Neven Sesardic, a philosopher of science, is critical of positions accepted by liberal-left philosophers about heritability, genes, IQ test scores, and racial differences. His guiding theme is that philosphers need to delve more deeply into the science as they consider their arguments (2000, 2005). In his latest contribution in this spirit, Sesardic (2010) argues that ”the biological notion of race (is not at all inconsistent) with what the best contemporary science tells us about human genetic variation.” In particular, the fact that genetic variation within a group is of larger than variation between (the average of) the groups, does not mean that the groups cannot be distinguished.
Let me affirm this last point with an example from a course I once took in multivariate statistics. We could not say with confidence whether a student was male and female on the basis of their height—there was too much overlap of the ranges—or, for the same reason, on the basis of their hip circumference. Yet a simple linear function that subtracted hip from height was very reliable in discriminating male from female students. In Sesardic´s figure, rotated 90 degrees below, height would be the x-axis, hip the y-axis; the squares the males, the triangles the females.
This point of Sesardic is not, however, sufficient to rehabilitate a biological picture of race. In this post and the next, I sketch the issues we face once we delve deeper into the relevant scientific knowledge, concepts, methods, and questions for inquiry.
- Biology is more than genetic variation. For example, experience of racial discrimination by African-American women has been associated with higher risk of pre-term delivery of their babies even after controlling statistically for other factors that increase that risk (Mustillo et al. 2004). Race can be linked with biology even if races cannot be distinguished on the basis of genetic differences.
Mustillo SA, Krieger N, Gunderson EP, Sidney S, McCreath H, Kiefe CI (2004) The Association of Self-Reported Experiences of Racial Discrimination with Black/White Differences in Preterm Delivery and Low Birth Weight: The CARDIA Study. American Journal Public Health 94:2125-2131.
Sesardic N (2000) Philosophy of Science that Ignores Science: Race, IQ and Heritability. Philosophy of Science 67: 580-602.
Sesardic N (2005) Making Sense of Heritability. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Sesardic N (2010) Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept. Biology and Philosophy 25:143-162.