Friday, July 31, 2020

The metaphysics of race

I haven't had the time to read Reformed philosopher Jeremy Pierce's ongoing series on the metaphysics of race (yet). It looks quite interesting. Here's the first post:

"Metaphysics of Race: Introduction"


  1. Utterly man centered this far, but maybe he gets around to God and the Bible eventually.

    It seems to me Biblically speaking that there is one race biologically, the human race in Adam, and there are two human races spiritually, the redeemed race in Christ and the fallen race in Adam. And there are various subsets of both the fallen and redeemed race which are variously classified as kingdoms, tribes, tongues, and nations.

    These subsets seems to have occurred after the flood of Noah's day following the dispersion of humanity at the Tower of Babel event.

    I guess that would make Scripture a biological realist in the sense that there are actually different people groups, but I don't see much of anything about "race" or "racism" in the Bible, nor "sexism". It would seem that things our modern society identify as "racism", or "sexism" are facets or manifestations of the sin of partiality described by the Apostle James.

    Treating this or that person better or worse for reasons stemming from the sin of partiality is...well...sinful. This is why "racism" is sinful. And "sexism". And the other "-isms".

    And this is the reason there are "racists" and "sexists", and other "-ists", because fallen humanity is utterly depraved and wicked and under God's curse.

    No need for a PhD in Philosophy to figure these things out. Just a Bible and a brain and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is enough.

    I'll check back on the series though as hopefully the author will have more to say as he develops his topic. Thanks for sharing the link.

    1. Thanks for these thoughts, CD. I think he's written 7 posts so far. I haven't read any of them yet though.


    2. No need for a PhD in Philosophy to figure these things out. Just a Bible and a brain and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is enough.

      Hi CD -- It seems to me that Steve might have called you on that one. It seems to me as well that that kind of surrender of “the academy” is what has gotten evangelicals into the mess that they are in, in academia. And it is academia in the first place that has been the breeding ground for the Marxism, intersectionality, etc., that is at the heart of all of our current cultural ills.

      We need more Plantingas in this world, not fewer.

  2. I skimmed it. I didn't find it persuasive.

    Here is the fact: You get into a time machine and go back to 1492. You take genetic data from people throughout the world and throw it into a computer and ask it to do cluster analysis. The computer would sort the data into the various continental groups.

    Now you could call those groups "races," "population groups" or whatever, but nonehteless they would be distinct groups. And if you wanted to sort Swedes, Germans, Koreans and Japanese you would put the Swedes and Germans in one box and the Koreans and Japanese and Koreans in another.
    That's why if you need an organ transplant you hope to get one from the same race.

    1. 1. I don't necessarily disagree with your point about organ transplantation, per se, but it looks like a non sequitur. At least it sounds like you're attempting to make two separate points.

      2. Another potential issue is modern races/ethnicities aren't necessarily identical or equivalent to races/ethnicities back in 1492 (e.g. extinct racial/ethnic groups, new racial/ethnic groups like hapas such as Afro-Asians).

    2. I don't see your point. You deny that Koreans are genetically similar to Japanese in a way they are not genetically similar to Germans?

    3. No, I'm referring to your question about organ transplantation. Are you alluding to HLA groups and haplotype frequencies in different races/ethnicities?

  3. I base it on cluster analysis using 1000s of SNPS. See Murray, Human Diversity (2020).

    1. "I base it on cluster analysis using 1000s of SNPS. See Murray, Human Diversity (2020)."

      1. Presumably you're referring to single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Or are you capitalizing the last letter "S" because it's the fourth word in a different acronym?

      2. If you are referring to single nucleotide polymorphisms, then it's still vague. What specifically about SNPs and race/ethnicity follows from what you said above about organ transplantation? It's like you're just using buzz words.

      3. I don't know what your goal or aim is here. My guess is you're attempting to argue for a biological view of race/ethnicity. If that's the case, then I don't necessarily have a problem with that, as I alluded to above. I just have a problem with how you're attempting to support it or attempting to arrive at your conclusion.

      4. I think it'd be more helpful if you simply offered a criticism of Jeremy Pierce's series on race/ethnicity since that'd be what this post is about anyway.

      5. Otherwise I'm not really interested in going back and forth criticizing Charles Murray's work, which others have already done.

    2. I should add I don't think Jeremy Pierce's series is beyond criticism. Not by any means. I doubt he would think so either. I'm sure he'd be open to reasonable criticism.

    3. Hi Steve,

      Like Hawk above, I suspect you are referring to single nucleotide polymorphisms. I haven't read the work you cited above, but I take it you are alluding to using SNP analyses (i.e. clustering methods) as evidence towards differences among different ethnic groups.

      Since I don't know the exact referent, I'll make a general comment about SNPs: to make any definitive conclusions on SNP analyses is (way) too hasty. It's not clear how variances at the nucleotide level cashes out at the phenotypic level.

      1) There is a *vast* scale in resolution from the nucleotide level all the way up to the protein. Between the two bookends, you have genome architecture, histone modification, transcription, chromosome topology, DNA methylation, mRNA modification, polyadenylation, translation, folding, phosphorylation, ubiquitylation--to name just a few.
      Apropos 1) Each in the immediately above list is far from being fully mapped out, to say the least.
      2) Annotation of SNPs is the wild, wild west. For example, in medicine, I have heard one academic quip that he/she is not too keen on continuing molecular pathology due to the problem of "variance of unknown significance".
      3) Methodologies have limitations. Clustering has lots of parameters and hyperparameters that one needs to tune, which can lead to different results. For example, in clustering techniques, defining a metric and a loss function to train your clustering algorithm is non-trivial. This is part of the art of clustering. It's easy to do the equivalent of "p-hacking" to asymptote toward the result you want.
      Apropos 3) Why stop at clustering for non-parameteric methods? Why not the many variants of different SVD/PCA, or matrix factorizations? How do you account for heavy tails, or longs tails for your probability distribution?

    4. Excellent points, Andrew!

  4. "Here is the fact: You get into a time machine and go back to 1492. You take genetic data from people throughout the world and throw it into a computer and ask it to do cluster analysis. The computer would sort the data into the various continental groups...I base it on cluster analysis using 1000s of SNPS. See Murray, Human Diversity (2020)."

    Charles Murray's book Human Diversity points out that the "cluster analyses" are based on the following:

    "In 2000, Stanford geneticists led by Jonathan Pritchard developed a more sophisticated method that they implemented through a software program called Structure" and "In 2002, a team of scholars with the Human Genome Diversity Project (first author was Noah Rosenberg) applied the Structure software to a sample of 1,056 individuals from 52 populations, using 377 autosomal microsatellites."

    See chapter 7 which is titled "Genetic Distinctiveness Among Ancestral Populations".

    However, Jeremy Pierce actually interacts with this in his series of posts that I linked to. See the post "The new biological race view". Here's Jeremy:

    The population genetics discipline within biology has given reason to think that there are biological races. What this new research shows is that you can design a computer program to look at genealogical populations, which are populations that share more of their ancestry with each other than with people outside the group. The computer program Structure and other similar programs start with the data about which genetic material is found in which people, with no information about which groups those people belong to. Then it tries to use that data to figure out the best sub-divisions within the entire sample, arranging people into groups that are likely to have the most amount of common ancestry. The resulting groups should be genealogical populations that represent all of humanity, as long as you have a large enough sample from enough people from enough places around the world.

    The results were very surprising to a scientific community who had rejected the idea of biological races. The result of these studies is that you can take a large sample of the complete human genetic code of a large enough and diverse enough sample of human beings and form them into groups, and they came up with five racial divisions – African (sub-Sahara), Eurasian (Europe plus Asia west of the Himalayas), East Asian (Asia east of the Himalayas), American (the native populations of North and South America), and Oceanian (native populations of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands).

    1. What is so interesting about this result is that those are almost the same groups that at least one common way of dividing human beings into races has done. It’s not the only one, but it’s how the United States government has been doing it for decades, long before this kind of research had been done. Quayshawn Spencer has pointed to the U.S. government categories (from the Office of Management and Budget, because they were the first agency to do this, and everyone else followed them). He observes that the two sets of categories are pretty much the same ones, and they come from trying to identify the main continental areas that people come from, using geographical divisions as boundaries where they separate the categories. So the creators of these U.S. categories used the Sahara, because the cultures south of the Sahara are distinct from those north of it, who had been more interacting with Europeans and had mixed with them. They gave reasons for putting the divisions where they did. It was a conscious choice. That makes the OMB races socially constructed in a very clear way. It was a deliberate choice of the US government to draw those lines where they did for reasons that they explained. Yet we now have a biological method using pure science to end up with categories very close to those socially constructed categories.

      Quayshawn Spencer concludes that human continental populations are both biological and socially constructed. We can arrive at them just using biological science, but we also have arrived at them by classifying people for the social reasons we have done.

      It's also important to see that this is a much more minimal biological classification than the classic biological race view, which took there to be these racial essences that define a lot about who we are and that in their view have to do with race. Nothing in this view relies on racial essences or connections between race and intelligence or race and any particular moral behavior. The genetic differences among these populations are surface level, and yet the categories being identified are being identified because of biological reasons. They are biologically distinct, but that distinction does not amount to much of any significance. Michael Hardimon thus calls this a deflationary account of race. Races are not much of any interest, but there is a purpose in biology to talk about them. As biological categories, they do not have much significance beyond tracing out ancestry and looking at history of migrations or DNA transference across generations.

      So this new biological view would argue that biology alone does not explain why certain racial groups do better or worse on standardized tests or have cultural traits that make them more or less likely to do certain things. In the worst of the classic biological race view they assigned criminality and moral traits to certain races, blaming higher amounts of certain behavior on biology. No biological view of that sort stands up to close examination, and Spencer’s view is saying something much weaker – biology allows us to determine from someone’s DNA some facts about which other people are very likely to have similar ancestry, and thus we can group people in ancestral populations who have a large amount of ancestry in common, which happens to coincide with populations whose ancestry comes from certain geographical regions because of historically isolated breeding populations that are not so isolated anymore.

    2. The payoff sentence (the easy one to figure out) seems to be: “ Nearly all of the traits that are particular to certain racial groups are not all that important biologically.”

    3. I was thinking more about the Biblical view of "races", which is the only one that matters ultimately, and it occurred to me that there is another delineation or subdivision beyond those I mentioned earlier. Paul frequently makes a case for 2 races of people groups that I had omitted in my earlier post; Jews and Gentiles. He makes special use of these categories when it comes to law/grace and God's covenant with Abraham as to the elect people of God who are united to God by unmerited, sovereign grace. Jews being of course the race God sovereignly brought about ethnically/biologically from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from which the Christ came according to the flesh, and Gentiles being all non-Jews (i.e. everyone else in the world).

    4. I suppose one could say those whom God chose to save are one "race" taken from all the "races" in this world.

    5. On that point I would think it's simpler and more theologically accurate to say there's the redeemed race in Christ and the unredeemed race in Adam as I pointed out in my original comment. Generally speaking I think the modern construct of and dialogue about "races" is unhelpful and inaccurate. But that's just one man's opinion.

    6. "On that point I would think it's simpler and more theologically accurate to say there's the redeemed race in Christ and the unredeemed race in Adam as I pointed out in my original comment."

      Thanks, CD. I think what I said echoes a verse like 1 Pet 2:9 (among others).

      That said, I don't disagree with how you framed it either. The Bible uses multiple metaphors for God's people. The Bible doesn't use one and only one "simpler and more theologically accurate" metaphor for God's people.

      Although it depends how one defines simplicity (e.g. Occam's razor).

      "Generally speaking I think the modern construct of and dialogue about "races" is unhelpful and inaccurate."

      Yeah, "generally speaking" that could be true that modern race talk is "unhelpful and inaccurate". Perhaps most people have mistaken ideas about race which would be "inaccurate", the mainstream media often politicizes race which is certainly "unhelpful", also even when there's accuracy in race talk there may be wrong emphases which risks giving a distorted picture about race, etc.

      That's why when it comes to race talk I wouldn't primarily focus on what people "generally" believe and discuss about race. Rather I'd prefer to primarily focus on intelligently reasoned discussion about race even if the discussion is not what people "generally" believe or talk about race.

    7. Yep. That's why it's helpful to think and speak using Biblical categories as much as possible. That doesn't mean using obscure theological terms that others may not generally understand or be familiar with, or only using "Bible words", but to think and reason Biblically.

      Many, if not most folks you or I interact with IRL - including other believers - don't think much about what the Bibke has to say about this or that topic, whether important or seemingly unimportant.

      Like rain for example. If you ask most people, believe or unbeliever, why it rains, they'll generally say something about evaporation, condensation, cloud formation, etc. The water cycle they were taught in elementary school.

      Even though all that is generally true as far as it goes, those are secondary causes. But *why* does it rain? It's because God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust as He waters His earth as a common grace.

      Race talk, among pretty much every other topic you or I can think of, ought to be underpinned with a Biblical worldview and God's Word ought to be brought to bear upon it.

      Unbelievers may not "get it" or agree of course, but that's not what's important, what's important is being faithful ambassadors for Christ.

      I guess my point was and is that we need to keep in mind as Christian's that we're always either in an apologetic/witnessing encounter with unbelievers or in an exhorting/encouraging/fellowship encounter with believers.

      Because there are ultimately only 2 types of people in this world, the redeemed and unredeemed, it's very binary in this way. Hence my 2 races comment.

      Anyway,I think we're mostly in agreement, maybe our nuance is just a bit different. And that's okay too, because not all are eyes, or ears, or feet, or hands. We're just parts of a Body.