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This is the first post in a 7-part series about the nature of genocide.  There is a condensed version of the series summarizing it’s argument here.  But please read this longer version to understand the argument in full.

My goal in this series of posts is to show why ethnic groups are real and not socially constructed, and then to explain how the reality of ethnic groups affects our understanding of genocide. The UN Convention on Genocide lists national, racial, ethnic, and religious groups as genocide-susceptible kinds. I will here be concentrating on ethnicity but the argument should hold true for the other genocide-susceptible kinds (except for national groups, which are a class, not a kind (see here for details)).

  1. Historical Kinds and Realism

The first question is to ask what it means to say that a group like an ethnic, religious, or racial group is real.  In this part I am just going to repeat the realist ontology I presented in my series on race; the later posts in the series will spell out how this applies to ethnic and other genocide-susceptible kinds. The premier realist philosopher today is Ruth Millikan. 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 her realist account of ontology by defining what she calls, after Aristotle, a substance. Millikan’s 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: individual items 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, likes Mexican food, and votes Democratic, you can exploit this information to figure that Bob will be 6 feet tall with brown eyes and black hair, likes Mexican food, and votes Democratic 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 heavy things will sink when put in it, that it will quench thirst, 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 (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p 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. Significant mutations that an individual may possess will likely 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.

These kinds are real because the forces producing similarities are real, natural forces. What makes something a 2014 Honda Civic is not socially constructed in that an individual’s belonging to this kind is not a matter of the classification scheme in use; it is an objective fact whether an item has properties in common with other individuals as a result of being produced by common historical forces.

I will show how this applies to ethnic groups in part 2.