The concept of race has long been under assault by egalitarian liberals, Boasian anthropologists, and other bien pensants who abhor the idea that every human being is not equally capable of the heights of accomplishment. The notion that humans differ systematically in various characteristics would, if accepted, put a huge damper in many left-liberal projects – one of the most prominent being education, on which the left wants to spend ever more billions in order to finally do away with racial achievement gaps – and perhaps most importantly would rob them of their generalized accusation of racism, directed at whites and used to explain the underachievement – or overachievement in the cases of things like crime, drug use, and illegitimacy – of various non-white ethnic groups.
One of the leading champions of the no-such-thing-as-race school of thought (if it can be said that any thought goes into it) has been the biologist and self-identified Marxist Richard Lewontin. His critique of the concept of race focuses on the fact that most genetic variation occurs within races, which is true enough when looking at only one genetic locus. However, when multiple loci are compared, it is seen that they vary systematically among races, and when these multiple loci are taken into account, it's possible to classify individuals by race with almost perfect accuracy. Hence, Lewontin's critique has come to be known as Lewontin's fallacy.
A new paper by philosopher Neven Sesardic, “Race: a social destruction of a biological concept,” published in the journal Biology and Philosophy, takes the critique further.
A number of contemporary philosophers, anthropologists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists and psychologists have argued for some time that the concept of race does not have a biological reality. But what is actually being denied here? What exactly does it mean that a concept has (or does not have) a biological reality?
Much of Sesardic's work here involves the clearing up of straw men. For example:
Naomi Zack claims that those who believe in the existence of human races ‘‘to this day… assume the following: (1) races are made up of individuals sharing the same essence; (2) each race is sharply discontinuous from all others…’’ (Zack 2002, 63—italics added).
Sesardic shows that hardly any scientist has ever believed Zack's two propositions. Another straw man set up by a race denier says that there are no alleles distinctive of “this race or that”, and that therefore “races are not biologically real”. Sesardic rightly shows that this statement is a “parody” of what actual scientists believe.
Sesardic points out that the exactness demanded of the concept of race by those who believe that it has no biological reality are so demanding that, were they accepted as legitimate, there couldn't even be any such thing as species, for, quoting Matt Ridley, “the characters that define a species will not be present in all members of that species and absent from all members of other species”.
As for Lewontin's fallacy, Sesardic writes:
Lewontin’s univariate approach to the conceptualization of race is particularly clear when he asks: ‘‘How much difference in the frequencies of A, B, AB, and O blood groups does one require before deciding that it is large enough to declare two local populations are in separate ‘races’?’’ (Lewontin 1987, 200) This is the wrong question completely. Races are not distinguished from one another by some specially big difference of allelic frequencies in one trait, but rather by a combination of a number of small or moderate differences in many traits. That is, e pluribus, not ex uno.
Sesardic goes on to show that the best current science manifestly does support the biological reality of the concept of race.