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What ‘biological racial realism’ should mean


A curious ambiguity has arisen in the race debate in recent years. That ambiguity is what is actually meant by ‘biological racial realism’. Some philosophers mean that ‘race is a natural kind in biology’, while others mean that ‘race is a real biological kind’. However, there is no agreement about what a natural kind or a real biological kind should be in the race debate. In this article, I will argue that the best interpretation of ‘biological racial realism’ is one that interprets ‘biological racial realism’ as ‘race is a genuine kind in biology’, where a genuine kind is a valid kind in a well-ordered scientific research program. I begin by reviewing previous interpretations of ‘biological racial realism’ in the race debate. Second, I introduce the idea of a genuine kind and compare it to various notions of natural and real biological kinds used in the race debate. Third, I present and defend an argument for my view. Fourth, I provide a few interesting consequences of my view for the race debate. Last, I provide a summary of the article.

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  1. 1.

    I owe the term ‘agnostic kind’ to Tommie Shelby.

  2. 2.

    Buchwald and Smith (2001, p. 469) call such a phenomenon “continuity of evidence”.

  3. 3.

    According to Smith (2002, p. 162) a “garden path” is a stretch of scientific activity that ends in discontinuity of evidence.

  4. 4.

    For example, Goodman (1978, p. 128) eventually identifies genuine kinds as “categories that are right for science in general.” However, he provides no account of what sort of kind is ‘right for science in general’. My account of genuine kindhood will do just that.

  5. 5.

    See Boyd (1999, pp. 148–150) for a similar account of why kinds are introduced into science.

  6. 6.

    I owe this example to Rae Langton.

  7. 7.

    For example, see Boyd (1999, p. 146), Häggqvist (2005, p. 72), and Machery (2005, p. 446).

  8. 8.

    That alcohol deactivates enzymes is why tending to an open wound with alcohol disinfects it. The alcohol enters bacterial cells that have landed on the wound and deactivates enough bacterial enzymes to kill the bacteria, thus leaving the wounded area “disinfected”.

  9. 9.

    For example, see Boyd (1999, p. 146) and Psillos (2002, p. 258).

  10. 10.

    See Häggqvist (2005) for a defense of how scientific kinds can be theoretically useful without being explanatorily useful.

  11. 11.

    Although it is less discussed, some philosophers have paid considerable attention to presuppositions in science. For example, see Boyd (1999, pp. 176–179) and Friedman (2001).

  12. 12.

    Today we call a motive force a ‘net force’ and quantity of motion ‘momentum’.

  13. 13.

    An isotope is an alternative form of an element with a unique number of neutrons.

  14. 14.

    Notice that this distinction implies that kinds in the first group can underwrite theories and second-order phenomena. However, the latter usefulness is parasitic on a prior usefulness in underwriting presuppositions or first-order phenomena.

  15. 15.

    In other words, the notion of a priori that I am invoking here is not “justified independently of experience”, but is rather, “constitutive of the concept of the object of … knowledge” (Friedman 2001, pp. 71–72).

  16. 16.

    A paraphyletic group is an ancestor and some, but not all, of its descendants. A polyphyletic group is an ancestor and descendants such that one or more of the descendants do not descend from the ancestor that defines the group. For example, the group consisting of Barack and Sasha Obama is a paraphyletic group because it is missing Malia Obama. Furthermore, the group consisting of Barack, Sasha, and Malia Obama plus myself is a polyphyletic group because Barack Obama is not an ancestor of mine.

  17. 17.

    Another reason why monophyletic group is justified in cladistics is because it promotes empirical adequacy in cladistic classification.

  18. 18.

    Here I am assuming that by “biological facts” Glasgow means observational laws or theories in biology.

  19. 19.

    For any set A, ‘|A|’ is shorthand for ‘the number of elements in A’.

  20. 20.

    Another way of putting Sober’s point is that SAB, SAC, and SBC are not sets since each one’s membership changes depending on the observer.

  21. 21.

    I see the reasoning that I am invoking here to be similar to John Rawls’ motivation for developing a political conception of justice that does not depend upon a thick notion of the good, and to Arthur Fine’s motivation for developing the natural ontological attitude in the scientific realism debate.

  22. 22.

    For example, see Sundstrom (2002, pp. 92–94), Kitcher (2007, pp. 298–303), Haslanger (2008, p. 60), and Glasgow (2009, pp. 80–83).

  23. 23.

    Some examples are Appiah (1996), Andreasen (1998), and Zack (2002).

  24. 24.

    Some examples are Sundstrom (2002), Kitcher (2007), and Haslanger (2008).

  25. 25.

    In essence what I am suggesting is that we divert the question of whether race is objectively real to philosophers engaged in the natural kind realism debate, since it is up to them to figure out whether the special class of scientific kinds that appear to be objectively real actually consists of kinds that are objectively real. It is sufficient for those interested in the race debate to show that race either is or is not a member of the special class of scientific kinds that appear to be objectively real.

  26. 26.

    For example, see Kitcher (2007) and Haslanger (2008).

  27. 27.

    For evidence, see Andreasen (1998, p. 207) and Zack (2002, pp. 1–8).

  28. 28.

    For a few of them see Wilkerson (1995), Boyd (1999), Griffiths (2004), La Porte (2004), and Häggqvist (2005).

  29. 29.

    See, for example, Anderson (2005).

  30. 30.

    See Boyd (1999) for a similar view on what the minimal features should be for a good theory of scientific kinds.


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I would like to thank several people for helpful comments, criticisms, and discussions that led to the final version of this article. In alphabetical order I would like to thank Tom Dougherty, Michael Friedman, Jorge Garcia, Sally Haslanger, Chike Jeffers, Rae Langton, Micah Lewin, Helen Longino, Tommie Shelby, Elliott Sober, and Ward Watt. I would also like to thank the vibrant participants of the Work-In-Progress group in the Linguistics and Philosophy Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for helpful comments and criticisms that led to a revision of this article. Finally, this research would not have been possible without a generous Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor Fellowship from MIT as well as supplemental funding and a leave of absence from the University of San Francisco.

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Correspondence to Quayshawn Spencer.

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Spencer, Q. What ‘biological racial realism’ should mean. Philos Stud 159, 181–204 (2012).

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  • Race
  • Natural kind
  • Genuine kind
  • Biological racial realism
  • The race debate
  • Cladistic race