Biological Theory

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 401–412 | Cite as

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

  • Jonathan Michael KaplanEmail author
  • 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 



Matthew Kopec, Michael J. Wade, and the editors of this special issue of Biological Theory, Kim Sterelny, Massimo Pigliucci, and Werner Callebaut, kindly provided feedback on this paper. Kaplan would like to thank the participants at the KLI “The Meaning of ‘Theory’ in Biology” workshop for their comments, and the Oregon State University Center for the Humanities, whose support helped make this work possible. Winther thanks Ian Hacking, Carlos López-Beltrán, and Amir Najmi for ongoing discussions on these topics. Kim Sneppen’s support of Winther’s guest research stay at the Biocomplexity Center, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, is also gratefully acknowledged. This paper, written fully jointly, with authors listed alphabetically, is the result of an ongoing collaboration that emerged from an e-mail exchange between the authors that began with Kaplan reading Winther (2011).


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2012

Authors and Affiliations

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

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