Is Race Genetic or Socially Constructed?

Is race a trivial quality of humans, or of deep social importance? Who gets to decide whether race exists or not?

Philip Kitcher: So what should we make of the concept of race? There are a lot of anthropologists who would say we should just throw this concept away completely. There’s no basis for it. And those people are responding to what many scholars call essentialist notions of race. There’s something about this particular group of people, perhaps about their anatomy or their physiology or their brains or their genes or something like this, that differentiates them from various other groups of people. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from biological science and psychological science over the last century it’s that there’s an enormous amount of variation within the groups that we’ve traditionally thought of as races, far more than there is between the groups we’ve traditionally thought of as races.

It turns out that if you look at things from a genetic point of view the certain kinds of molecular sequences are more common in some groups than in other groups. That’s because during the course of human history these groups have been separated from one another. They haven’t intermarried and that’s given various chances for various kinds of genetic material to become prevalent in some groups but not in others. But the first thing to say about that is that these differences are trivial! Largely trivial; there are some cases, such as well known diseases that tend to affect some groups more than others, that is not trivial for the sufferers. But by and large these differences are perfectly trivial.

Now about 15 years ago a tremendously brilliant study was done by researchers at Stanford that actually divided the human population into groups that the researchers themselves called interbreeding populations. They didn’t want to call them races but very quickly the popular press picked this up and started referring to them as races.

So you might start out with the human population and ask the following question: on the basis of biological evidence, gene frequencies, molecular frequencies of DNA sequences in different populations, what would you get if you wanted to divide the population into two? Well you’d get actually Africans and most Asians, central and western Asia, and Europeans as forming one group, and the rest of the human populations forming another group. Now what would happen if you did it into three groups? Well then you’d get the Africans separated out from the Eurasian population. What would happen if you did it for four groups? Five groups? Six groups? Seven groups? Eight groups? Nine groups? The first five or so of these give you something like sort of standard racial groups with a few odd little twists. The sixth gives you—as there’s sixth of these groups—gives you a tiny little population that has been isolated because of mountain barriers in Asia.

Now those are genuine divisions that have come out of our human history and that are still present in the DNA sequences of the genomes of various people. But whether we want to draw any distinctions at all within the human population is completely up to us. Remember how I did this: I said 'If you want to divide the human population into two, to three, to four, to five, to six, to seven, this biology will tell you how to make the biologically significant decisions.' But why should we want to do that? Is there a point in doing that?

Well sometimes there is a point. Sometimes there’s a point in recognizing that certain people are more closely related to other people, if you want to do medical transplantation, for example. There is a point in saying, well what you need is somebody to give you a kidney who comes from this particular group. But there are other people who say this is just the sort of stuff that breeds discrimination and prejudice as it has in the past, and there are yet other people who say precisely because of that discrimination that we’ve had in the past it’s important to acknowledge these groups.

So I want to say there’s a certain kind of biological phenomenon that stands behind the historic process of dividing people into racial groups. But actually these racial groups are constructed by us. It’s we who decide that we want to draw the lines and the basis on which we should decide that is an ethical basis. We should decide how we actually treat people most fairly. So the issue is really not whether there are racial groups. I mean we could think about racial groups as one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and so on, in divisions in this initial human population. But it’s a question of what divisions, if any, are useful from the point of view of justice and fairness. And that I think is the right way to think about race. So is it scientific? Well there’s sort of something scientific lurking in the background. Is it socially constructed? Yes, it’s socially constructed. And the social construction ought to proceed on the best ethical basis we can find. 

How many different races are there? Pick a number, any number, says philosophy professor Philip Kitcher. Wherever there is an agenda there is a division to be made; race is a social construct with scientific levers. "If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from biological science and psychological science over the last century, it’s that there’s an enormous amount of variation within the groups that we’ve traditionally thought of as races, far more than there is between the groups we’ve traditionally thought of as races." This makes sense; historically, we've drawn the line wherever it has suited the mainstream agenda. Humanity can be divided into two races, which would see Africans, Europeans and most Asians as one unified race. Or it could be divided into three races, which would separate Africans into their own group. You can keep dividing humanity down into more and more refined biological groups until you have 10 or 20 or 30 different races. But what would be the purpose? Our mistake has always been confusing groups for classes anyhow. Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter:How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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