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
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.
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
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
2. These natural properties
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
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