May 31, 2014

I have to disagree with Massimo Pigliucci: a public intellectual misstep?

And, regular readers of this blog, or viewers of my comments on Google+, will probably be surprised. And they should be.

Oh, sure, we have some differences of opinion on what free will may or may not be. But, those are fairly nuanced positions on an issue where there's little certain knowledge at all.

Rather, I'm disagreeing a bit more substantially with ideas behind his latest post, On the Biology of Race.

Obviously, this can be an explosive issue. I certainly agree with the thumping he gives to Nicholas Wade's new book. He does acknowledge that Wade does give credence (if Wade isn't just using a rhetorical gambit; I've not yet read the book) to Hume's is/ought distinction.

But, trying to redefine the word "race"? No.

Massimo first notes this:
“Race” is a rather fuzzy concept in biology to begin with, even outside of the human case. More often than not, however, in biology a race is a subspecies, or incipient species
So far, so good.

But, then, we have at best, a stumble, at second best, a wrong turning, and at third best, a violation of at least the spirit of the Tractatus-era Wittgenstein and his famous quote, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Here's that wrong turning.
If human races are not subspecies, is there any scientifically meaningful way to recover the concept of “race” as it applies to our species, and how does this square with the “folk” concept of species (i.e., with talk of “blacks, Caucasians, Asians,” and so forth)?

Jonathan Kaplan and I (first reference mentioned in [6]) think there is. We suggested that human races are really what biologists call “ecotypes” [11], geographically distinct populations that have evolved some special way of adapting to their local environment.
I'm not disagreeing with him as a biologist. I have no academic standing to do so. And, I have no doubt the word "race" can be defined as an "ectype," as he does.

The real question is, Should it be?

In other words, should be be using the word "race" at all?

I say no, firmly so.

We've at least gotten past "race" used for a cultural grouping from one country, like "the English race" or the "British race," etc., that was common out of the mouth of a Teddy Roosevelt or a young Winston Churchill. It's time to take the next step, and, as much as possible, stop using "race" for people of different skin tones.

Unfortunately, Massimo focuses his ecotypes for human races exactly on generalized, or overgeneralized, or even stereotypical, racial characteristics:
The idea, then, is that certain superficial physical characteristics in humans — chiefly, but not exclusively, skin and eye color — did evolve genetically, likely in response to natural selection for adaptation to certain types of environments, most obviously dark skin to protect people from high levels of UV radiation, and light skin to minimize inability to synthesize vitamin D in places where high incidence of sunlight is not the most pressing problem.
Eye color may be a spandrel, or, at least, co-evolved.

Skin color? H. sapiens arctus could have evolved a different mechanism for Vitamin D needs, like more efficient obtaining of it from food sources. After all, Andeans and Himalayans have evolved different mechanisms for living at high altitude. And, Southeast Asians have evolved a rough parallel to West Africans' sickle-cell defense against malaria.

And, on skin tone, many East Asians, even ones at more northerly latitudes, are of slightly to moderately darker skin than many Europeans.

That said, he goes on to acknowledge some of this.
For instance, light skin evolved following different genetic pathways in Western and Eastern Eurasian populations. Moreover, although South Asian populations retained the ancestral dark pigmentation, its genetic modulation appears to be very different from that of, say, West African populations.
Fair enough? Well, maybe, maybe not. It's only a partial acknowledgement, not a full one. Nor is it an acknowledgement that by focusing on skin tone, Massimo's barking up the wrong ecotype tree.

Docgee in comments speaks for me here:
If you already have a perfectly good term, i.e., “ecotype,” then what’s the point of tacking “race” onto it? You admit that your definition has little in common with the “folk” definition, which is in fact very different. So what is there that’s so attractive about “race” that you feel the need to revive (and redefine) the term at all? Since most people feel they already know what “race” means, using it as an alternative to “ecotype” will only lead to confusion. And in the process, encourage the many racists among us.

Moreover, when you actually study the literature of population genetics you’ll see that there is no such thing as a human “ecotype” either. At least not in any sense remotely comparable to race. What “race” are the Ainu of Japan, who are phenotypically “caucasian”? What race are the Andaman Islanders, who look “just like” African Pygmies, but are much closer genetically to Asians. What “race” are American “blacks,” many of whom are primarily of European or British descent, yet simply look “negroid” to your typical American.
Exactly. While Massimo again gives a nod to a narrow focus on ecotypes:
As we have seen, insofar as biologically meaningful races are conceptualized as populations more like ecotypes than like incipient species, many of the arguments purporting to show that there are no human races miss their mark.
He still doesn't discuss why skin tone, contra a Docgee, should be the starting point for defining, or defining into existence, human ecotypes.

So, I correct myself. As a layperson, I'm not disagreeing with his knowledge of biology, I'm disagreeing with the way he's constructing definitions.

So, let's say that this is a philosophical disagreement. It's about philosophy of language, and since it's about said branch of philosophy in the use of science, it's a philosophy of science disagreement of sorts.

But, it's more than that.

Massimo stresses the value of public intellectuals, and that's the ultimate grounds of my disagreement. I think, again with Docgee having taken the words out of my mouth, that he is indeed erring as a public intellectual.

Two paragraphs above the last one, he says:
The upshot is that when people think of “blacks” as a race, they are not actually picking a scientifically coherent unit, only one that is defined by a mishmash of small and superficial set of biological traits (skin color etc.) and a convoluted cultural history.
Followed by this in the same paragraph of the "as we have seen" quote:
But again, biology provides no support for the very strong, essentialist-style conception of ‘race’ that has, both historically and at present, underwritten racism (of both the individual and institutional varieties), and indeed, biology reveals that the assumptions underlying such a conception of race are false.
So, why still use the word "race"?

I think Massimo is missing the boat on a branch of evolutionary biology that we both agree is often overblown. However, it is a branch that, with both the word "pop" and the idea of it removed, does have some legitimate contributions.

I'm talking about evolutionary psychology.

Xenophobia is an evolutionarily-guided human trait. The idea of the "outgroup" is deeply rooted.

And, skin color, when people from different parts of the world are thrown into close proximity, especially in larger numbers, is a mentally easy way to distinguish "outgroups."

And, those outgroups have been labeled with the word "race." Even as "we" know that there's no connection between skin tone and other heritable characteristics, people with PhDs still claim there are such connections.

Like Phillipe Rushton. Or, without a PhD, Steve Sailer, referenced as an expert by a Jamaican native, JayMan, who says he is of part African ancestry, here.

Massimo, if dipping into the waters of evolutionary psychology is too much, this might actually be a good time for a quaff of Dan Dennett and his observations about folk psychology. You use the word "folk" yourself, but don't seem to see this as an "aha" moment.

So, no, Massimo.

Because, pace Wittgenstein above and the later linguistic Wittgenstein, to speak of a term loaded with baggage that has sociological and political science connotations, is to speak of a word that, in the public square can't be so easily redefined, and certainly not unilaterally so. (The repeated comments of JayMan, complete with references to posts from his blog, to which I shall not link, are proof positive of this.) And, since political science, in a case like this might even connect to political philosophy, we're definitely back in public intellectual territory.

To riff on John Roberts, the way to stop talking about "race" is to stop talking about "race." Except when necessary to refute the traditional "folk" concept.

Period and end of story.

To try to redefine the word, still using biological concepts, still leaves the door open for the racialist Sailers of the world to commit deliberate bull's-eye fallacies by defining "ecotypes" the way they want to.

Per that later Wittgenstein, and ordinary language philosophy, simply deny that "race" as understood in common language has biological standing.


Simon said...

I don't know, I can sort of see your point; I just see race as an archaic/historical footnote or transition.

Gadfly said...

What you say, and I'm sorry if it's not clear, is my unstated background point. Hence, my riff on the US Supreme Court Chief Justice's statement about race.