Teachwell | Races or Geographical Groups?
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Races or Geographical Groups?


Mia Culpa

A couple of weeks ago I posted a link to this programme on the subject of race.


There were a couple of assertions that Andrew Sabisky (@AndrewSabisky) disagreed with including black people are better at sports and that race does not exist biologically. He sent me the following paper to read:


Race by Sesardic. I have to say that I was not pleased with my reaction to his sending me this. My gut instinct was to discredit it before reading it. I evidently am no more resistant to bias on this subject than anyone else. Oh and I do apologise for that Andrew because I can’t ask others to look at the evidence presented if I am not willing to do so myself.


Sesardic’s arguments include:


a) The idea that there are biological races can’t be disproved. Fair enough, science can’t disprove there is no God either. Science has always been about probabilities after all. Popper’s swans come to mind – true one can not say that there are no black ones or that there never have been any.


b) We self-identify and identify the ‘races’ of others with a high degree of accuracy.


c) He cites that those arguing for biological races do not do so by one genetic marker alone – skin colour – but a number of them. These are accurate in identify biologically distinct groups.


d) The idea that race is purely a social construct is inaccurate and incorrect.


e) That there is dishonesty in the approach of how some philosophers and scientists themselves dismiss correlations between racial factors and IQ differences, greater likelihood to go to prison, etc.


Sesardic concludes:


My aim in this paper was not to prove the biological reality of race. Rather, more modestly, I have tried to show that typical attempts to disconnect the concept of race from genetics have too quickly and too uncritically been accepted by many ‘‘race critics’’, including most philosophers of science who have discussed this issue. The arguments for deconstructing race are fundamentally unsound because they ignore, misinterpret or distort relevant scientific facts. Therefore, it is time to abandon the mantra about the biological meaninglessness of race. Instead of wasting our time on ‘‘refuting’’ straw-man positions dredged from a distant past or from fiction, we should deal with the strongest contemporary attempts to rehabilitate race that are scientifically respectable and genetically informed. Philosophers (and others) have too long tried to destroy the scientific notion of race in different ways; the point, however, is to understand it.


What does this mean?


I wasn’t sure so I spoke to an evolutionary geneticist at Leicester University yesterday to set myself straight. If I am wrong, then I’m wrong but I would rather accept a difficult truth than an easy lie, even on this matter.


The fact is that both sides are biased, I am and so are those who argue for race.


What appears to be relatively undisputed are the following:


a) We are all human.


b) Species and sub-species are problematic definitions that scientists still can not classify with certainty. In fact, these ideas may not be useful as they were once thought to be.


c) Biological markers can identify the likelihood of your belonging to a particular group of people geographically.


What does this not mean?


That ‘race’ as conceptualised popularly is real.


Are there biological differences between us? Yes. Can DNA evidence classify us into groups using biological markers? Yes. Are these geographical? Yes. Are these races? No.


Why not?


Andrew states that certain geneticists do not tell the truth about biological differences. It is understandable why some are wary of being associated with being racist and chose, like I did, to critique rather than understand these biological differences. However, it is also true that those who are inclined to believe in race are dishonest in their interpretations of the clusters of biological markers constituting biological races such as white, black, etc. This is particularly in the case of the US.


Samples count: You can pre-load your data to give you answers. We know this and it is scientifically dishonest. If you select a sample with 30 people from Norway, 30 from Uganda, 30 from China and 30 from India and then state that lo and behold there are four biological distinct races well, then that is to be expected. You have built in the answer into your data.


Wade’s book ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’ uses data that did just this. He deliberately used a pre-loaded sample and then asked for the five best clusters of biological markers. As it turned out these corresponded with the different continents. But he had already built this into his data. Why 5? So he could prove his idea of race. When he interrogated the data and asked for 7 clusters – the algorithm provided him with this too but he dismissed the idea of there being more than one Asian race. In fact, he stated that if he had asked for the same number as his sample size, that would have been presented to him too, which would mean that individuals would constitute a race. The only reason to dismiss his results is that it did not fit the argument he was trying to make and the conclusions he wanted to present about race.


Sesardic cites a paper by Rosenburg which does the same – it came from 52 populations and found that it.


“did allow an inference of group structure and that, furthermore, five clusters derived from that analysis of purely genetic similarities corresponded largely to major geographic regions.”


This suffers from the same issues – why 5 and not 7? Would the analysis have allowed for seven groups? Ten groups? 52 groups? The answer is yes; it would have given him the number of groups he asked for. Sesardic did not attempt to critique this study despite the fact that it suffers from the same problems of bias based on belief that he accuses the philosophers of promoting.


While I would like to believe that scientists are neutral, or, at least, check their biases, the reality is they don’t always. Wade and Rosenburg are examples of just that.


One last point – how can we accurately find the race of skeletons as Sesardic points out? Well, he should know better – we are not doing any such thing. We are identifying the geographical group they are most likely to belong to based on biological markers. The ‘race’ is defined socially.


Self-classifying as races: Hispanic was not a race classified in the old taxonomies, neither is Viking, neither is being an Ashkenazi Jew. If those who posit race is a reality want to prove their case then they need to interrogate why their definitions of race shift based on social constructs themselves.


Neil Risch’s study (Risch N et al (2002) Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. Genome Biol 3:1–12) is cited by Sesardic, in which


“The subjects identified themselves as belonging to one of the four racial groups (white, African American, East Asian and Hispanic). The genetic cluster analysis of the data produced four major clusters, whose correspondence with the four self reported races was near-perfect: the genetic cluster membership and self-identified race coincided in as many as 99.9% of the cases.”


Hispanics are not a racial group. They are classified in the US as an ethnic group. Yet Risch finds they are a racial group. How? Well clusters of biological markers do allow them to be identified as a group. His use of race is socially constructed. If Hispanics were still classified as white (which they were initially in the US) and he was looking for three groups, not 4, would he have found three groups?


If race theory is correct, then he should not have found four groups as the Hispanics would have been part of the white group. What this is evidence for is two races of white people not proof of biological races.

How many races are there?


Socially it depends on the country and how they choose to define race. Biologically? How long is a piece of string? Biological markers show the likelihood of you belonging to a certain geographical group of people. If we were to interrogate a sample of Europeans, we would find the biological markers would enable us to identify them into separate groups. Do these groups constitute separate races then?




Aha – the last cry of the racists – but white people are still more similar to each other than they are to other races.If this were the case then Risch’s study would not have thrown up four groups, it would have thrown up 3.


This is the bit that, if I am honest, I am still trying to get my head around. There are greater intra-group differences than inter-group differences. This is something that those who promote race scientifically don’t seem to wish to explain.



Biological markers show there are biological and not just social differences between people. This does not mean that racial groups are a biological reality. In fact, black becomes meaningless because the greatest genetic diversity exists in Africa so the idea that there is one black race is nonsense. You would expect there to be multiple races identified. So why resist this idea other than the fact that it doesn’t give scientists who want to ‘prove’ race exists the succour they wish for.


Over to you Mr Sabisky. I promise to read before I comment. Equally, I ask those who accept the concept of race as biological and not social, why is it difficult to accept more than one race of White/Black/Asians, etc? Why are the racial group ‘found’ based on existing social constructs of race when these shift over time – e.g. Hispanics?

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