Prisoners of Abstraction? The Theory and Measure of Genetic Variation, and the Very Concept of 'Race'

Biological Theory 7 (1):401-412 (2013)
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It is illegitimate to read any ontology about "race" off of biological theory or data. Indeed, the technical meaning of "genetic variation" is fluid, and there is no single theoretical agreed-upon criterion for defining and distinguishing populations (or groups or clusters) given a particular set of genetic variation data. Thus, by analyzing three formal senses of "genetic variation"—diversity, differentiation, and heterozygosity—we argue that the use of biological theory for making epistemic claims about "race" can only seem plausible when it relies on the user’s own assumptions about race; the move from biological measures to claims about “race” inevitably amounts to a pernicious reification. We also excavate assumptions in the history of the technical discourse over the concept of "race" (e.g., Livingstone's and Dobzhansky's 1962 exchange, Edwards' 2003 response to Lewontin 1972, as well as contemporary discussions of cladistic "race", and "races" as clusters). We show that claims about the existence (or non-existence) of "race" are underdetermined by biological facts, methods, and theories. Biological theory does not force the concept of "race" upon us; our social discourse, social ontology, and social expectations do. We become prisoners of our abstractions at our own hands, and at our own expense.

Author Profiles

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther
University of California, Santa Cruz
Jonathan Kaplan
Oregon State University


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