Biological Theory

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 401–412

Prisoners of Abstraction? The Theory and Measure of Genetic Variation, and the Very Concept of “Race”

  • Jonathan Michael Kaplan
  • Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther
Thematic Issue Article: The Meaning of “Theory” in Biology


It is illegitimate to read any ontology about “race” off of biological theory or data. Indeed, the technical meaning of “genetic variation” is fluid, and there is no single theoretical agreed-upon criterion for defining and distinguishing populations given a particular set of genetic variation data. By analyzing three formal senses of “genetic variation,” viz., diversity, differentiation, and heterozygosity, we argue that the use of biological theory for making claims about race inevitably amounts to a pernicious reification. Biological theory does not force the concept of “race” upon us; our social discourse, social ontology, and social expectations do. We become prisoners of our abstractions at our own hands, and at our own expense.


Biological ontology Differentiation Diversity Models Population genetics Populations Race Reification Variation 

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Michael Kaplan
    • 1
  • Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther
    • 2
  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

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