What if it were true?

Kennan Malik provides a fairly nuanced response to Nicholas Wade’s recent book (advocating the idea of cognitive differences between races), and (of course) I think he is right to join those who condemn the second half of Wade’s book. But despite the nuanced approach he takes to the first half (about the existence of race as a biological concept) I still think Malik falls into the trap of using incompletely convincing arguments to deny even the possibility of things that we all hope are false turning out to actually be true when he comes down in the end against the possibility of defining “race” in biological terms as “plausible but mistaken”.

The problem with saying “those who think that ‘race’ is nothing more than a social construction and those who think it a natural category are both mistaken” is that it presumes to know what *all* of those who think it a natural category actually mean.

There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of “race”. I can’t think of any that provides a *complete* classification of humanity into a finite number of subsets but such a classification is not necessary in order for a concept to be useful. Malik has acknowledged one such use in the assignment of medical treatments, and despite the lack (so far) of any convincing evidence it is not inconceivable that there may be statistical links to social propensities and cognitive skills as well. Of course, given our apparent inability to respond appropriately if such links really exist, it may well be inadvisable to look for them, and any claim of their existence would require an especially high standard of proof in order to be taken seriously. In fact, to look for them at all may be harmful and should not be encouraged, and for someone like Wade (who should know better) to claim to have found them on the basis of superficial analysis is just plain evil.

In the meantime though, I think there may well be value in addressing the question of how we should deal with such links in the (perhaps very unlikely) event that they do turn out to exist.

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2 Responses to What if it were true?

  1. Ron Murphy says:

    Given the likely normal (or similar) distrubution of any human traits across populations it seems a safe bet that if categorised by any number of ways, ‘race’ being one category, that there will be some offset between curves for, say race A and race B, but with much overlap. So, statistically, for a trait, the mean of race A might be a point or few above/below the mean of race B. But that would tell us nothing about individuals in these categories, and would tell us even less when environmental factors like education, nutrition, exercise, …, Any number of complex influences might make the scientific fact of a statistically observable biological difference completely useless for any practical purpose.

    Of course there are differences that are significantly different. Take a chromatic measurement of skin colour from many people from a specific racially ‘pure’ very dark skinned race, and do the same for some ‘white’ group (good luck finding any ‘pure’ race category among us ‘white’ tribes) and there will be little overlap in the distributions based on colour (fake suntans excluded). But then traits like skin colour are a result of significant environmental influences over many thousands or millions of years of isolation, whereas cognitive differences, if any, are probably far less influenced by basic environment than social environment.

    The social significance of all this is that our differences are interesting, but even when significant we are still all humans and need not make any more of our differences across categories, racial or other, than we would about individual differences. One of our better traits is learning to be tollerant of difference, and even finding interest and value in our variety. We don’t need to use difference as an excuse for being divisive or for persecuting others.

    There’s a big difference between acknowledging statistical differences as scientific fact (where the science is reliable) and using such differences for nafarious purposes, or denying such differences for fear of their misuse.

  2. alan says:

    Yes Ron I agree with all you say here.

    Your last paragraph may be the key to a better way of expressing my main point – namely that “denying such differences for fear of their misuse” can be counterproductive because it makes anti-racism seem dependent on something that is not obviously true (and which could turn out to be false). Surely we can both acknowledge the possibility that such statistical differences might exist and come up with a plan for avoiding their misuse without just denying that they could possibly exist.

    But although we “don’t need to use difference as an excuse for being divisive or for persecuting others” in the sense that to do so is ultimately bad for all of us, I’m afraid that I suspect we may have a “need” (in the sense of an inherited drive or urge) to do exactly that. We appear to have evolved as a competitively tribal species with tribes defined by visible features – often artificial ones with which we deliberately adorn ourselves. Perhaps the accident of skin colour provides a convenient substitute for paint, feathers, and football jerseys.

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