If asked to explain why the Golds’ treatment of other colors in Red Rising is wrong, it is tempting to say something like “they are all human beings, and it is wrong to treat humans in this way!” In this essay, I’ll argue that this simple answer is considerably complicated by the fact that the different colors might not be members of the same biological species, and it is in fact unclear whether any of them are the same species as current humans. Explaining why exactly this is so will lead us to an exploration the long-running debate in biology and philosophy over what exactly it means for two organisms to be “members of the same species.”
I’ll begin by discussing the biological essentialism of Aristotle and his followers, who held that an individual organism’s species was determined by essence. One can easily imagine that the Golds might find this attractive, since it would suggest that their “superior” mental and physical capacities made them a different (and probably “higher”) species of humanity than the other colors. Unfortunately for Aristotle, this turns out to be inconsistent with Charles Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection. This development has led many modern biologists and philosophers of biology to conceptualize species not as an abstract “form” that serves to classify organisms, but rather as a concrete collection of organisms relatively close to each other in space and time. In contrast to biological essentialism, this view of “species as concrete individual” might seem to support the Reds’ claim to the “same species” as the Gold, since they are both part of the same overarching society.
Next, I’ll consider how we might tell where one species “ends” and another one “begins.” As it turns out, biologists have many ways of answering his question, each of which makes different judgments about the species of Red Rising’s characters. So, for example, the “Biological Species Concept” bases judgements about species membership on the ability to produce fertile offspring. This concept is far from perfect, however, for reasons that Red Rising makes clear: it doesn’t deal clearly with cases where reproduction is possible but very difficult (a Red and a Gold having a child) or for organisms that do not reproduce sexually (such as Pinks). I’ll then explore a few prominent alternatives to BSC, including both genetically and ecologically based species concepts, and consider their consequences for the society of Red Rising.
I’ll conclude by advocating for a “pluralism” about species membership, and will suggest that the people of Red Rising (as well as in the real world) should beware of basing arguments for moral or political equality on the all-too-slippery notion of “shared humanity.” Instead, they should focus on the qualities that make the lives of the individuals (regardless of their species) worth caring about, such as their shared desires to avoid suffering and to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives.