Race is Both a Social Construct AND a Valid Biological Category

Originally published on The Alternative Hypothesis

You can’t get through a 100 level anthropology class without hearing this line. And when people hear that race is not a biological concept but, rather, that it is a social construct they assume that categories that are valid and used in biology are not social constructs. In other words, they assume that being a valid biological category and being a social construct are mutually exclusive. This is simply not true.

Anytime we categorize objects we decide to group things one way as opposed to another. In this sense, all categories are social constructs. If we wanted to we could get rid of the category “table” and, in its place, invent two new categories: one for all “tables” that are brown and another for all “tables” that are not brown. Of course, it is more useful to have one single category which denotes all tables and so that is what we go with. But the point is that we choose to “go with” one category scheme and not the other. Thus, there is something “social” or “artificial” about all categories.

But this isn’t specific to race. All categories, including scientific ones, are tools and their validity must be determined by whether or not they are useful. Simply noting that a category is man made tells us nothing about whether or not it can aide scientists in predicting and explaining the natural world. Whether race is socially constructed is irrelevant to its validity.

It is important to realize that these “socially constructed” categories are also “biologically real” in that they are socially constructed ways to organize natural biological variation. We could chose another way. There are nearly countless ways you could group people based on biology.

In fact, we often do choose other ways. For instance, when we talk about “diabetics” and “non-diabetics” were are talking about a way of categorizing humans, which we invented, based on biological differences between them. Does this mean that “diabetic” has no place in medical science? Hardly.

This fact, that racial categorization is made by humans rather than nature, has been recognized for hundreds of years. For instance, when considering the nature of Varieties, the major below-species category of early biology and the taxonomic level to which races were relegated, Linnaeues, the founder of modern biological taxonomy, wrote that

“Species and genera are regarded as always the works of Nature, but varieties are usually owning to culture.” (Stuessy 2009 page 154).

Similarly, Johan Blumenbach (1795), the founder of physical anthropology, when arguing that a 5 race scheme was better than 3, 4 or 6, race scheme, said:

“Five principal varieties of mankind may be reckoned. As, however, even among these arbitrary kinds of divisions, one is said to be better and preferable to another, after a long an attentive consideration, all mankind, as far as it is at present known to us, seems to me as if it may best, according to natural truth, be divided into the five following varieties: which may be designated and distinguished from each-other by the names Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. ”

Note that he refers to “varieties” or, what today would be called subspecies, as an arbitrary division. He does also mention “natural truth”, and this is referring to the fact that man made categories sort natural variation. None the less, Blumenbach clearly recognizes that racial categories are invented, rather than discovered.

This fact was not lost on future generations of racial scientists. Erynst Mayr, probably the most important taxonomist of the 20th century and the inventor of the most popular modern criteria of subspecies, called subspecies “a purely subjective” category. He went on to say “the subspecies is merely a strict utilitarian classificatory device for the pigeonholing of population samples” (Keita 1993).

When responding in the 1960’s to a complaint about the subjectivity of subspecies taxonomy the biologist J. Tilden wrote

“We should, I feel, have a mental reservation that our systems exist more in our mind than in nature. However useful our system may be as a tool, we cannot assume that no other system could be devised to express the same concepts as well or even better. By this line of reasoning, the concept of subspecies should no more be under fire than any other level of classification, since all are equally the products of man’s ingenuity.” (Tilden 1961)

Clearly then, it has long been known by those who see race as biologically real that race is also socially constructed. Moreover, in non-politically charged contexts this is seen as uncontroversial and irrelevant. The fact that a category is man made does not mean that it can’t help us predict and explain nature. And so it has little relevance to whether or not a category has a place in science.

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