Meaningfull Biological Definition of Race

Ethnographers are generally not human geneticists.

Exactly what I was trying to say. I see no point beyond studying how the different artificial races are treated by society.

You are the one making the claim here, so I’m asking you. What are the races? List them.

I didn’t think the GQ thread was all that bad, but actually it belonged here, and something like this belongs in GQ. There is a factual answer to the question, “Is there a Meaningful Biological Definition of Race” if “Meaningful” is sufficiently qualified. Or perhaps multiple answers for multiple definitions of “Meaningful”. The GQ thread was simply begging the question. Even if you can straighten out the “Temperment” part, the question can’t be answered without assuming the “Race” part.

I feel like we’re still talking at cross purposes. I’m not saying there is a “best” or “correct” way to chop people up into races. I’m saying that chopping people up into races is not automatically prima facie biologically meaningless. “White, black, asian, hispanic, other” is not biologically MEANINGLESS, and neither is a division into 10 groups, or 30 groups, or 50 groups. It’s like asking how many colors there are. You can never list them all, but that doesn’t make it meaningless to divide the spectrum up into ROYGBIV.

So suppose a new genetic disease pops up, and it turns out that it’s one that people of Amerindian ancestry tend to have a much higher risk for. Jaun, Pedro and Maria might not know off the top of their heads how much Amerindian ancestry each one of them has, but it’s (on average) going to be higher than the amount that random Joe White American has (although of course he could be 1/16 or 1/8 or even 1/4 Amerindian without knowing it). But it might be worth it for them to go and get checked just to be safe. Or if someone was deciding where to locate a clinic for treating this disease, and they had access to census data showing “race” but not more accurate data that really showed amount-of-Amerindian-ancestry, they might choose to put the clinic near a large Latino population, as better than placing it totally at random.
Once again, I want to be very clear that I’m not making a CONSTRUCTIVE claim; that is, I’m not saying “race DOES have meaning and SHOULD be used for X, Y or Z”. I’m simply disagreeing with the super-negative claim. If you say “race has ZERO biological meaning and any time anyone attempts to discuss race for any reason that would in any way possibly related to biology they are A FRAUD”, I think you are going too far.

Uhh, what?

Why should I? I don’t maintain that humans can easily be categorized into a handful of major races in a strictly biological or genetic sense. However, the fact that race is not very useful as a biological, scientific term doesn’t mean that it’s entirely useless in all other contexts and has no basis in physical reality. We can, for example, quite reasonably speak of an Anglo-American race, a rather large group of people in North America whose ancestry comes largely from the European region of Eurasia, and whose culture has strong roots in Europe, particularly England. That’s a broad definition and fuzzy around the edges, and quite useless from the standpoint of biology. But it doesn’t follow that the term is entirely a “social construct” and has no basis in objective realilty. From the standpoint of politics, sociology, ethnographry, and history, the term is quite useful and describes an objective fact, even if it can’t be defined with mathematical precision down to the thousandth decimal point.

No one has said that a “social construct” is not an “objective reality.” But a social construct is relevant to social questions, not biological or genetic questions.

If you want to assert that race is relevant to biology or genetics then you have to define race in a manner than is relevant to biology or genetics.

Until I hear something resembling a definition of race with biological meaning, I won’t assume there is any. Are you presuming there is, or saying that it is not impossible? Feel free to speculate, but you haven’t presented any good argument that a meaningful definition should be presumed.

Your argument is that genes are inherited. Nobody has claimed they are randomly distributed. We have biological definitions for genes and inheritance already. What does race add that is not found in those definitions?

For the general audience:

Since this is GD, I’ll throw out the opinion that many people want to find a biological definition for race because people tend to think that there should be a standard or normal genetic composition for people. It would be easier to generalize about people if there were convenient tags to place on them. But an examination of the scientific evidence doesn’t even suggest that. Even at the low level of populations, the clusters of genetic similarities in people are due to brief, accidental periods of isolation. There’s no reason to consider that those clusters observed in the current snapshot of time should be a standard either.

Tripolar, if you were to examine any biological aspect of Chelsea Clinton that you choose to examine, could you determine whether her father is more likely to be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama?

I think we all agree that there is a diversity of human genetics and that this diversity is concentrated such that those of similar ancestry have similar genetics. Using this as a starting point I suppose it is possible to divide people into groups of similar ancestry with similar genetic characteristics. But in any other context in which race is discussed it is in terms of socially constructed groups (Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, etc.). The question is how well does this social definition of race division match with the biological division. The answer is that it does a piss poor job. That is not to say that you won’t find differences in the averages of one group versus another, just that these differences are probably trends relative to a much more meaningful distinction. I could divide people by those who prefer chunky ice cream to those who prefer smooth and find average genetic differences between the two groups, but this doesn’t mean that ice cream preference should be taken into account in any meaningful biological way.

Or to put it another way, if it was completely proven that people from Africa are better runners, it is not because they are black and blacks are better runners. It is rather the case that people from Africa tend to be better runners, and people from Africa also tend to be black.

Relative to the issue of race, a more relevant test would be to ask whether she share more genetic traits with Halle Berry, or Vladamir Putin. For that it could be a toss-up.

To put this issue in a less emotional frame, consider white light spread into a spectrum. How many colors are there? Where are the dividing points between the colors?

The spectrum is continuous. Anywhere you put a dividing point, the colors on either side will be almost the same. Does that mean there are no colors, that it is meaningless to talk about color?

No, it means it is meaningless to talk about color as having genetic relevance unless you can define color on a genetic basis. So long as you are defining color based on its visual characteristics or its wavelength, it has no relevance to genetics.

It’s the same thing. Color is a “social construct”, but if you ask a physicist to define “red”, he’s going to say: Sure, but the boundaries are going to be arbitrary, and there isn’t any objective way to say a certain frequency is “red”, but that the very next quanta of light is not.

We can define “Middle Easterners” as a race if we want. But that doesn’t mean the guy aon the border with Asia is more related to the guy on the Mediterranian than he is with the guy nearer him in Asia. It’s like that almost everywhere.

The grouping might make some sense socially (our guy might speak the same language as the guy on the Miditerranian, and different language from the guy in Asia), but it doesn’t necessarily make sense biologically.

You’re completely missing my point. The essence of the problem is how to label a continuously varying set.

What makes you think that the human genome is continuously varying in a manner comparable to the frequency of light?

The frequency of light, moreover, is a single variable. Whereas there are 23,000 genes in the human genome. How are you planning on identifying, sorting, and classifying them? And each new generation rescrambles the genes from the prior generation.

If you are going to consider the human genome a continuously varying set, then you have to create your classifications based on genes, not on superficial phenotype characteristics like skin colour or curliness of hair or geographical location.

The only answer that makes biological sense is that you don’t use “race.” Population seems to be the best term for humans, as long as people understand what it means.

We have a need to define and use colors for light. What is the biological purpose of dividing humans into discrete groupings beyond population? There are many social ones, but what are the biological ones?

Yes. That is simple genetics that nobody is denying. Do you have a meaningful biological definition for race or not?

To explain further, there’s an objective way to say if a frequency is red or not. If it’s between X and Y, we call it “red”. Anyone applying the criteria will reach the same conclusion, thus the label is objective. The criteria are not objective, though. Choosing the criteria depends on what purpose we’re using the labels for.

Trying to define race geographically will not work in general, because biology is based on genetics, not location.

So, for example, one could create an array of DNA racial archetypes. To determine which race a specimen should be labeled as, find the archetype that is the closest match. This is objective in the sense that everyone will agree on which archetype a given specimen is closest to.

The biological usefulness of this is determined by the array of archetypes. If the biology of interest is very sensitive to small changes in the DNA, then we’ll need many archetypes for the labels to be useful. If variation is less important, we need fewer archetypes.

Of course, this may not seem very much like the common usage of “race”, but scientific terms do not often match up well with the common ones.

What are the factors you used to determine which one is more likely to be her father?

ETA: I’ll cut to the chase. Whatever those factors were, you could probably look at every human and put them into groups based on those factors. And you could call some of those groups “races” if you wanted to. And, bingo bango, there you go, you’ve arrived at a grouping of people called a “race” that you derived based purely on their biological aspects.