PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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The Biological Reality of Race Does not Underwrite the Social Reality of Race: A Response to Spencer

Quayshawn Spencer (2014) defends the biological reality of ‘race’. He argues that ‘race’ as used in the current US racial discourse picks out a biologically real entity. Spencer thinks that folk racial classification has a biological basis—in particular, he argues that the current US meaning of ‘race’ is a proper name for biologically real entity. First, Spencer says that the current US census classification yields five different races. Second, he argues that recent human population genetic research also yields an interesting level of genetic clustering at the K=5 level. Thus, he contends that the current US racial discourse matches nicely with recent genetic population clustering results, i.e. K=5 level of human population structure. (Spencer calls the K=5 level of human population structure ‘the Blumenbach partition’ in honor of J.F. Blumenbach.) Therefore, he argues that ‘race’, in its US meaning, picks out a biologically real entity, i.e. US racial categories are biologically real. However, we argue that Spencer’s argument does not succeed to prove that ‘race’ is a biologically real entity in a broader sense, i.e. broader than the US meaning of race. Moreover, this broader sense of ‘race’ is much more interesting than the US sense, and does much better justice to the social reality of universal race discourse. Apart from this, there are internal worries with Spencer’s argument, in that the kind of genotypic clustering (K = 5 level of human population structure) he relies on is not the only biologically interesting way of clustering human populations.

Spencer, Q. (2014). A Radical Solution to the Race Problem. Philosophy of Science, 81(5), 1025-1038.

Author Information:

Kamuran Osmanoglu    
University of Kansas


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