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Summary Conceptions of Race: General Problems

If our recent history has taught us anything, race seems to be extremely important in determining issues such as the likelihood of being incarcerated, getting a quality education, access to healthcare, and adequate housing, just to name a few.  So what race we are taken to be seems to be an incredibly important determinant in our life prospects.  And if race helps determine our life prospects wouldn’t it have to exist?

Second, we seem to be quite good at categorizing people into different races.  Now there are some individuals that are hard for most people to racially categorize.  For instance, the Public Broadcasting System has a webpage that provides a very difficult Racial Sorting Task http://www.pbs.org/race/002_SortingPeople/002_00-home.htm which is worth taking for anyone who thinks that it is always clear what race someone belongs to.  That being said, for the majority of people, we seem to agree with others in our community as to what race someone is.  And if that’s the case, wouldn’t races have to exist?

It is particularly hard to even figure out how to start answering this question.  To show why we can look at three closely related challenges to developing an account of race.  Let’s call the first challenge “the Domain Problem”, the second “the Expertise and Deference Problem” and the third “the Mismatch Problem” or as it is more commonly known, “the Mismatch Argument”.

The Domain Problem is best captured by the question, “If there are races, what kind of thing are they?”  For instance, we might think that races are natural categories and that for someone to be a member of a race is for them to have a set of natural properties some of which are shared with other members of the same race.  Natural properties are properties that exist in the world independently of the way we categorize it.  So for instance, having the property of being a hat is not a natural property, whereas having the property of being made of wool is.  Let’s say that if this is the right way to think of races, then the right domain from which to study races would be the natural domain.  This was a common approach to race in the 19th and 20th centuries and natural historians such as Johann Blumenbach, Thomas Huxley, and Friedrich Ratzel saw investigations of race as falling within this natural domain.  Today, some philosophers view race as being explainable in terms of a subset of natural properties we refer to as biological properties.

But around the end of the 20th century we started to see the development of arguments which suggested that race is not a natural phenomenon, but a socio-historical one.  What follows from this is that the important racial properties associated with race are not natural but socio-historical.  For instance, in W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking 1897 speech “The Conservation of Races” he tells us that while races, “transcend scientific definition” they “nevertheless are clearly defined to the eye of the Historian and the Sociologist”.

That might be a bit hard to understand so let me give you an example.  In the U.S., we have quite a few doctors.  When they are working, they are normally easily identifiable.  They often wear white coats with stethoscopes around their necks, they work in hospitals and universities, and often talk in ways that suggest a high level of medical expertise.  And in order to be a practicing doctor in the US, you have to graduate from an accredited medical school, complete a residency program, and obtain a license to practice in a particular state or jurisdiction.  But the fact that doctors have the properties of having medical degrees and licenses depend on the existence of institutions which can be explained historically and socially.  And while doctors, and virtually all other people share in natural properties like having a brain, the properties that make a person a doctor are social properties.  Because of this, doctors can be thought of as socio-historical constructs.

Now there is a big difference between being considered to be of a particular race and being considered to be a doctor; but, the idea is that racial properties are largely determined by our history and social institutions.  Since W.E.B. Du Bois’ speech, the idea that race falls within the domain of sociology and history has been increasing in popularity and I think I can safely say is the dominant view among academics (or at the very least sociologists and historians).

Another possibility is that racial properties are not just natural properties, or socio-historical properties, but a combination of these two.  If this is the case, then to get a grasp on what races are may involve research in both the natural and the socio-historical domain.

So what we can gather from this discussion is that figuring out what races are seems really difficult because there is still substantial debate about what is the proper domain of investigation.

A related problem is “the Expertise and Deference Problem”.  The idea is roughly this:  language seems to work in such a way that there are lots of specialty terms that we can meaningfully use without being in possession of much information.  For instance, I might say that my friend Julio has tuberculosis without being able to tell you what tuberculosis is.  I know that it is not good to have tuberculosis, and that it is a medical condition; but, this doesn’t distinguish tuberculosis from lots of other conditions that are medical and also bad.  So if I can’t distinguish tuberculosis from other bad medical conditions, in virtue of what do I get to say I am speaking meaningfully about tuberculosis, and not, let’s say, cancer?  To answer this question, the theory of semantic deference claims that I can speak meaningfully about tuberculosis because there are experts in my community (namely research doctors) that do know what tuberculosis is and how to tell it apart from other bad medical conditions.  To put the point more generally, I can meaningfully talk about things in the world even though I don’t know much about the things I’m talking about because I can defer to experts for fixing the meaning of the terms.  As the philosopher Hilary Putnam once said, we should think of language less like a singular tool and more like the running of a complex steamship in which many of us have different and cooperative roles to play.

So now that we have an understanding of the role of semantic deference and expertise in the role of fixing the meaning of medical terms, we can ask, “Do racial terms work in the same way as medical terms like ‘tuberculosis’?”  It does seem hard for many of us to say much meaningfully about race, so maybe we can just defer to race experts in the way I deferred to research doctors in the tuberculosis example.  This seems like a good solution, so what’s the problem?  Well, there are several problems.  For starters, experts normally occupy a domain, and as we’ve already seen, it’s not clear in which domain we should locate our experts.  For instance, would we consult a biologist, a historian, a sociologist, or a philosopher?  Additionally, there is little agreement even within these domains as to how to characterize races.  For instance, take the naturalist’s domain:  are races the kind of things in which all members share some sort of underlying essential properties?  Should races be primarily defined in terms of ancestral relations or geographic locations?  Or perhaps races can be picked out by referring to groups that have a higher frequency of non-coding DNA in common.  Even though we are working within a singular domain, there is still massive disagreement on what races are within that domain.  In short, it’s not clear there is a unified group of experts to defer to even if we can solve the Domain Problem.  So we don’t seem to have a solution to the Expertise and Deference Problem.

Finally, there is the Mismatch Problem, or as it has been coined by philosopher Ron Mallon, the Mismatch Argument.  Here’s the problem:  race is an area that we need to investigate and that normally involves some people specializing in race issues.  And during such investigations, specialists sometimes come up with highly specialized definitions of what race is and what racial terms pick out in the world.  For instance, if the specialists (or experts) tell us that races are biologically isolated populations of individuals then it might turn out that some of the things we thought were races actually aren’t races while other things we thought weren’t races actually are.  For instance, as the philosopher Anthony Appiah suggests, the Amish might meet this definition of race even though we don’t tend to think of Amish as a race.  The worry here is that what experts tell us racial terms pick out ends up deviating substantially from what we normally think racial terms pick out.  And if this happens, then our expert accounts of what race is may not match up with our ordinary account of race and all the important explanatory work such ordinary accounts of race play in our everyday lives.

The Domain Problem, the Expertise and Deference Problem, and the Mismatch Problem are three problems that any account of race will need to deal with.

-David Miguel Gray
Introductions Mills 1998 Appiah 1994
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  1. Adam Hochman (2014). Unnaturalised Racial Naturalism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 46 (1):79-87.
    Quayshawn Spencer (2014) misunderstands my treatment of racial naturalism. I argued that racial naturalism must entail a strong claim, such as “races are subspecies”, if it is to be a substantive position that contrasts with anti-realism about biological race. My recognition that not all race naturalists make such a strong claim is evident throughout the article Spencer reviews (Hochman, 2013a). Spencer seems to agree with me that there are no human subspecies, and he endorses a weaker form of racial naturalism. (...)
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Race as a Biological Kind
  1. K. B. Aikman (1933). Race Mixture. The Eugenics Review 25 (3):161.
  2. Stephen G. Alter (2008). “Curiously Parallel”: Analogies of Language and Race in Darwin's Descent of Man. A Reply to Gregory Radick. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 39 (3):355-358.
    In the second chapter of The descent of man , Charles Darwin interrupted his discussion of the evolutionary origins of language to describe ten ways in which the formation of languages and of biological species were ‘curiously’ similar. I argue that these comparisons served mainly as analogies in which linguistic processes stood for aspects of biological evolution. Darwin used these analogies to recapitulate themes from On the origin of species , including common descent, genealogical classification, the struggle for existence, and (...)
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  3. Stephen G. Alter (2007). Separated at Birth: The Interlinked Origins of Darwin's Unconscious Selection Concept and the Application of Sexual Selection to Race. [REVIEW] Journal of the History of Biology 40 (2):231 - 258.
    This essay traces the interlinked origins of two concepts found in Charles Darwin's writings: "unconscious selection," and sexual selection as applied to humanity's anatomical race distinctions. Unconscious selection constituted a significant elaboration of Darwin's artificial selection analogy. As originally conceived in his theoretical notebooks, that analogy had focused exclusively on what Darwin later would call "methodical selection," the calculated production of desired changes in domestic breeds. By contrast, unconscious selection produced its results unintentionally and at a much slower pace. Inspiration (...)
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  4. M. Andreae (2004). Prenatal Sex and Race Determination is a Slippery Slope. Journal of Medical Ethics 30 (4):376-376.
    I am deeply worried about your guest editorial,1 please allow me a few bullet points: Trying to dispel some of the counterarguments to sex selection, your argument of prospective parents’ autonomy is void. If anyone has a right to determine his or her sex, it would be the person concerned, in this case the unborn child. ….
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  5. Robin O. Andreasen (2007). Biological Conceptions of Race. In Mohan Matthen & Christopher Stephens (eds.), Philosophy of Biology. Elsevier 455--481.
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  6. Robin O. Andreasen (2005). The Meaning of 'Race'. Journal of Philosophy 102 (2):94 - 106.
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  7. Robin O. Andreasen (2004). The Cladistic Race Concept: A Defense. [REVIEW] Biology and Philosophy 19 (3):425-442.
    Many contemporary race scholars reject the biological reality of race.Elsewhere I have argued that they have been too quick to do so. Part ofthe reason is that they have overlooked the possibility that races canbe defined cladistically. Since the publication of the cladistic raceconcept, a number of questions and objections have been raised. My aimin this paper is to address these objections.
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  8. Robin O. Andreasen (2000). Race: Biological Reality or Social Construct? Philosophy of Science 67 (3):666.
    Race was once thought to be a real biological kind. Today the dominant view is that objective biological races don't exist. I challenge the trend to reject the biological reality of race by arguing that cladism (a school of classification that individuates taxa by appeal to common ancestry) provides a new way to define race biologically. I also reconcile the proposed biological conception with constructivist theories about race. Most constructivists assume that biological realism and social constructivism are incompatible views about (...)
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  9. Robin O. Andreasen (1998). A New Perspective on the Race Debate. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 49 (2):199-225.
    In the ongoing debate concerning the nature of human racial categories, there is a trend to reject the biological reality of race in favour of the view that races are social constructs. At work here is the assumption that biological reality and social constructivism are incompatible. I oppose the trend and the assumption by arguing that cladism, in conjunction with current work in human evolution, provides a new way to define race biologically. Defining race in this way makes sense when (...)
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  10. Jonny Anomaly, Race Research and the Ethics of Belief (Draft).
  11. Jonny Anomaly (2014). Race, Genes, and the Ethics of Belief: A Review of Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance. [REVIEW] Hastings Center Report 44 (5):51-52.
  12. Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006). How to Decide If Races Exist. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (3):363–380.
    Through most of the twentieth century, life scientists grew increasingly sceptical of the biological significance of folk classifications of people by race. New work on the human genome has raised the possibility of a resurgence of scientific interest in human races. This paper aims to show that the racial sceptics are right, while also granting that biological information associated with racial categories may be useful.
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  13. Guido Barbujani (2001). What Genetics Tells Us About Races. In N. J. Smelser & B. Baltes (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 19--12694.
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  14. Michael S. Billinger (2007). Racial Classification in the Evolutionary Sciences: A Comparative Analysis. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 29 (4):429 - 467.
    Human racial classification has long been a problem for the discipline of anthropology, but much of the criticism of the race concept has focused on its social and political connotations. The central argument of this paper is that race is not a specifically human problem, but one that exists in evolutionary thought in general. This paper looks at various disciplinary approaches to racial or subspecies classification, extending its focus beyond the anthropological race concept by providing a comparative analysis of the (...)
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  15. C. O. Carter (1951). Races. The Eugenics Review 43 (2):99.
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  16. C. D. Darlington (1974). Race. Journal of Biosocial Science 6 (3):397.
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  17. L. Darwin (1968). The Future of Our Race Heredity and Social Progress. The Eugenics Review 60 (2):99-108.
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  18. L. Major Darwin (1917). The Disabled Sailor and Soldier and the Future of Our Race. The Eugenics Review 9 (7).
  19. Joshua Glasgow (2011). Another Look at the Reality of Race, by Which I Mean Race-F. In Allan Hazlett (ed.), New Waves in Metaphysics.
    Recently the idea that race is biologically real has gained more traction. One argument against this claim is that the populations identified by science do not sufficiently map onto the concept of race as deployed in the relevant racial discourse, namely folk racial discourse. Call that concept the concept of race-f. Robin Andreasen (2005) argues that this "mismatch" criticism fails, on a variety of grounds including: ordinary folk semantically defer to scientists; scientists can disagree about facts; historians disagree about the (...)
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  20. Joshua Glasgow (2009). In Defense of a Four-Part Theory: Replies to Hardimon, Haslanger, Mallon, and Zack. Symposia on Gender, Race, and Philosophy 5 (2):1-18.
  21. Joshua M. Glasgow (2003). On the New Biology of Race. Journal of Philosophy 100 (9):456 - 474.
  22. David Miguel Gray (2013). Racial Norms: A Reinterpretation of Du Bois' “The Conservation of Races”. Southern Journal of Philosophy 51 (4):465-487.
    I argue that standard explanations of Du Bois' theory of race inappropriately characterize his view as attempting to provide descriptive criteria for races. Such an interpretation makes it both susceptible to Appiah's circularity objection and alienates it from Du Bois' central project of solidarity—which is the central point of “Conservation.” I propose that we should understand his theory as providing a normative account of race: an attempt to characterize what some races should be in terms of what other races are. (...)
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  23. G. Ainsworth Harrison (1961). Human Races. The Eugenics Review 53 (2):102.
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  24. Adam Hochman (2016). Race: Deflate or Pop? Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 57.
    Neven Sesardic has recently defended his arguments in favour of racial naturalism—the view that race is a valid biological category—in response to my criticism of his work. While Sesardic claims that a strong version of racial naturalism can survive critique, he has in fact weakened his position considerably. He concedes that conventional racial taxonomy is arbitrary and he no longer identifies ‘races’ as human subspecies. Sesardic now relies almost entirely on Theodosius Dobzhansky’s notion of race-as-population. This weak approach to ‘race’—according (...)
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  25. Adam Hochman (2015). Of Vikings and Nazis: Norwegian Contributions to the Rise and the Fall of the Idea of a Superior Aryan Race. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 54:84-88.
    Nazi ideology was premised on a belief in the superiority of the Germanic race. However, the idea of a superior Germanic race was not invented by the Nazis. By the beginning of the 20th century this idea had already gained not only popular but also mainstream scientific support in England, Germany, the U.S., Scandinavia, and other parts of the world in which people claimed Germanic origins (p. xiii). Yet how could this idea, which is now recognised as ideology of the (...)
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  26. Adam Hochman (2013). Against the New Racial Naturalism. Journal of Philosophy 6:331–51.
    Support for the biological concept of race declined slowly but steadily during the second half of the twentieth century. However, debate about the validity of the race concept has recently been reignited. Genetic-clustering studies have shown that despite the small proportion of genetic variation separating continental populations, it is possible to assign some individuals to their continents of origin, based on genetic data alone. Race naturalists have interpreted these studies as empirically confirming the existence of human subspecies, and by extension (...)
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  27. Adam Hochman (2013). Racial Discrimination: How Not to Do It. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C (3):278-286.
    The UNESCO Statements on Race of the early 1950s are understood to have marked a consensus amongst natural scientists and social scientists that ‘race’ is a social construct. Human biological diversity was shown to be predominantly clinal, or gradual, not discreet, and clustered, as racial naturalism implied. From the seventies social constructionists added that the vast majority of human genetic diversity resides within any given racialised group. While social constructionism about race became the majority consensus view on the topic, social (...)
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  28. H. F. Humphreys (1926). Evolution of the Pre-Historic Races. The Eugenics Review 18 (1):15.
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  29. C. J. Jolly (1967). The Living Races of Man. The Eugenics Review 59 (4):272.
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  30. C. J. Jolly (1964). The Origin of Races. The Eugenics Review 55 (4):235.
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  31. Jonathan Michael Kaplan & Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther (2014). Realism, Antirealism, and Conventionalism About Race. Philosophy of Science 81 (5):1039-1052.
    This paper distinguishes three concepts of "race": bio-genomic cluster/race, biological race, and social race. We map out realism, antirealism, and conventionalism about each of these, in three important historical episodes: Frank Livingstone and Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1962, A.W.F. Edwards' 2003 response to Lewontin (1972), and contemporary discourse. Semantics is especially crucial to the first episode, while normativity is central to the second. Upon inspection, each episode also reveals a variety of commitments to the metaphysics of race. We conclude by interrogating (...)
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  32. Catherine Kendig (2011). Race as a Physiosocial Phenomenon. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 33 (2):191-222.
    This paper offers both a criticism of and a novel alternative perspective on current ontologies that take race to be something that is either static and wholly evident at one’s birth or preformed prior to it. In it I survey and critically assess six of the most popular conceptions of race, concluding with an outline of my own suggestion for an alternative account. I suggest that race can be best understood in terms of one’s experience of his or her body, (...)
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  33. Harold Kincaid & Jennifer McKitrick (eds.) (2007). Establishing Medical Reality: Methodological and Metaphysical Issues in Philosophy of Medicine. Springer Publishing Company.
  34. Philip Kitch (2007). Does 'Race' Have a Future? Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (4):293 - 317.
  35. David Ludwig (2015). Against the New Metaphysics of Race. Philosophy of Science 82 (2):244-265.
    The aim of this article is to develop an argument against metaphysical debates about the existence of human races. I argue that the ontology of race is underdetermined by both empirical and non-empirical evidence due to a plurality of equally permissible candidate meanings of "race." Furthermore, I argue that this underdetermination leads to a deflationist diagnosis according to #hich disputes about the existence of human races are non-substantive verbal disputes. $hile this diagnosis resembles general deflationist strategies in contemporary metaphysics" I (...)
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  36. David Ludwig (2014). Hysteria, Race, and Phlogiston. A Model of Ontological Elimination in the Human Sciences. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 45:68-77.
    Elimination controversies are ubiquitous in philosophy and the human sciences. For example, it has been suggested that human races, hysteria, intelligence, mental disorder, propositional attitudes such as beliefs and desires, the self, and the super-ego should be eliminated from the list of respectable entities in the human sciences. I argue that eliminativist proposals are often presented in the framework of an oversimplified “phlogiston model” and suggest an alternative account that describes ontological elimination on a gradual scale between criticism of empirical (...)
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  37. Ron Mallon (2013). Was Race Thinking Invented in the Modern West? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (1):77-88.
    The idea that genuinely racial thinking is a modern invention is widespread in the humanities and social sciences. However, it is not always clear exactly what the content of such a conceptual break is supposed to be. One suggestion is that with the scientific revolution emerged a conception of human groups that possessed essences that were thought to explain group-typical features of individuals as well the accumulated products of cultures or civilizations. However, recent work by cognitive and evolutionary psychologists suggests (...)
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  38. Ronald Jerry Mallon (2000). Making Up Your Mind: The Social Construction of Human Kinds and its Implications. Dissertation, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick
    What does it mean to say a thing is socially constructed? What is implied by something's being a social construction? I explore these questions in what follows, focusing on constructionist claims concerning human kinds. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the dissertation and discusses a number of background questions relevant to the realist, naturalistic approach to social constructionism I take. ;In Chapter 2, I develop the notion of a social role and review a body of empirical literature suggesting that social (...)
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  39. Tom Martin (2012). Joshua Glasgow, A Theory of Race (New York: Routledge, 2009). Philosophical Papers 41 (1):175-179.
  40. Roberta L. Millstein (2015). Thinking About Populations and Races in Time. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 52:5-11.
    Biologists and philosophers have offered differing concepts of biological race. That is, they have offered different candidates for what a biological correlate of race might be; for example, races might be subspecies, clades, lineages, ecotypes, or genetic clusters. One thing that is striking about each of these proposals is that they all depend on a concept of population. Indeed, some authors have explicitly characterized races in terms of populations. However, including the concept of population into concepts of race raises three (...)
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  41. Roberta L. Millstein (2012). Darwin's Explanation of Races by Means of Sexual Selection. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (3):627-633.
    In Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore contend that ‘‘Darwin would put his utmost into sexual selection because the subject intrigued him, no doubt, but also for a deeper reason: the theory vindicated his lifelong commitment to human brotherhood’’ (2009: p. 360). Without questioning Des- mond and Moore’s evidence, I will raise some puzzles for their view. I will show that attention to the structure of Darwin’s arguments in the Descent of Man shows that they are far from (...)
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  42. Gérard Molina (2005). Charles Darwin et la question du racisme scientifique. Actuel Marx 2 (2):29-44.
    The article re-addresses the question of the relation between Darwinism and the biological sciences, taking as its starting-point the precise chronology of the successive inquiries carried out by Darwin into the question of races, in connection with the various aspects of his theory of natural selection. It argues that the writings of Darwin do not share any uniform aim, nor do they come under a single epistemological category. Darwin adopts a number of divergent approaches, as he addresses a series of (...)
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  43. Stephen G. Morris (2011). Preserving the Concept of Race: A Medical Expedient, a Sociological Necessity. Philosophy of Science 78 (5):1260-1271.
  44. Vicky L. Morrisroe (2013). “Sanguinary Amusement”: E. A. Freeman, the Comparative Method and Victorian Theories of Race. Modern Intellectual History 10 (1):27-56.
    This article seeks to revise the conventional portrait of the historian E. A. Freeman (1823–92) as an arch-racist and confident proponent of Aryan superiority. Focusing on the relatively obscure Comparative Politics (1873), it is argued that, while attitudes towards race were hardening in the later nineteenth century, Freeman combined the insights of the practitioners of the Comparative Method and the Liberal Anglican philosophy of Thomas Arnold to define the Aryan race as a community of culture rather than of blood. Explicitly (...)
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  45. Jean-Claude Mounolou & Dominique Planchenault (2009). De l'Évolution, des Races Et des Hommes. Natures Sciences Sociétés 17 (2):111-112.
  46. Bence Nanay (2010). Three Ways of Resisting Racism. The Monist 93 (2):255-280.
    Two widespread strategies of resisting racism are the following. The first one is to deny the existence of races and thus block even the possibility of racist claims. The second one is to grant that races exist but insist that racial differences do not imply value differences. The aim of this paper is to outline a strategy of resisting racism that is weaker than the first but stronger than the second strategy: even if we accept that races exist, we can (...)
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  47. Silviene Oliveira & Luzitano Ferreira (2004). Biological Views Of The Inexistence Of Human Races. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2):60-63.
    In biology, race can be defined as a geographically bounded population showing accentuated genetic differentiation. It is believed that the division of human species into "races" presents solid biological base. However, there are problems over using this term. The present work aims to point out some of the difficulties of using the concept of races for the human species, using a biological approach. The race concept is typological, imprecise, based on subjective concepts, and can suffer different interpretations according to the (...)
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  48. Lucius T. Outlaw (2014). If Not Races, Then What? Toward a Revised Understanding of Bio-Social Groupings. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 35 (1-2):275-296.
  49. Jeremy Pierce (2009). Mutants and the Metaphysics of Race. In Rebecca Housel J. Jeremy Wisnewski (ed.), X-Men and Philosophy: Astonishing Insight and Uncanny Argument in the Mutant X-Verse. Wiley/Blackwell
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