Considering the Role Marked Variation Plays in Classifying Humans: A Normative Approach

Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 13 (10):1-15 (2018)
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The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the ongoing analyses that aim to confront the problem of marked variation. Negatively marked differences are those natural variations that are used to cleave human beings into different categories (e.g., of disablement, of medicalized pathology, of subnormalcy, or of deviance). The problem of marked variation is: Why are some rather than other variations marked as epistemically or culturally significant or as a diagnostic of pathology, and What is the epistemic background that makes these—rather than other variations—marked as subnormal? For Wilson (2018a), critical examination of the problem of marked variation is central to understanding the epistemology of medicalized pathology that made the history of eugenics possible. My aim is to explore the role marked variation plays in eugenic and other problematic classifications and the inferences they appear to license. I pay particular attention to the normative valuations of marked variations, how these valuations affect the inferences that are made by others about those possessing the variation, and how those possessing the variation perceive themselves. In the final sections, I illustrate this by critically discussing three putative kinship conceptions of race. I rely on these to extend the scope of the puzzle of marked variation from the context of historic and current markings of an individual’s variation as disability in the eugenics movement to historic and current markings for assigning putative racial ascriptions to individuals and groups. Lastly, I suggest that the problem of marked variation is a problem that looms over any epistemic account that is dependent upon sorting or classifying.


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Catherine Elizabeth Kendig
Michigan State University

Citations of this work

Philosophy in the Trenches: Reflections on The Eugenic Mind Project.Alan C. Love - 2018 - Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 10.

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