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RS112 - Race: Just a Social Construct?

Release date: July 13, 2014

In this episode, Julia and Massimo talk about the problems with "race" as a genetically-based concept. Starting with the controversial recent book "A Troublesome Inheritance," by NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade, they critique the statistical analyses that group people into racial categories, and Wade's (and others') attempts to attribute differences between rich and poor countries to innate racial differences.

Massimo's pick: "What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?" by Tom Stafford

Julia's pick: "Reasons and Persons"

Reader Comments (11)

Massimo did a great job deconstructing Wade's specious claims using population genetics and exposing Wade's deeply flawed methodology.

Anyone who is interested genetic influences on human behavior should take the time to watch Robert Sapolsky's lectures on Human Behavioral Biology. Here's the link to the lectures on "iTunes University":

It's 25 hour and half lectures so it's a big commitment, but it's worth it. I feel it is accessible to anyone with high-school level understanding of Biology.

I would love to see Sapolsky debate Wade. That would be terrific. Wade should at least be required to sit through these lectures.

July 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPete Arnold

As someone from Brazil, even though it's a big country with some cultural regional differences, I don't think anyone down here would count either of you two as black.
The only stance I can think of where the kind of characterization you talk about might be happening is in relation to the relatively recent advent of racial quotas in universities, civil service, down here. Some people have tried to use DNA evidence to prove the they were "black" based on their heritage in spite of their light skin color. I'm not aware of cases in which such attempts were well succeed.

July 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeonardo

Hey Guys. Thanks for the nuanced, intelligent discussion around race. I often get frustrated around these discussions because I find myself generally in the middle. On one hand, my liberal friends argue that there are absolutely no racial differences (so the genetic argument is "obviously" wrong without providing any good arguments for justifying their strong belief in that position) or that race is fluid and poorly defined (also not a good argument, since traits can be more concentrated in one area than another and continuous traits can have effects). On the other hand, conservatives want to throw the race explanation around, as if they have far more evidence than they do. In the end, I end up unhappy with their both sides' conclusions and how they arrived at their conclusions. I'm glad Julia was around to raise some questions about what we do and don't know. My own conclusion is that we don't know that genetics is playing a part and we don't know that it isn't. We do know that there are a lot of cultural forces at work, and that's part (if not all) of the explanation. Sometimes I think people are just plain uncomfortable with uncertainty, they fear the consequences of a particular view, or they have a knee-jerk reaction towards towing or opposing the politically-correct view.

As a side-note, I thought I'd mention lactose intolerance as a trait that has racial correlations. Even if we agree that race is poorly defined, we can still make true statements about europeans being much more lactose tolerant than african or asian populations. (Google "Lactose Intolerance by Ethnicity and Region" to see some numbers.) Theoretically, there could be traits (creativity, intelligence, etc) that have geographical patterns like lactose tolerance, but at this point, we don't really have good evidence that those traits are distributed that way. My point in mentioning this was merely to show that arguments about how "humans are racially mixed, therefore genetic explanations can't be right" are wrong because if that were true then lactose tolerance couldn't be geographically correlated, either. Those kinds of arguments are bad arguments. Still, I doubt the genetic explanation for wealth differences between nations.

July 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBC

Massimo claims there is something wrong with Wade engaging in speculation himself, yet accusing others of being politically correct and refusing to look at the evidence about race. Massimo implies Wade is being hypocritical, but there's a big difference between speculating about things for which we have not much data (what Wade does), and refusing to acknowledge things for which we have a lot of data (what Wade complains about others doing).

Wade and people on his side of the argument don't believe that races are about to become a separate species. Massimo dwells on this way too long and acts like he's scoring some sort of point by arguing against this definition of race that no one serious uses in reference to humans. Massimo keeps referring back to this point several times throughout the podcast as if he has disproven some central point of Wade's argument.

Massimo and Julia both get hung up on there being no good answer to how many races there are. The fact that you can zoom in and see more clusters or zoom out and see fewer doesn't affect Wade's argument, which only depends on there being clusters at a given granularity setting. If we were clustering jelly beans we wouldn't say that jelly bean colors don't exist because we can group their colors into different numbers of clusters depending on how granular we want to get. Julia questions Massimo on this, and Massimo replies "If further I show you that the geographic variation in human population is continuous -- there's no boundary. Not even a statistical boundary, then in what sense can something that literally doesn't exist because it doesn't have any concrete instantiation from a biological perspective play a causal role?" Massimo is acting like the fact that he can zoom in indefinitely and keep finding more fine grained clusters implies that variation between populations is continuous. This doesn't follow at all. The fact that there are clusters at a given level of granularity is what Wade means when he argues for a biological basis for race.

The claim that both hypotheses for [complex environments leading to higher IQ] being equally arbitrary seems kind of silly to me. Sure, you can propose that an abundant environment that is "ecologically complex" will somehow select for higher IQs. And you can propose that a bleak environment with winters where food is scarce and you'll die without adequate shelter selects for higher IQ. You guys really think those contradictory hypotheses are equally likely? What is the mechanism by which an environment being "ecologically complex" would cause IQ to be more selected for than in regions with harsh winters?

July 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTal

I'm amazed that you two made it through this episode without ever calling Wade a racist. Just you describing his arguments (particularly the Ashkenazim Jews being genetically geared for Capitalism!) sent my blood pressure through the roof. Great job keeping level heads and taking this guys argument apart.
@Tal: Regarding the mechanism for which environment would lead to a higher IQ, it can totally go either way- for the rich environment being better, lots of concepts are generally good for the mind- so living in a verdant paradise would expose you to all sorts of different plants, animals, and various other concepts. In the bleak environment, life wouldn't be very stimulating- but it would be very dangerous. The danger would drive creativity. I can't speak for Massimo and Julia, but yeah, I can see those arbitrary scenarios being equally likely. Just because the paradise has lots of stuff and getting food is easy doesn't mean that survival is simple- there are competitors trying to eliminate competition.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Sherman

At about 7:30, Massimo explains that something that I would call race is a biological reality. All that leaves of the question “is race just a social construct?”, then, is the semantic question of whether “race” is the right word for the concept we see reflected in the world. Clearly, the human populations we're talking about are not subspecies. Therefore, if we use the definition of race that is standard when discussing plants and nonhuman animals, these populations are not races. I don't think that means anybody is “in trouble”, except in the very narrow sense that they are arguably misusing a jargon term. The underlying reality is the same regardless of what terminology we use for it.

”Anywhere from five to hundreds ...” I'm afraid I don't get why this is a problem. If we're talking about clusters within a continuum, then there will naturally be different ways of looking at the patterns. It's very much worth discussing whether supposed patterns are really valid based on the data, but the simple fact that there are multiple overlapping patterns is not an argument against them. I simply don't see why it's necessary to have a stable subdivision at some level: apparently, it's complexity all the way down. Julia very efficiently dismisses this whole line of argument and then tentatively concludes that causal effects, if they exist, would be at a much more fine-grained level than simply “black”. Right, it would be more fine-grained; but, I don’t see any evidence for the “much” here. Certainly, it’s true that eastern Africans have different genetic patterns than west Africans. However, black Americans (people that Americans would identify as “black”) tend to have lots of west African ancestry and little east African (with, of course, occasional exceptions, such as the current president). So, there's an empirical question as to whether a large proportion of black Americans have similar enough ancestry to make some meaningful generalisations. I think it is very far from established that talking about “major races” “doesn't make any sense”. There's simply an empirical question of what the valid patterns are; that's not all the same as establishing a priori that a hypothesis doesn't make sense.

Regarding Gelman's critique about Scandinavian institutions, I would agree that, assuming Gelman is summarising it accurately, Wade's argument is not very strong. I don't agree that it is obviously worthless. By the way, Buffalo, New York, seems like an odd city to choose for a counterexample, since, in 2010, Buffalo's population was only 46% non-Hispanic white. Thus, Buffalo has a very different racial demographic profile than does Denmark. That said, I would agree to stipulate that there are municipalities in the U.S. with predominantly white populations which do have low-functioning institutions. What strikes me about this is that there are many towns and cities in America, of which some are high-functioning and others less so. Likewise, there are many countries in Europe, which also show a range of results, mostly quite good by world standards (there are only two countries in Iberia, so we don't have much of a sample size at that level of focus). There are also many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and yet the range of resulting institutions is very different from what we see in Europe. Looking at a single data point such as Buffalo, New York or Portugal, is never going to give us very much information.

Julia seems slightly confused about the direction of causality of claims about Ashkenazi intelligence traits. Historically, Jews in medieval central and eastern Europe were often subject to legal restrictions regarding their choice of professions. This placed them under dramatic selective pressures. The way Julia words it, it sounds as if the idea is that Ashkenazi Jews first developed a genetic proclivity for capitalism and then, as a result, got involved in capitalistic professions – that’s certainly not the claim that Cochran and Harpending make, and I doubt Wade would make that claim, either.

I feel quite mystified by Massimo's claim at this point that this is “all speculation”. Am I supposed to believe that intelligence is not partly heritable genetically? Am I supposed to believe that intelligence doesn't affect one's ability to thrive in certain professions? How, then, could it be pure speculation to suggest that some genes can affect a person's ability to thrive in a given profession?

I have to say I'm very skeptical of Massimo's idea that everyone should be extra careful about this topic because it is extra important and sensitive. For one thing, I find it hard to believe that this advice would ever be followed in an even way: in practice, it sounds like a call to silence about ideas that are socially unacceptable. But, more broadly, extra scrutiny for important topics only makes if we assume we're better off with the relative ignorance that exists beforehand. Or, I suppose, if I'm writing something that increases ignorance; but, of course, nobody who writes in good faith thinks that they are increasing ignorance.

July 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Pandatshang

I forgot whether it was in this podcast or the previous that Massimo said that the definition of elements is by atomic weight and doesn't work, there are elements in between. That definition by atomic weight doesn't work is the reason why elements have been defined by atomic number since about 80 years ago. Isotopes have different atomic weight, but the same atomic number. There is no such thing as an intermediate atomic number.

July 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Some of my favorite examples of the mutability of race are found in Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Star's book, _Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences_ (2000, MIT Press), in a chapter on racial classification and reclassification under apartheid in South Africa. It's not only the case that race can change by taking a flight across the ocean, race can change by moving to a different neighborhood, or by waiting for some time to pass.

August 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard

Just a small clarification on Massimo's comment about racial identity in Brazil. The point he tries to make is valid and I like the fact that it was done in an outside discussion. Certainly we Brazilians do make different discriminations on this issue, given our population and historical background. But in no circumstance a typical white person in the US would count as black here, that's way off the mark.

Here's a right way to put it: you would be surprised at what counts as white in Brazil. There's no differentiation amongst non-black people, concepts like "Caucasian" or "Latino", it's all the same down here. In other words: if you're not "African-like", you're white, that's all. For example: someone like Deepak Chopra would certainly count as white.

The Brazilian concept of a black person is more fuzzy, there are a couple of words to attenuate it, and people may diverge as to whether someone is dark-skinned and/or African-looking enough to be called black.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaulo
Two cowards clinging desperately to their political conceits for 45 mins. Wade's book is speculation, but Massimo knows of loads of "explanatory pathways" from something called "culture" (a magical force immune to biology) so he doesn't have to think anything uncomfortable. I was on the fence before this podcast, but now I definitely side with the racists, who are honest if nothing else.

What's truly amazing is just how much they can concede in so many words while avoiding the dreaded heresies. Individual genetic variation? Fine. Heritability of traits? Heck, even that's fine. Distinct human populations? Fine again, but just don't call it a "race"! The glaringly obvious conclusions are avoided in favour of their own just-so stories which they were eager to get out there from the beginning of the podcast.

They started with a conclusion: race is a "social construct". Then tried to bolster that conclusion to soothe themselves.
June 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarl
I suspect that "trickle down genetics" is based on "A farewell to alms" written by economic historian Gregory Clark.

"The bell curve" is based on psychometric data gathered through decades. There is substantial evidence to suggest that IQ is genetically determinded.
March 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJannik

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