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When I first heard the idea that race wasn’t real I, like I would imagine most people would, just rolled my eyes. It seemed like the kind of idiocy that only an academic could come up with in order to publish, not perish. Academia is constantly churning out ridiculous claims in a quest to have something new to say in a desperate attempt to get into the journals. For a while there was a cottage industry of papers claiming that every major historical figure was gay, but that fad seems to have died down. I figured the whole “social constructivism” fad was a consequence of post-modernism/post-structuralism which denies that anything is real and that ontology is socially constructed by power relations. I figured it would die off with the rest of the post-modern flash in the pan. But this idea hangs around, and it in fact gains in acceptance.

The debate about the reality of race is not a biological debate. People can agree about all the facts about the migrations of people around the world, and the results of modern genetic findings, and yet still disagree over whether race is real. That is because the debate today isn’t a debate about biology; it is a debate about metaphysics. The debate is about what it means to say something is real. Specifically, it is about what is it for a kind to be real; philosophy and science is still for the most part operating under the deeply entrenched “either essentialiasm or nominalism” dichotomy. I haven’t read Nicholas Wade’s book yet, but my sense is that he will not convince the unconvinced because he does not take on the abstract ontological issues upon which social constructivists rely, or provide competing realist ontology. So I am here going to simply present the theory of the premier realist philosopher, Ruth Millikan, and apply her realist ontology to explain the reality of race. As Crawford Elder says, “Millikan does give a realist account of kind-sameness… Indeed she gives the only extant account that truly deserves to be called “realist”” (Millikan and Her Critics, p. 155).

Millikan begins by defining what she calls, after Aristotle, a substance. Substances are those things about which you can learn from one encounter something of what to expect on other encounters, where this is no accident but the result of a real connection (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p. 15). What she means by a real connection is that there have been natural forces at work producing similarities between individuals. Think of the cars rolling off a production line. They are alike in numerous ways because there are forces at work producing similarities in shape, mass, behavior, and so on. For instance, they are all modeled on the same blueprint, and produced by the same mechanical forces. Because of this, if you learn something about a 2014 Honda Civic, you know what to expect when encountering another one on another occasion. There were natural causal forces at work producing these similarities between individuals, and we can exploit these lines of causation in our predictive powers in order to use information gained by one encounter with a member of a kind for use when encountering other members.

Millikan says that there are three types of substances: individuals, ahistorical kinds, and historical kinds. Individuals are just that, individuals like this chair, Bob, my house, Fido the dog, and so on. If you know that Bob is six feet tall with brown eyes and black hair, you can exploit this information to figure that Bob will be 6 feet tall with brown eyes and black hair on the next occasion you meet him. Of course this knowledge is not infallible, but the world is stable enough for us to benefit from exploiting causal regularities in guiding our expectations.

Ahistorical kinds are thing like atoms, molecules, planets and so on. Members of these kinds share properties because they share an inner structure. Because water is H2O you can reliably predict how water will behave on various occasions: that it will freeze at 0 degrees Celsius, that things will sink when heavy things are put in it, and so on.

The final kind of substance is historical kinds. As the name implies, individuals are members of historical kinds due to certain recurring historical causative factors that explain their commonalities and allow the kind to persist through time. Millikan gives three such causative factors. The first of these forces is that individual members of an historical kind possess shared features due to a copying or replication process. For example, a paradigmatic example of an historical kind is a biological species. Whereas Aristotle believed that the members of each species shared an ahistorical eternal form or essence that constituted the essential characteristics of the various species and kept them constant through time, modern biology, in contrast, does not believe there is any such essence to species, not even on the genetic level, i.e., some gene or group of such “cow genes” that all and only cows have. Instead, what keeps the characteristics of species relatively stable over time is, first of all, that the genes that make cows are copied from one another. This genetic copying process that occurs in sexual reproduction ensures a similarity between generations (2000: 20).

The second factor given by Millikan is the need for compatibilities between the members of a kind. In the case of biological species, the genes in the gene pool of a species must remain sufficiently compatible with one another so that when they are combined in sexual reproduction they can produce offspring that have a decent chance of viability and survival (Eldredge and Gould (1972: 114), cited in Millikan (2000: 19)). If the diversity of genes became so great that the chromosomes of a mating pair were no longer sufficiently compatible, viable offspring would not result. Thus a degree of similarity between members of a species is guaranteed as any drastically different character is unlikely to prove viable and will be weeded out of the gene pool. These factors will retard genetic drift and will contribute to the stability of the species over time.

The third and final causal factor given by Millikan for the stability of a species over time is the stability of the environment itself which will see to it through natural selection that mutations that do not provide a benefit to the individual will not get passed on. The vast majority of possible mutations that an individual may possess will be detrimental to the organism in that environment and those that deviate from the well-adapted form will likely be weeded out. Thus the stability of environmental conditions will contribute to the stability of the species over time.

Notice that Millikan does not call these factors necessary or sufficient conditions, essential, inherent, intrinsic, true in all possible worlds, or any other of the usual philosophical tools. She doesn’t even refer to them as direct causes, preferring instead to call them “causal factors.” I will offer a pair of awkward metaphors for what I think Millikan has in mind. Imagine a lump of wet clay that has come out of its mold in some determinate shape, say, dog-shaped. It is room temperature and so the clay is at risk of losing its shape. Luckily there are three sculptors there patting, tapping, prodding, supporting, and pushing the clay so that it retains its shape. Through the actions of these sculptors the clay will retain its shape over time. These forces mold and maintain the clay in its shape despite not being necessary, individually sufficient, intrinsic, inherent, essential, etc. Also, there may be other forces that could have molded the clay into the same shape.

The metaphor can be expanded if wished. Perhaps sometimes some of the clay manages to squeeze out between the sculptors where it immediately is set upon by other sculptors who mold it into some new and different form. This would correspond to members of a species migrating to a new environment where different selection pressures mold it into a new species. But like all metaphors this one is not perfect as it neglects the importance copying plays in Millikan’s theory. To account for this imagine a second scenario where a toy maker is making toy soldiers from a blueprint. As the toy maker has imperfect vision the copying from the blueprint is imperfect. After making them he passes them down to a quality control officer who inspects them for similarity to the soldiers that have come before and removes those from the production line who are not sufficiently similar to the others. Finally, they are passed into a kiln for firing where many can not stand the heat and crack. The ultimate result would be many toy soldiers of similar appearance despite the fact that figures of that appearance could have been derived by different forces. The end result is that if you encounter one toy soldier, you will have good reason as to what to expect when encountering others since they have been produced by similar forces.

So basically, the members of an historical kind are alike because there have been natural forces at work producing similarities among the members, and these forces are absent among non-members. The forces named can be quite general such as homeostasis, replication, or the environment. (You may never know exactly what did the work of shaping the members of the kind as these forces may have occurred in the distant past.) But is so happens that we have a perfectly good general explanation for the forces at work in the cases of race; that people existed in different parts of the planet in relative isolation for thousands or tens of thousands of years and as such were subject to natural forces that produce similarities between individuals who are the descendents, and these particular forces were absent in other parts of the world, whose denizens were subject to different forces that shaped the members into their particular form. That’s all it takes for race to be real and not socially constructed.  To the social constructivist, it is just an incredible coincidence that our common-sense racial categories just happen to all be bounded by geological features–the Sahara, the Himilayas, the Bering Sea–that just happen to have historically impeded gene flow.

I will expand on this in part 2.

Note: Millikan herself doesn’t claim race is an historical kind. She claims biological species, manufactured goods, architectural styles, retail chains, ethnic, social, cultural, economic, and vocational groups are all historical kinds.   Race is conspicuous in its absence, and so it should not be thought that Millikan believes race is an historical kind. The claim is mine.