Is race something we can fully explain in terms of the natural world around us? Races thought of as biological kinds invoke some type of racial 'naturalism'. While the term ‘Naturalism’ is used in many different ways, we can think of Naturalism as the view that properties within a particular domain of investigation are physical properties. For instance, there are lots of domains of inquiry where we may believe in non-physical properties. You might believe in numbers, which are a kind of abstract object as they aren’t located in time or space. Or you might think that moral properties like the wrongness of pushing someone in front of a car, is a non-physical property: that is, if we look at all the physical stuff involved in pushing someone in front of a car: e.g. the car, the person, the act of pushing, you might think that the wrongness is not among those physical parts. If one were to be a naturalist about moral properties, they might claim that the moral properties are among the physical parts. But leaving that difficult debate on moral naturalism aside, we can say that to be a naturalist about race is to say that racial properties just are physical properties.
If you are wondering what, aside from physical properties, racial properties could be, one possible alternative is that racial properties are social properties. Social properties are those that are dependent on human acts and decisions while physical properties are thought to be independent of human acts and decisions. Take an example of an object like the Great Sphinx of Giza. The property of being made of limestone is a natural property of the statue. Limestone isn’t something that is the result of human actions or decision making. However, the fact that this object is a statue isn’t a natural property. Someone decided to shape the limestone into a couchant sphinx.
So what’s the upshot of thinking of races as being composed of natural properties? Well, that means that races exist independently of any human actions or decision making processes. Races are something in the world that natural scientists can investigate and discover. The opposing view would be that races are created by people, and this treats races as social constructions.
So now we have an idea both of what it means to think of races in terms of natural properties as well as what that view can be contrasted with. This leads us to the question which natural properties?
For the naturalist there are lots of different accounts of what a race could be. Before the 20th century when race seemed to be studied primarily by natural historians the following features were associated with racial naturalism
1. Races have either natural essences or some set of observable natural properties that are shared by all or most members of that race.
2. These natural properties are inheritable
3. These natural properties place races into a hierarchical systems where they can be differentiated in terms of physical, behavioral, intellectual, and moral characteristics.
I’m not going to spend any time on these older views as they aren’t currently held for any scientific reasons in the scientific communities. While these views were central to earlier scientific theories of race, nowadays, they only pop up infrequently among those who have a limited and/or motivated understanding of biological properties.
This leads us to what some philosophers like, Josh Glasgow, have called “The New biology of race”. Unlike the old biology of race the new biology holds that races have natural properties that are common to most members of that race. These natural properties give us no reason to think that any intellectual, moral, or behavioral characteristics can be attributed to races in virtue of shared natural properties.
While there are many possible accounts of which natural properties could be used to define race, one approach, that has gained a following, is to think of races as partially defined by, or caused by, reproductively isolated breeding populations.
A population is a group of the same species that live in the same place. What makes a population a breeding population is that members of this group can and do sexually reproduce. However, there are a few things that could make a breeding population reproductively isolated. One way is that the breeding population is geographically cut off from other breeding populations of their own species. (For instance, you could imagine a group of people cut off from others because they live on an island, or are separated by mountains or desserts). In this case geographic properties of our world would shape our natural properties. Another way a breeding population could be reproductively isolated is that even though a population is located together and could interbreed, portions of that population don’t interbreed with other portions. For instance, if there were cultural taboos about subgroups of wealthy or short individuals breeding with subgroups of poor or tall individuals, those subgroups could be reproductively isolated even if they live in the same location. In this case, social elements of our world would shape our natural properties.
So that’s what reproductively isolated breeding populations are. But how might they be used to define race?
One way is that we can often define race in terms of ancestral relations. For instance, if someone is of a particular race, let’s call it race X, we can explain conditions for that individual being of that race: if one’s parents are both of race X, then one is also of race X.
You might see a couple problems here. First, what happens when one parent is of race X but another parent is of race Y? In this case we might have to say that the offspring are either a new race (Z?) or don’t have a race as they are the product of non-isolated breeding populations.
Second, even if one’s parents are both members of race X what makes them members of that race? The answer is that their parents were also of race X. But now we are off on an infinite regress: the explanation of what makes someone a member of a race is not answered but just pushed back a generation each time that question gets asked. We need an explanation that stops the infinite regress.
One of two answers is normally given here. One option is to say that one’s ancestor is a member of race X in virtue of sharing similar phenotypic, or observable, properties specific to other members of one’ s reproductively isolated breeding population. A second option is to say that one’s ancestor is a member of race X in virtue of sharing similar genotypic, or genetic, properties specific to other members of one’s reproductively isolated breeding population. Given that much of our genetic makeup plays no direct role in our observable traits, the genotypic similarities would not necessarily mean that races have phenotypic similarities.
So the accounts I just sketched which make use of ancestral relations among reproductively isolated breeding populations and either genotypic or phenotypic properties is one way to develop a naturalistic account of race.
I should note that in an attempt to be quite inclusive of a variety of naturalist theories, I have not specified the different ways this account can be developed in order to respond to various concerns. (For detailed examples of this sort of approach see key works below).
-David Miguel Gray
Here are three naturalist accounts of race.
Philip Kitcher. “Race, Ethnicity, Biology, Culture” in Racism, L. Harris (ed.), New York: Humanity Books. 87-117.
Robin Andreasen 2005. “The Meaning of ‘Race’: Folk Conception and the New Biology of Race*” The Journal of Philosophy, 94-106.
Quayshawn Spencer 2014. “A Radical Solution to the Race Problem” Philosophy of Science, 1025-1038.
And for an attack on naturalist accounts see:
Joshua Glasgow, 2005. “On the New Biology of Race, The Journal of Philosophy, 456-74.
Ned Block’s “How Heritability misleads about Race”
Alan Templeton “Biological Races in Humans”
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