Ioannis Votsis, London School of Economics

Does the concept of “race” find support in contemporary science, particularly in biology? No, says Naomi Zack, together with so many others who nowadays argue that human races lack biological reality. This claim is widely accepted in a number of fields (philosophy, biology, anthropology, and psychology), and Zack’s book represents only the latest defense of social constructivism in this context. There are several reasons why she fails to make a convincing case. Zack starts by arbitrarily ascribing an anachronistically essentialist connotation to the concept of race. After having made that everyday notion semantically so crude and outdated there is no wonder that she finds it quite easy to conclude that such an awkward category has no place in science. Her main rationale for seeing our race distinctions as being poorly matched to biological characteristics (e.g., population differences in gene frequencies) is that these biological characteristics do not fall into discrete and mutually exclusive categories as “required” by the common-sense taxonomy. This opposition between the continuity of variation found in biology and the alleged discreteness of common-sense “races” is repeated throughout the book, and it is presented as creating an unbridgeable gap between biology and the colloquial concept of race. Contrary to what Zack says, however, today’s common-sense ideas about race are not so radically disconnected from contemporary science. Rather, “race” in ordinary usage is informed by biological knowledge to a considerable extent. Most people no longer think about race in terms of pre-Darwinian racial “essences” and “mutually exclusive” ideal types. In fact, as pointed out by Anthony Appiah (whom Zack quotes on this matter but without taking him seriously enough), the discourse on race has long been characterized by a practice of “semantic deference,” according to which people tend to use the word “race” assuming that the biologists could say more precisely than they could what it meant..
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