University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > 'Wir sind alle Afrikaner': a brief history and philosophy of the biological 'race' concept

'Wir sind alle Afrikaner': a brief history and philosophy of the biological 'race' concept

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Race is a notoriously contentious political, ideological, and sociological concept. By definition, a racial proper name (e.g. ‘African’, ‘Han Chinese’) is meant to refer to, and identify, a coherent human group (at various levels). But are there really such natural, biological groups, or are they solely cultural constructs? That is, are phenotypic ‘racial’ differences in hair texture, skin colour or various morphological characters (external traits) actually grounded in genetic or other biological differences (internal traits)? And if so, how broad are such basic, reductive biological differences? Do they also explain group-level differences in proneness to certain diseases or even IQ(!), that seem to robustly exist across human groups? Since biology clearly has ideological and social consequences, much is at stake in scientific attempts to assess the naturalness of ‘race’. In this talk, I critically examine the abstraction of human groups (and ‘races’) through the use of contemporary data-driven (e.g. SNPs, haplotypes and microsatellites) modelling strategies (e.g. STRUCTURE computer program, phylogenetic inferences). I employ my philosophical framework of the reification of scientific abstractions. I argue that the real yet partial population structure of humans across the globe, as well as the various empirically-adequate models of human evolution, do not justify a reification of the race concept. The concept does not have strong biological support, and I suggest that scientific honesty demands that we abandon it. (Even then, we could still search for genes and developmental processes underlying diseases, as well as try to reconstruct the evolutionary history of genetically diverse human groups.) Indeed, as indicated in an ongoing exhibition on human evolution at the Neues Museum in Berlin, we are all Africans.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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