genetic information be used to distinguish human groups having a common heritage and to assign individuals to particular ones”, what we might call races following evolutionary and taxonomical practice ‘races’ (or geographical variants – and if Fido is happy with geographic variants, but just doesn’t like the term race because it’ll make people think of the standard racial classifications, then can Fido explain why we’ve wasted so much time when Fido could have said, “OK, that sense of race is OK, but let’s not call it race”. I might well be persuaded with that line, and I think if I ever discuss race again I’ll define race as above and make sure it’s clear that this term is shorthand for this more subtle sense).

· To substantiate the claim that Pinker is a racist, that I am a racist, and that RPM is a racist.

That about wraps it up. I don’t expect that Fido will agree with much of what I’ve said, but it’s a shot at setting the record straight about whether my discussion of race makes me a racist or not, and what it means for others to talk about race, and why it’s still such a difficult notion to discuss.


After writing this reply I came across another set of comments from Fido. There have been four in total: the original post on Fido’s blog; the reply in the comments section of my blog; in the second post on Fido’s blog; and the final set, which I came across late, which are a response to my announcing that I had written a post related to Fido’s original post! It’s the last set I’m replying to here:

Fido starts:
The point that interests me about Pinker's statement, and that prompted me to post "Under the Sun," is not the debate about how best to characterize human genetic diversity. My concern really is the suggestion that somebody's claim a to a common sense view of race should in any fashion serve as a rebutal to conventional wisdom among scientists. This is not to say that the consensus opinion of scientists is beyond critique, or that there aren't important disagreements in the area of human population genetics. I have already indicated that I believe the conventional wisdom is open to revision. My argument is that appeals to common sense are not appropriate in this context.

There is a question of expertise here, and if you were to argue that Pinker's expertise cannot be judged on the basis of this one statement or any excerpt from it, I would cede that point. And the question of whether Pinker routinely speaks authoritatively outside his area of expertise I would agree to set aside for the time being. There remains a curious argument about common sense and conventional wisdom which Leroi has put forward and Pinker has chosen to cite.

The argument about the strawman fallacy is key. Are we talking about "conventional wisdom," "Lewontin's opinion," or, in your words, the opinions of "Lewontin and company"? I cite the AAA and AAPA as additional authorities, if any were needed. On the matter of "race," the opinion ascribed to "Lewontin and company" rather represent the consensus view of scientists. If you think that the dominance of this view represents a case of ideological hoodwinkery rather than the product of decades of scientific study, I feel that the onus is on you to make the case. So I think I have done what I need to show that the "conventional wisdom" really is the "conventional wisdom," and that's all that I need to do to talk about the things that interest me.
OK, let’s start with what Fido originally said (in the first post on the topic):
“Steven Pinker's most dangerous idea is that "Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments." It's not the sort of thing I'd have much to say about--when I want to learn about population genetics, I consult a population geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, for instance, who would give me plenty of reasons to doubt that what Pinker says approximates anything I should pay attention to. But Pinker did make one interesting comment, and the fact that I believe he's a sexist, a racist and willfully ignorant of certain facts of evolutionary science shouldn't blind me to the possibility that he may have stumbled over an interesting idea. Pinker writes:

In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense.)

Where to begin? I'm most interested in the contrast Pinker sets up between "conventional wisdom" and "common sense," but I must observe in passing that Leroi's op-ed and Pinker's abridged version of it represents a sterling example of the error in reasoning known as the straw man fallacy. Critical responses to Leroi can be found in this collection of essays put together by the Social Science Research Council.”

Anyway, what's this business about going against conventional wisdom in favor of common sense? Is that particularly scientific, or even reasonable? Common sense tells us that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Conventional wisdom among astronomers, at least since Copernicus, is that the earth orbits the sun while rotating on its axis once every twenty-four hours or so (a period astronomers call "mean solar time"--go figure). The common sense view of sunrises and sunsets is not invalidated by conventional astronomical wisdom, although with advances in technology, we see that it in some regards common sense, like conventional wisdom, is open to revision.
The quote from Pinker doesn’t show that he’s going against the conventional wisdom simply motivated by common sense, or that he sets up a contrast between them (it could be read into the quote I suppose). He’s making three claims: one, that a conventional wisdom has emerged that race does not exist; two, “that patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups”; and third, that “different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense”. It’s not because it’s common sense that it is opposed to the conventional wisdom, but just that the common sense idea happens to stand in opposition to the conventional wisdom.

Now I’ll be honest, I’m not particularly keen on the wording of Pinker’s quotation, and I don’t see why he needed to mention common sense at all, but that doesn’t mean I endorse Fido’s response either. The key points are that there is a scientifically defensible conception of race, and it doesn’t entail the racism Fido assumes it does.

Let’s get on to the strawman fallacy – that Pinker and Leroi are creating an imaginary foe. The targets of their comments about race are those who believe that race doesn’t exist, or that it is a useless concept and entails racism. Do such people exist? Yes, and include Fido, Lewontin, and the AAA and AAPA that Fido endorses – indeed, it is in citing these authorities that Fido says the refutation of Pinker “is the consensus opinion of scientists who specialize in the study of human physical diversity. I have no wish to imply that the weight of expert opinion refutes Pinker; I mean to state it flat out.” What Pinker means by conventional wisdom, and what Fido means by scientific consensus, are the same thing, and they both agree on what it says – that what the conventional wisdom/scientific consensus says about race conflicts with what Pinker/Leroi (and Mayr, Crow, Olson + Bamshad and many others) say about race – which is why there’s a debate (which Fido would like to end as a non-debate, because there is “no science of race”). Contrary to what Fido says, what is interesting about this debate is not the supposed contrast between “conventional wisdom” and “common sense”, but who is right about the nature of human genetic variation, and what this means in understanding human diversity – because there is no pitching of common sense against conventional wisdom. What on earth is the confusion about then?

I’m really at a loss as to why Fido’s “concern really is the suggestion that somebody's claim a to a common sense view of race should in any fashion serve as a rebutal to conventional wisdom among scientists” – Pinker did not advance this notion, and so it didn’t need addressing: to repeat, to say that scientific evidence refutes a conventional wisdom (one that denies something obvious to common sense) does not mean that you are saying common sense refutes or rebuts the conventional wisdom by some inherent superiority of common sense; it merely means that the rebuttal of the conventional wisdom by scientific evidence serves to reinforce common sense. It could easily go the other way (you could have a conventional wisdom that was in line with common sense, and then scientific evidence could undermine both). And lest I be misunderstood again, I’m not actually suggesting that scientific results completely support our common sense notions of race, whatever they are (as I said, in this case I’m not keen on the wording, although common sense isn’t strictly banned from my lexicon). I’m just responding to the claim that Pinker is setting up conventional wisdom against common sense.

And so the really interesting question is whether the scientific evidence and the conventional wisdom clash, and this is what Pinker, Leroi, myself, PRM and others have tried to talk about. Whether it not

Finally, when I wrote "I believe he's a sexist, a racist and willfully ignorant of certain facts of evolutionary science" (in a dependent clause, no less) I deliberately used the phrase "I believe" because I didn't particularly feel like carefully substantiating what in fact are my beliefs. We could examine my beliefs about Pinker, if you would like, but I think it's fair to say upfront that I recognize no professional or bloggerly obligation to be nice to Pinker, and my sensibilities about words like "racist" are decidedly not British.

This is an outrageous get-out clause “I can say what I like and you can’t ask me to justify what I say if I add ‘I believe’ before the claim”. To quote Fido, where to start? For a kick off, adding that your belief something that you express doesn’t diminish your commitment to it, or signify that you won’t offer reasons to make the claim and for which you assent belief in it, or that the belief is held in the absence of reasons (if it is this should be made clear so people know what they’re dealing with). And what is a belief other than something that you feel you can publicly justify, and that you have reasons for holding (otherwise why would you bother assenting belief in it?)? Beliefs are, or should be, those things we adduce reasons to hold — unless of course you think it’s OK to hold serious beliefs on some non-evidentiary basis. And what are we to make of the claim that Fido doesn’t “particularly feel like carefully substantiating what in fact are my beliefs” when it comes to a belief about something as serious as whether an influential public intellectual is a sexist or a racist? Why bring it up in a public forum if you’re not really interested in defending this position, and why think it isn’t incumbent on you to defend this claim? It seems a remarkable stance to take, and a flippant one to boot. And moving on to beliefs more generally, do you not feel like substantiating your belief in, say, evolution (if you believe that evolution has happened on earth, that is), merely because it’s a belief? Or is this not just a belief, however justified by reasons and evidence — do you have some sort of direct line to the truth, so that whereas you only ‘believe’ some things others you actually ‘know’, and the latter you’ll bother to defend? I assume Fido is making reference to a distinction between belief and knowledge, but the difference surely isn’t between having reasons on the one hand (in the case of knowledge) and not on the other (belief, which therefore doesn’t need substantiating) – reasons are crucial to both, and in fact claims to knowledge normally do not signify certainty, but belief held with a high degree of probability of being true because of the strength of the evidence and arguments in its favour. So it’s no good to say, “This is what I believe, and this is a serious charge against another person, but I have no obligation to carefully substantiate my claim because it is, after all, only a belief”. Fido, your blog is full of your beliefs – can we assume that you’re not really bothered to substantiate what you say on it because they are just that, beliefs? Can we take them with the big grain of salt you alluded to in response to my post?

End of Addendum]


Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hello again, Dan. Let's see if we can't clear a few things up.

To begin with, I did not accuse you of being a racist. However, it's clearly an inference one could draw, and because I can see that it concerns you greatly, I will attempt to clarify a few points so that we can hopefully distinguish between those opinions that belong to me and those that do not. In the first place, I ought to have consistently used "one" to signify the impersonal and not switched to the more comfortable "you," because I surely meant to argue that anybody's claim that human races are biological entities is ipso facto racist. I am not sure you are making that claim, or that if you were to state as much, such a claim would represent your true belief, so I would have no reason to call you a racist on those grounds.

Does this seem like an unusual definition of racism to you? Let's start by argeeing on a definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary. They define racism as "The theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race." (This, in a nutshell, is what I mean by "scientific racism.") If we can accept the OED's definition, then I see only one problem with calling Pinker a racist because he said "Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments," and that problem hinges on the word "may." I'm not much inclined to give Pinker the benefit of the doubt here. On rhetorical grounds, the material Pinker has chosen to cite indicates bias towards accepting the idea that groups of people differ genetically in their average talents and abilities. The question of determination appears to me to be implied, even if in the end one argues for a weak form of determination.

Question: If the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race were proven to one's satisfaction to be true, why wouldn't one want to call oneself a racist? I would assume that any rejection of the term in such a case would be due to other definitions that the word has, or connotative associations over and above this basic definition offered by the OED.

As to my shorthand, it is premised on an acceptance of what Pinker and I both call the "conventional wisdom that race does not exist." I don't think anybody who's paying attention denies that race exists as a social category. However, if one forgets that race is a social category, one may be tempted to draw erroneous conclusions, for example about the meaning of the BiDil approval. The assertion that human races exist as phenomenon of biology is typically a means of suppressing or ignoring the existence of race as a social category. Furthermore, the assertion that biological races exist is typically joined with the claim that they correspond to certain social categories of race. From there it is a short journey to the claim that instead of looking for social causes to social problems invovling racial categorization, one ought to adopt the theory that distinctive human characteristsics and abilities are determined by race. Theoretically, perhaps, these errors in judgement do not necessarily follow from a claim that race exists, and one can admit to doubts and equivocations at every step along the way. Alternatively, to avoid confusion, one could adopt a less ideologically loaded vocabulary to describe "genetic variation which correlates with geographic ancestry," to use RPM's phrase. I am not convinced that this sort of variation between population groups is best described as racial, that it necessarily comes from or implies a theory of race. Therefore I question any a priori assumption that race exists, and I interpret such claims as implying a theory of race that has some meaningful connection to historical scientific racisms. Otherwise I assume the idea of race would not be put forward. It may appear that both racist and nonracist population geneticists are describing the same phenomena when in actuality they are not, because the latter do not accept that race has any phenomenal reality as far as their field of study is concerned.

Why do some expert scientists persist in using the term "race" and its derivatives? Perhaps it's akin to reason why astronomers refer to "mean solar time" to describe a terrestial phenomenon--simple force of habit. In the case of "race," however, the usage has obvious political and social consequences. It ought to be discarded by scientists who do not accept the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race.

Well, Dan, I have to cut it short for now. Perhaps some other day we can talk about the qualifier "I believe" or the qualifier "carefully," and how or whether such things make a difference to what one means. Since you don't seem to care much for the things that interest me, it might be wise of you indeed to take a grain of salt with my stated belief that Pinker is a racist, or any other statements posted on my blog.

3:18 am GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my stated belief that Pinker is a racist

Operationally, the word "racist" here is like "heretic". Those who cast it about face no consequences for baseless accusation.

3:04 am GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

Operationally, the word "racist" here is like "heretic".

Actually, it is being used as a pejorative, no matter how the rude yak tries to dress it up otherwise. It's pretty much the same as calling a black person a 'niger' or a Chinese person a 'chink.'

5:27 pm GMT  
Blogger agnostic said...

See the following for clear explanation on why population genetics supports the view that, while on any single metric there is more intra-group variation than inter-group variation, once the entirety of the correlation structure among the vast individual metrics is taken into account, there do form race "clusters."

If believing such empirical evidence constitutes racism, then the term is no more informative than sexism if the latter implies believing females on average have a stronger parenting instinct than males.

8:27 pm GMT  
Blogger Chip said...

At this point, the perjorative sting of the term "racist" is inescapable, and appeals to OED authority invariably have a disengenuous ring. If Fido sincerely wishes to invoke the denotative spirit of the dictionary definition he cites, I suggest the term "race realist" as being more appropriate - and accurate - to civil discourse.

1:19 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it odd to see Cavalli-Sforza being cited as someone who believes in the non-existence of human races. In recent years, he has avoided the word race (he now talks about “clusters”) but journal articles by Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues still use such terms as “negroid” and “caucasoid”. The following is taken from one of his textbooks (Bodmer and Cavalli-Sforza, Genetics, Evolution, and Man, 1976):

Racial Differentiation

In many cases, biologists over the years have found it useful to divide a species into two or more subspecies, or races. The criteria for the definition of races - based on geographic distribution and various features of the body - yield classifications similar to those obtained using genetic markers. Use of genetic markers also shows very clearly that there are no “pure” races. Races are, in fact, generally very far from pure and, as a result, any classification of races is arbitrary, imperfect, and difficult. Yet anyone can see that there are certain relatively clear differences between a typical Caucasoid and a typical Mongoloid or a typical Negroid. What are the causes of racial differentiation? Which differences are cultural and which are biological?

On the most general level, however, geographical and ecological boundaries (which acted as partial barriers to expansion and migration) help to distinguish three major racial groups: Africans, Caucasians, and a highly heterogeneous group that we may call “Easterners”. The Easterners include subgroups that were separated in various older classifications, such as American Natives (American Indians) and Orientals (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans). Some regard Australian aborigines as a separate race, but they do not differ much from Melanesians. From the Melanesians, we can trace a sequence of relatively gradual changes through the transition to Indonesians, then to Southeast Asians, and on to East Asians. American Natives and Eskimos probably both came from a related Northeast Asian stock from (or through) Siberia into North America. Eskimos, however, came much later than American Indians, and they subsequently expanded further eastward to Greenland.

The African continent contains, in the north and east, populations that have various degrees of admixture with Caucasians by all criteria of analysis. In the western, central, and southern parts of the continent, Africans are relatively homogeneous - although some isolated groups of hunter-gatherers (like Pygmies and Bushmen) show cultural and physical peculiarities that suggest they should be considered somewhat separately. In fact, the Pygmies at least have attributes that indicate they may be “proto-African” groups - populations that have been the least altered by more recent events.

5:03 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The validity of the concept of race is typically obscured by semantics, but for anyone interested in what biology has to say, the criteria used to conceptualize and distinguish subspecies (races or breeds) within the animal kingdom unambiguously classify the human species into a minimum of five races.

1:06 am GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The most important difference in the human gene pool is clearly that between Africans and non-Africans"

- Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geography of Human Genes

Race-related links:;jsessionid=51037387FE64213A45561C37F9A5F548

9:26 pm GMT  

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