Philosophy and Biology

Over at Intersecting Processes: complexity & change in environment, biomedicine & society, Pete Taylor has a few cogent posts on the issue of Human Biodiversity. He offers some thoughtful meditations on Neven Sesardic’s Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept. I posted a long reply. As it might be of interest for references, I will repost it here:

A few comments…

Point 1. “Biology is more than genetic variation. For example, experience of racial discrimination by African-American women has been associated with higher risk of pre-term delivery of their babies even after controlling… Race can be linked with biology even if races cannot be distinguished on the basis of genetic differences.Sesardic (2010) makes the point that the fact that genetic variation within a group is of larger than variation between (the average of) the groups does not mean that the groups cannot be distinguished. This point is not, however, sufficient to rehabilitate a biological picture of race. I continue from the previous post to sketch the issues we face once we delve deeper into the relevant scientific knowledge, concepts, methods, and questions for inquiry…

Your point 1 is confusing. First you talk about non-genetic biology (something like G-E interaction or epigenetic, I guess) and than Sesardic’s defense of race. But those are distinct issues. (And your conclusion that the African-American pre-term delivery risk is a consequence if discrimination does not follow — since, obviously, this could be also explained by way of population genetics [1]).

Lets start with some conceptual footwork. There seems to be rather different definitions of ‘race’ floating around For example, the atrocious Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on race defines race as a class of individuals with perceived shared phenotypes. I guess that would be something like the ‘race’ or highly pigmented people. But most people don’t conceive of race that way — rather they conceive of the term as meaning ‘ancestry’ or if you will ‘descendancy.’ I have never heard anyone, after all, seriously speak of the race of dark people in a sense were dark Pakistanies and Sub Saharan Africans were lumped together. Race as ancestry captures all major definitions of the concept: the broad phylogenic one (i.e. subspecies) used by Linnaeus, Kant, and Darwin; the more specific idea of ethnorace (2), the ethnohistoric one based on some idea of culture and average shared regional ancestry (African-Americans), and the supposed (and supposedly disproved) social one which is said to be based on some belief in a phylogenic concept. So let’s use that as our generic definition and then qualify it with the terms “phylogenic,” “ethno” and “ethnohistoric” or “social”

Sesardic is defending the phylogenic conception [or attacking the arguments against it] (3) [“Abstract: It is nowadays a dominant opinion in a number of disciplines (anthropology, genetics, psychology, philosophy of science) that the taxonomy of human races does not make much biological sense…I hope to demonstrate that their eliminativist views are actually in conflict with what the best contemporary science tells us about human genetic variation..”] The conceived phylogenic races roughly correspond to the major phylogenic branches (ancestral populations) in Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s The History and Geography of Human Genes or the major populations as inferred by factor analysis (4) in contemporary population genetics.

The fact that aggregated genetic variation between populations is always larger than aggregated variation within populations means that populations can be genetically distinguished. But this isn’t sufficient to establish that these populations represent phylogenic races (subspecies). It’s generally argued that significant noticeable differences between population are required — the debate turns on a conceptualization of what it means for a population to be different (do different populations need to share one or more distinct trait or does a cluster of average traits suffice, if the population is somehow otherwise related?)– which is why Sesardic would have to make the argument that patterns of noticeable phenotypic differences (shared by genetically distinguishable [read: ancestral] populations) constitutes population differences, and therefore human subspecies. [Again, in the cited source, Sesardic is attacking arguments against phylogenic race, not arguing for it]

(1) Something along the lines of: Pennington R, Gatenbee C, Kennedy B, Harpending H, Cochran G. Group differences in proneness to inflammation OR Risch, 2005. Dissecting Racial and Ethnic Differences OR Gottfredson, 2005. Thinking more deeply about health disparities.

(2) To use Johnathan Haidt’s definition: ”any group of people who believe they share common descent, actually do share common descent, and that descent involved at least 500 years of a sustained selection pressure, such as sheep herding, rice farming, exposure to malaria, or a caste-based social order, which favored some heritable behavioral predispositions and not others.”

(3) An example of a taxonomic defense would be: Woodley, 2009.Is Homo sapiens polytypic? Human taxonomic diversity and its implications

“The term race is a traditional synonym for subspecies, however it is frequently asserted that Homo sapiens is monotypic and that what are termed races are nothing more than biological illusions. In this manuscript a case is made for the hypothesis that H. sapiens is polytypic, and in this way is no different from other species exhibiting similar levels of genetic and morphological diversity. First it is demonstrated that the four major definitions of race/subspecies can be shown to be synonymous within the context of the framework of race as a correlation structure of traits. Next the issue of taxonomic classification is considered where it is demonstrated that H. sapiens possesses high levels morphological diversity, genetic heterozygosity and differentiation (FST) compared to many species that are acknowledged to be polytypic with respect to subspecies. Racial variation is then evaluated in light of the phylogenetic species concept, where it is suggested that the least inclusive monophyletic units exist below the level of species within H. sapiens indicating the existence of a number of potential human phylogenetic species; and the biological species concept, where it is determined that racial variation is too small to represent differentiation at the level of biological species. Finally the implications of this are discussed in the context of anthropology where an accurate picture of the sequence and timing of events during the evolution of human taxa are required for a complete picture of human evolution, and medicine, where a greater appreciation of the role played by human taxonomic differences in disease susceptibility and treatment responsiveness will save lives in the future”

(4) See: Li, et al., 2008. Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation. Or Jinchuan Xing et al. 2010. Toward a more uniform sampling of human genetic diversity: A survey of worldwide populations by high-density genotyping.

Point 2. [a] Suppose we imagine an original human gene pool that dispersed at some point of time from its origins in Africa around the world and was not subject to subsequent breeding among widely dispersed parts of the pool. [b] Cluster analysis techniques could be used on genetic data to divide humans into, say, N groups. [c] If we looked for groups that had similar within-group genetic variation, most of the N groups would be in Africa. [d] In other words, the traditional subdivisions of human races would have to be reformulated. However, experience using cluster analysis in large agricultural data sets (Cooper and Hammer 1996) suggests that many individuals cannot be consistently be assigned to one group versus another…

Your point 2 is behind the times. Worse all of this was addressed in Sesardic article.
There is nothing to suppose about [a] (5). [b] Has already been done; N =5-7 (6). [c] is incorrect if you use cluster analysis — given the (relatively) large genetic separation between Sub-Saharan African and other populations (7). When it comes to human population genetics. [d] is known as the Lewontin fallacy (8) — this is why populations can be genetically distinguished.

5. Look at the divergence map in: Campbell and Tishkoff, 2009. The Evolution of Human Genetic Review and Phenotypic Variation in Africa.

6. Refer to note 4.

7. For example, look at figure 1 in Bastos-Rodriguez, Pinmenta, Penal, 2006/ The Genetic Structure of Human Populations Studied Through Short Insertion-Deletion Polymorphisms.

8. Refer to: Edwards, A.W.F. (2003). Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy. Given two (biological) populations, if enough gene loci are analyzed the overlap reduces to nil and individuals can be definitively assigned to either population. (The point about more different within groups than between applies to single genes not aggregates.)

Point 3. Suppose we now add migration subsequent to the initial dispersal, but without cross-breeding among the groups. Picking up this last point in #2, if individuals from non-African groups outweigh those from African groups in, say, the United States, then how well could we recover from the U.S. data all the groups delineated in #2? That would be an empirical question, but the experience from agriculture warns us not to be optimistic.

You can check the Hapmap. CEU is European-American. Take a look here (9). The rate of human evolution may have rapidly increased — but not that fast!

(9). Nelis, 2009. Genetic Structure of Europeans: A View from the North–East; Zakharia, et. al. 2009.Characterizing the admixed African ancestry of African Americans;

Point 4. Of course, #3 [a] There has been considerable migration and cross-breeding subsequent to the initial dispersal from the place of human origin in Africa, including but not confined to the recent centuries of cross-Atlantic slavery and master-slave relations. [b] How well could we recover from current individuals the one or more groups (as delineated in #2) that make up the individuals´ ancestry? Again, this is an empirical question. [c] Biomedical researchers…

As for [a], refer to (9). Better, refer here: Risch,et al., 2009. Ancestry-related assortative mating in Latino populations. As for [b], it seems pretty well (10). As for [c], we surely assume ancestry when it comes to talking about the “historic legacy” of slavery, discrimination, Affirmative Action, and defacto quotas — and no one seems to mind the sociopolitical implications of those assumptions and attributions.

More generally this is confusing phylogenic race (Sesardic’s concern) with ethnorace and cultural-historic race. When it comes to average genetic differences, which seems to be your concern — all that matters is that the social classification corresponds to different average gene pools (think Amish or Jews and various genetic risk factors).

(10) See: Mountain and Risch, 2004. Assessing Genomic contributions to phenotypic differences among “racial” and “ethnic” groups.

Point 5. [a] Perhaps, we could ask less than we have in #4. Rather than full recovery of original ancestries, we might seek simply want to predict whether an individual patient has some major biomedically relevant genes that differed, on average, among the original groups. [b] These predictions, necessarily probabilistic, would be limited in value given the recently-emerged consensus that most medically significant traits are associated with many genes of quite small effect (McCarthy et al. 2008). Moreover, given that the groups delineated in #2 would not match the traditional subdivisions of human races or those current in the U.S.—there would be several different groups of African origin—medical practitioners would need to disregard superficial assignments to racial groups.

[a] Ok, but this issue is rather separate from Sesardic’s immediate concern — let me bring that point home. Imagine that by year 2100 all members of the said ancestral populations had mixed. We could still ask if the original populations constituted subspecies or phylogenic races. And we could determine relative percentage.

[b] As being able to distinguish populations refer back to (10). As for the utility of ethno/ethnohistoric race and biomedical research refer to (11) — there is broad agreement that such research is worthwhile. [c] Presumably, Medical practitioners could use more specific terms as needed and population geneticists would use more general terms.

(11). Beckman, 2006. The Race for Ancestral Genetics in Clinical Trials; Race, Ethnicity, and Genetics Working Group, 2005. The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and Ancestral Categories in Human Genetics Research; Rotimi, 2005. Understanding and Using Human Genetic Variation Knowledge in the Design and Conduct of Biomedical Research. (Discusses the relevance of Race in biomedical research)

Point 6. [a] What could we do with that knowledge that there is a difference between the average genetic profiles for groups A and B when there is large within-group variation for most genetic loci (at least, for those that vary within the human species)? Let me accentuate this question with using the IQ test score case Sesardic has paid considerable attention to (2005). [b] Suppose we knew (which we do not) that only a certain small set of genes influenced IQ test scores. What could we do with the knowledge that there is a large difference between the average IQ test score for two groups and this difference is smaller than the within-group variation? (To visualize this situation, imagine one of the axes in the Figure is IQ test score.) [c] I would not use my ability to assign humans to original post-dispersal groups based on genetic profiles as grounds for using an individual´s membership in a group to make educational or employment decisions for the individual. But I will not speak for Sesardic; I do not know what he thinks would follow if a biological view of race were to be rehabilitated along the lines he discusses

[a] Let’s break this down into three questions1) what’s the (social or scientific) utility of knowledge of phylogenic race; what’s the (scientific) utility of knowing about the population genetics of ethnoraces or ethnohistoric races? What the (social) utility of knowledge about the population genetics of ethno races or ethnohistoric races?

First, in general, knowledge is presumable between that ignorance. With regards to 1) I’m not aware of any social utility and I’m not sure what scientific utility means. The concern here seems to be that resurrecting a phylogenic race concept, would lead to racism. I think the evidence for that is slim. I don’t remember reading about anyone marching on the banner of ’Caucasian nationalism’ where Caucasians included all west Asians, north Africans, and some South Asians. I guess you could argue that the original idea in the US or Australia was based on a phylogenic sense — but they were really based on a ethno racial/ cultural senses, with “white” designating Europeans, in the sense of western civilization. With regards to 2) you can refer above or see also (11).

[b] Asks about the social utility of knowledge about the population genetics of ethnoraces or ethnohistoric races. As example, You ask “what could we do with the knowledge that there is a large difference between the average IQ test score.[?]” Here, you’re really asking two things: 1) What’s the social utility of knowing about [ethnoracial or ethno historic] group differences? And 2) What’s the social utility of knowing the etiology of these differences?

As for 1), quite a few people seem to be interested in knowing about average group differences [Disparate impact; closing the achievement gap; understanding the nature of group differential performance; national differences in Intelligence] and we already know about them (12) — so this is a mute question. As for 2) ,presumably, one reason for the interest is that social policy can be formulated around these differences; knowing the etiology of them seems to be rather important when it comes to developing social policy (13) [for example, knowing the cause (as example, 14) of National differences, informs how undesired ones are addressed)

[c] There are a couple of issues here that are all bundled together: 1) the acceptability of using ethno race/ancestry as an inclusion criterion for private club, businesses, or group membership, 2) the acceptability of drawing and acting on Bayesian inferences, and 3) the social impact of knowledge of genetic etiologies for some of the know differences (12).

Generally, the substantial issue with 1) and 2 is independent of considerations of race. With 1), the larger question is: is it acceptable to base the inclusion criterion for private clubs, businesses, or group membership on anything other than the functional needs of the said establishment. (Say, is it ok to just hire Catholics? Or, Is it ok to exclude Homosexuals from the Boy Scouts ) With 2) this issue is: is it acceptable to draw and act on any inferences (Think Juan Williams).

1) and 2) are complex topics. I don’t see how they are directly relevant to the present consideration. Let’s pretend that the socially recognized races are actually just “social constructions.” They had no connection with differential population genetics, differential ancestry, or differential geographic origin. Let’s pretend that the socially recognized races are like star (and starless) bellied Sneeches. We know that Sneeches make (or at least once made) inferences about star (or starless) bellied Sneeches and use (or at least used) starhood as an inclusion criterion. How would substantiating that star bellied Sneaehes came from the stars, or adapted to star life, or had star ancestry alter things?

Now we get to 3). “I would not use my ability to assign humans to original post-dispersal groups based on genetic profiles as grounds for using an individual´s membership in a group to make educational or employment decisions for the individual.”

Regardless of what you would do, our government surely does use racial profiles “to make educational or employment decisions.” When it comes to the Bell Curve debates, the issue, obviously, isn’t about replacing the current fuzzy and inconsistent legal understanding of race with a more empirical understanding based on population genetics. No one is advocating that the 20% indoEuropeanness in the African American genetic pool should be factored in when it comes to the 4/5ths rule! It’s about demonstrating that the average African-American ~ 1 stdv IQ (and Hispanic .3-.8 stdv) deficit is the cause of some of the oft discussed disparities, and demonstrating that this has a partially genetic etiology, and arguing that the disparate impact rulings (defacto quotas) should take that into account — and so not discriminate against Eurasians. (See (15) and refer back to note (1) )

(11) Lahn and Ebenstein, 2009. Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity

(12) Refer here: Roth, Bevier, Bobko, et. al., 2001. Ethnic Group Differences in Cognitive Ability in Employment and Educational Settings: A Meta-Analysis. Gottfredson, 1987. The practical significance of black–white differences in intelligence; Stevens, 2007. Researching Race/Ethnicity and Educational Inequality in English Secondary Schools: A Critical Review of the Research Literature Between 1980 and 2005; Rindermann, 2007. Relevance of education and intelligence at the national level for the economic welfare of people;

(13) Gottfredson, 2005. Suppressing intelligence research: Hurting those we intend to help; Singer, 2007. Should We Talk About Race and Intelligence? Hunt and Carlson, 2007. Considerations Relating to the Study of Group Differences in Intelligence; Rindermann, 2009. Educational policy and country outcomes in international cognitive competence studies

(14) Eppig, Fincher, and Thornhil, 2010. Parasite prevalence and the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability

(15) Levin, 1997. Why Race Matters; Gottfredson, 2004. Social Consequences of Group Differences in Cognitive Ability; Gottfredson, 2010. Intelligence and social inequality: Why the biological link?; Lahn and Ebenstein, 2009. Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity

Point 7. A biological notion of socially and historically varying racial categories lies well outside the scope of “what the best contemporary science tells us about human genetic variation.”

Point 7 brings us back to point 1 and the distinction between “phylogenic,” “ethno” and “ethno historic” race. When you say “race” has been a socially and historically varying category, you surely are correct. But, then, “population” is a rather variable category. In population genetics one can speak of the human population, major geographically defined intrahuman ancestral populations, or local populations, such as ethnic Han. Alternatively, in sociology, on can speak of older populations and such. I don’t think anyone would argue that since the population of older people lack a common genealogy, population genetics is bunk! One would expect the same when it comes to race.

We have these questions:

1) Can “[c]luster analysis techniques could be used on genetic data to divide humans into, say, N groups” ? (Can populations be distinguished?)
2) Do the N groups correspond to regional ancestral populations?
3) Are there patterns of phenotypic differences between the regional ancestral populations?
4) Do the regional ancestral represent human subspecies (phylogenic races)?

5) When people refer to races in the social and political context do these represent populations with different average regional ancestry (regional population admixture)?
6) Can any of the average behavioral/ performance differences between the above populations be ascribed to average genetic difference?
7) Can any of the average behavioral/ performance differences between ethnoracial populations (as defined by “people who believe they share common descent, actually do share common descent, and that descent involved at least 500 years of a sustained selection pressure” ) be ascribed to average genetic differences?
8 ) Can X behavioral/ performance differences between socially defined race/ethnorace A and B be ascribed to average genetic difference?

The best of contemporary science should be able to (and has) answer(ed) all of these — in the affirmative — but 4) and most variants of 8 )

I think (read: I know) that the motivating concern about “biological” concepts of race, let alone phylogenic classifications, is the concern that they can reinforce so called US/THEM thinking — and that concern doesn’t seem to be completely unfounded. This is a really complex issue, so I will have to take that up another time. But let me leave off with a reply that I made to a similar concern:


“I love how you find it valid to apply the “PC” label to the issue of species classification among humans. Surely you’d have to be addled with political correctness to not have qualms with some people not being fully human, right?”

Part 1. I love how you come across as an idiot. The PCness would be altering the species classification just because and only when we are talking about humans. And you would, indeed, have to be addled with PC thinking — or a profound lack of philosophical depth — to conclude that labeling a Neanderthal as a separate species would mean that some humans are less human, by virtue of their genome being mixed/or not mixed with that of the Neanderthal.

As for the later, are you saying that a Neanderthal would not be human — when classified as a separate species? When mass genetic engineering comes on line and humans, embracing bioliberalism, begin to genetically differentiate themselves on a large scale — will they cease to be humans? If I banged a cat girl or a Vulcan, would any kids be “not fully human” by virtue of genetic differences?

The term “human” derives from the Latin term humanus, which means “earthly beings” — as opposed to gods. It’s a moral-philosophical concept not directly related to the scientific concept of homo sapiens sapiens. It implies that all said creatures (L. creatura “things created”) exist in the same moral sphere,which is below that inhabited by gods and sacred spirits and above that inhabited by things and profane objects. The former you worship, which is a step above respect and honor, and the latter you use.

As a typical PC liberal, you, of course, are working from the very frame of thought that leads to the idea that “some people are not human.” I am not. Your concern is that we also differentiate amongst animals (L. animale “living being, being which breathes”). We distinguish between human animals and non-human animals — and relate to the latter more like more like we do to “things” or objects to be used. And since, like a typical intellectually shallow liberal, you unreflectively work form the Darwinian (philosophical) frame, you define the borders of humanness — of moral participation — in terms of genetics relatedness. I do not.

This is similar to how other liberals find “innate” (L. innatus “inborn” related to L. gnasci/L. genus = genetics/race) intellectual differences between humans to be troubling. They unreflectively work form the pre-Darwinian Western frame, which speaks in terms of Aristotelian categories (instead of statistical averages) and defines the borders of humanness in terms of rational capacity — a view with persisted into the 1800’s and was understandable then. By the first framem a Romulan or Neanderthal is not human by virtue of genetics. By the second, an intellectually impaired adult — and possibly infant — is not human by virtue of cognitive predilection.

I’m not sure what to say. For you, keeping science out of moral-philosophy is “sick garbage” — and I guess that I am too — because you are working from a frame in which science is entangled with moral-philosophy and is entangled in such a way that it can (and often does) lead to the very conclusions you don’t like. As the Buddhists would say, change your way of thinking — not the world to fit it. Moreover, don’t abuse me on the basis of the conclusions that you think I draw, based on your projected atavistic conceptualizations.

As a final note, it should be pretty clear the genetic engineering will lead to large scale differentiation. Compared to today, the hominids of the future will be radically dissimilar. So crack open a philosophy book and get used to the idea. And while your at it, stop being a tool of the liberal intelligentsia. They are perpetuating the fallacious ways of thinking that you echo for sociopolitical ends — specifically as a means of stopthink. And those ends have little to do perceptions of humanness — and keeping the supposed Nazis at bay. If public and large portions of academia could be so conditioned to stopthink and mimic the PC lines when it comes to population genetics, psychometrics, and history — with all the research and information readily available — would it be that difficult to condition people to divorce sciencethink from moral-philosophy?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Philosophy and Biology

  1. Pingback: Those Social Constructs « Occidental Ascent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s