Sunday, October 31, 2010

About race

Commenter Fred, in response to my previous post, asked:
How would you respond to Steve Sailer's arguments about the existence (and relevance) of race (seen, for instance, here:

Good question. Such a good question, I am repeating a slightly expanded version of my response as a new post.

As you would expect from Sailer, his presentation is the most intelligent presentation of the distinction I have seen. Except he makes no differentiation between race and ethnicity. Afghanistan, for example, is not a place of different races (in the modern sense) but of different ethnicities.

People form groups, but they then tend to seriously over-estimate the significance of the groups. Witness the ascription of characteristics to 'left' and 'right' or 'liberal' and 'conservative' by partisans of said groupings.

In some ways, the medievals were more clever about this. For them 'race' and 'tongue' meant much the same -- a person of my race was a person who spoke my language. Thus, I could communicate far more easily with, was likely to share a larger set of references, expectations, even preferences with them. (Afghanistan would be a place of different races to the medievals: but they had little experience with the continent-wide groupings we moderns call 'race'.) If one presumes differing capacity to communicate (i.e. takes a transaction cost analysis) one can explain most of the apparently "racial" patterns in modern societies, particularly in things like hiring and housing.

Skin colour and other physical features make easy "markers". But, as Sailer implies, not exactly precise ones. (Jew-haters have had terrible difficulty with that.) And ones which people have put widely different importance to over time. (The medievals put almost none at all, for example. They wanted to know your religion and your language: sensible folk, since they are likely to have real effects on behaviour.) The historical contingency of racial signification is something many of the "race does not exist" crowd are very aware of.

There are certainly genetic clumpings which have, for example, medical significance. (And sporting significance: folk of sub-Saharan African background rarely make champion swimmers because of natural buoyancy issues.) But race mainly matters because people think it matters and because language and culture do matter for interactions while language and culture have some (often, but not always, quite strong) association with ethnicity and thus race. But language and culture are a lot more plastic over time than ethnicity which is a lot more plastic over time than race. So, even conceding the sensible bits in Sailer, race is not what one should be concerned with for moral judgment, for public policy (outside some medical applications) and so on.


  1. Thank you for your prompt response. I myself have only recently learned there was another side to this debate (besides the "race does not exist" belief with which I was raised), and am still trying to get my bearings. I think you're probably right about "language and culture" being the real driving force here, not race. Pierre van den Berghe, in his book The Ethnic Phenomenon, makes similar points to yours about how little experience people have had with the continent-wide groupings we know call race, and how much more important cultural and linguistic differences are to the ethnic conflicts he analyzes.

    On the other hand, I think Sailer, as you can see when talks about androgen receptors in the linked article, is at least sympathetic to the kind of work which finds genetic causes for significant behavioral differences between different racial groups. Although I have never heard him say anything "racist," in the sense of ascribing moral worth to these differences, I believe he would argue that there public policy implications. The most fraught difference (for U.S. policy debate; I have no idea how this plays out in Australia) is probably in average IQ, and although Sailer has I think declared himself agnostic on the cause, he seems at least open to the possibility it's genetic. It occurs to me that you may have been you bracketing this kind of thing off with your reference to the "sensible bits in Sailer."

    Anyways, I've taken up plenty of your time, so I hope you will not feel obligated or pressured to respond.

  2. It is no problem, the issue is of interest to me.

    the kind of work which finds genetic causes for significant behavioral differences between different racial groups Some groups may have increased tendency to aggression or lower average IQ (to take two examples I have read reasonable genetic cases for). The public policy implications of that are minimal, since it is whether people actually engage in illegitimate aggression or the specific capacities they have which matters. It does undermine any notion of perfectly homogeneous distributions of different ethnic/cultural/racial etc groups through society, but that always was a silly aim.

    Public policy is about playing the odds, but regarding individual behaviour and capacities, and operating incentives, not groups which themselves are going to differ widely in individual capacity, outlook, etc.

  3. In some ways, the medievals were more clever about this. For them 'race' and 'tongue' meant much the same -- a person of my race was a person who spoke my language.

    Actually, it goes back much further. The Roman Latin 'barbarian' is from the Greek word barbaros is first seen - in its adjectival form barbarophonous - in The Iliad, in an onomatopoeic reference to the Carians. To 'Homer's' ear their strange dialect sounded like they were saying "bar, bar, bar". Or as we moderns might say, 'it's all Greek to me'. ;)

  4. Maybe the term collective identity should be used to describe any group of people who,feeling they have something in common that creates a shared identity, organize themselves around it. It can be language, culture, history, territory, citizenship, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ideals, ethnicity, race, politics, economic status.

    At this stage you have two extremes that are both bad. On the one hand you have organizations that take a certain mark of identity too far, to the exclusion of other considerations and to the point of militancy. On the other hand you have people who disregard a certain identity to the point of dismissal. (I'm not sure I'm explaining myself well, but I keep going).

    So you can have African Americans organizing around this shared identity, being black -- which was created as a result of the circumstances of American history. While also having other identities. Some extremists will go overboard to the point of militant black nationalism, or racism toward blacks. While the other extreme would be the people who will be opposed to the self-identification as black, based on supposed color blindness, but in reality being dismissive of an important aspect of the identity of blacks in America.

  5. Peter: yes, but they did not necessarily use the term 'race'.

    Micha: if people treat you adversely according to a certain identity, it is natural to organise on that basis to counteract it. Which then keeps the distinction going. How much skin colour, for example, actually imparts a common identity (in the sense of common experience) beyond that is a bit more dubious.