Race and Biology

Introduction and Methodology

The concept of race is an obelisk in Western societies.  Some scholars assert race as an irrevocable fact of life, while others argue that race is a mutable and performative social construct. I believe that both are positions simultaneously true. In other words, I believe that history supports the idea that humanity attempts to extend (imperfectly) biological concepts of race and their subsequent implications, into the social atmosphere, while simultaneously maintaining that race is a valid biological concept.  Furthermore, by locating the history of modern concept of race to the prominent philosopher Immanuel Kant (with important developments from Aristotle), I make distinctions between race as a biological fact, and racist implications and conclusions drawn from those established racial facts, while calling attention to the relationship between Kant’s racial ideas and his racists ideas, and how his racists ideas may have negatively impacted his ideas of universalism and cosmopolitanism as a way to emphasize  that race is not synonymous with racism despite that fact that racism is only possible within the context of race; in this way, it becomes possible to separate or distinguish with reliable certainty,    Kant’s white supremacy from his theories of human differentiation and variation.

Race and Biology

In today’s contemporary world, the consensus of popular opinion assert that race is not real. Furthermore, opponents of racial categorization argue for the destruction of the concept of race based on the assertion that race exists merely as a social construct rather than as a valid biological concept.  In this paper, I will attempt to illustrate that race is real–that is that race exists as a social construct and as a valid biological concept. Furthermore,  for example, consider D.L. Chollett words in “Reflections on Reflections: Dialectical Commentaries on Gender and Class in NTAE Production, as presented in John Furest’s the Nature of Race, when Cholett informs, “Since ‘race’ is not a biologically valid concept as applied to human populations, ethnicity is a more appropriate concept for examination of ethnicity-gender-class dialectics” (Qtd. in Fuerst 7). While the overall spirit of Chollett’s words is admirable, the statement makes a claim that has yet to satisfy the burden of proof: the claim that race is not a legitimate biological concept require us to know, first and foremost, what a legitimate biological concept looks like, then proceed to explain how the concept of race falls outside of the scope of biological legitimacy or validity. I suspect that it has not been illustrated the concept of race exceeds the scope of biological legitimacy because race is, in fact, a valid biological concept.

Fuerst, again, is apropos in guiding our thinking: elucidating the criterion for a biological concept Fuerst informs “that a ‘valid concept,’ in whatever field, must be (ns) not-self-contradictory and (ck) consistent with the state of knowledge in the field in question” (7). Yet importantly, he also informs what should be obvious, that is “…that concepts  that [are] considered valid, can with further developments in the field, switch from valid to invalid and vice versa” (7). Thus, an intellectual framework is possible to examine and investigate a biologically derived legitimate conception of race—so as long as the above: that the concept be both congruent (not self-contradictory, and consistent with valid previous conclusions. It is the latter part of this description that enables us to make distinctions within the sciences, with respect to the concept of race in particular. The Social and political value of the concept of race is distinct from its epistemic value, and furthermore, “once this distinction is drawn, it becomes clear that social [cannot] directly cancel out epistemic value (as they are different categories) (9). In other words the value of race is not wholly drawn in terms of the social or the political, and moreover, its epistemic value is distinct, separate, and independent of the political value of race or the philosophical value of race. In this way, it is possible to conceptualize human difference (i.e., race) without resorting to racist thinking, because race and racism are not synonymous, but are distinct.

What is Race? Type and Kind

Assuming we are not referring to the Olympics or Nascar, Merriam Webster informs that when applied to human beings, ‘race’ is a taxonomic category. 2. ‘A class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits or characteristics. The Oxford English Dictionary enlightens: 1.1 “The fact or condition of belonging to a racial division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this”; 1.2 “A group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group;” 1.6 “A group of people descended from a common ancestor.” One can see, from a cursory glance that there is a panoply of competing understandings of the concept race that, might complicate clarity and understanding. However, with a little reflection, there are some features that seem common to every conception of race: that is, race is associated with difference. Race always refers to some type or kind of difference. Whether this difference is real or imagined, insignificant or inescapable, are second and third-order questions to be explored later.  If race is a stand-in for types and kinds or, at very least, claims concerning type and kind, race, then presuppose more primary concepts of type and kind. Types and kinds are two ways human beings can classify knowledge about the world. The issue is, however, is that our understanding of type and kind are indefinite and incomplete, and when they are not self-contradictory or circular, they invalidated one another. Consider these three conceptions of type and kind:

  1. “[S]ome race theorists – such as Anthony Appiah (1996, 40), Robin Andreasen (2000, S655-S657), and Naomi Zack (2002, 4) – define a natural kind as an objectively real kind. A paradigm example is Andreasen’s view. According to Andreasen (2000, S655), race must be a “natural kind” in order to be biologically real…”
  2. “[S]ome race theorists – such as Edouard Machery (2005, 446) and Glasgow (2009, 81) – define a natural kind as an inductively useful kind in science. For example, Machery (2005, 445, 446) defines “natural kinds” as “classes about which non-accidental, scientifically relevant inductive generalizations can be formulated,” and Machery and Faucher (2005, 1209) go on to require that race must have “inferential power” in order to be biologically real”
  3. “[S]ome race theorists define a natural kind as a kind that is a useful object of study in a natural science. For example, Haslanger (2008, 58) claims that biological racial realism requires that “races are natural kinds,” and she goes on to define a natural kind as a kind whose constitutive properties are “natural,” where “natural properties of things are… those studied by the natural sciences”(Haslanger 2008, 60).
  4. “Fourth, some race theorists define a natural kind using pragmatism. Philip Kitcher is the main proponent of this view. Kitcher (2007, 299, 301) rejects that there are any objectively real kinds in nature. Instead a kind is natural to the extent that it is… useful for some valuable project P in some scientific context C, and [its utility] outweighs its “potential damage.” (Qtd. in Fuerst 5)

In other words, “our philosophers [cannot] decide what it really means to be ‘biologically real’” (Qtd. in Fuerst 5).  If there is no basis (or agreement on a basis) of what, in reality constitutes biological reality, it is logically impossible to assert race as a biologically unfit or invalid. Although, this lack of continuity and cohesion among scholars is less an indication of a failure on part the parts of scholars, and more of an indication of the inherent difficulty of classification. In the Categories, for example, Aristotle establishes a four-fold division for categorizing all things along with ten-fold division or “a canonical list of ten categories” that as served as the foundation of western philosophical and scientific thinking (“Aristotle’s Categories” 2013).

 Racial Classification: Aristotle and Linnaeus

The contemporary system for identifying and classifying living organisms, like plants and animals (taxonomy), is derived from the insights of Aristotle, as primarily presented in the History of Animals, and much later, from the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus’ The System of Nature, published in 1735.

Aristotle contrived of a hierarchical and binomial classification system, termed the “ladder of nature” whereby “creatures could be grouped in order from lowest to highest, with the human species being the highest,” according to “genus and difference” (Tilton “From Aristotle to Linnaeus”). While Aristotle’s system of classification had neither an evolutionary or genetic basis, it marked an unprecedented plateau in western thinking that would not be rivaled until the 16th century.  Lois Tilton places Aristotle’s within the larger context of history when Tilton explains that:

The word “genus” comes from the Greek root for “birth,” and among its meanings are “family” and “race.” Aristotle’s notion of definition was to place every object in a family and then to differentiate it from the other members of that family by some unique characteristic. He defined humans, for example, as the “rational animal.” This, according to Aristotelian thought, defines the essence of what it is to be human, as opposed to such pseudo-definitions as “featherless biped.

Aristotle’s initial system of classification has seen many changes since Antiquity. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s major premise, fomented on a rationale of grouping similarities and dissimilarities, with respect to organisms, has survived, arguably, until the present day.

Indeed, Aristotle’s system of classification can be seen as a foundation of sorts for Carl Linnaeus’ system of classification. Tilton enlightens:

Image result for linnaean system
Figure 1. Linnaean system of Taxonomy. https://wikieducator.org/Biological_Anthropology/Classification

“[Linnaeus] published his most innovative work as a young man in 1735. The System of Nature (Systema Naturae) is notable for an overall framework of classification that organized all plants and animals from the level of kingdoms all the way down to species. The full subtitle of its tenth edition was: System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characteristics, differences, synonyms, places. This system of classification, although greatly modified, is essentially the one we use today.” (Tilton)

Kant’s Invention of Whiteness and the Modern Concept of Race

            Immanuel Kant is likely the most prominent philosopher to discuss race. Indeed Kant is attributed with the first instance of employing “race” as a signifier of human difference. According to Mark Larrimore, “ ‘Race’ was invented in 1775 as an advertisement for the new disciplines of geography and anthropology that Kant inaugurated and promoted through his career (Larrimore 1). However, beyond mere linguistic coinage, Kant’s concept of human race significantly prefigure our modern concept of race insofar as Kant configures race as “lineage-based divisions of a species, which [were] distinguishable from one another by the members’ inherited characters” (Fuerst 31). In other words, Kant understood race as both hereditary and genetic concepts  that were natural consonants—as facts of natural history, Kant believed race to be “an exception-less law in human heredity” (Larrimore 3) that were (a la Aristotle) non-accidental, albeit with mutable and immutable characteristics inherited characteristics. For Kant, (and thinkers like Buffon) “all the different kinds of human beings were…members of the same [human] species,” as evidenced by the interbreeding amongst the different human varieties   (Larrimore 344).  As such, Kant’s racial theory culminated into the claim that “…human nature contained within itself seeds and predispositions for the races, which were triggered by but not caused by climate…” and geography (344). In this way, race comes denote inheritable changes as catalyzed by geographic environs and locales.

Kant’s Four Race Schema

“Stem Genus:

Whites of brunette colour

First race, very blond (northern Europe) of damp cold.

Second race, copper-red (America) of dry cold.

Third race, black (Senegambia) of damp heat.

Fourth race, olive-yellow (Indians) of dry heat (2:411).” (Qtd. in Larrimore 349).

Kant contrived a four race schema to account for all of human variation: “‘1) the race of the Whites, 2) the Negro race, 3) the Hunnish (Mongolian or Kalmuck) race, 4) the Hindu or Hindustani race’” (Larrimore 345). While Kant’s schema accounted for all racial mixtures, Larrimore informs “Kant argued…not all people were fully raced” (345). Kant identified two races in particular as anomalous populations: (Native) Americans and Whites. Of the former, Kant argues that Americans, ancestrally speaking, “apparently migrated too fast” and subsequently, their “congenital weakness could be explained by the incomplete achievement of the Hunnish Keim[1] exacerbated by a further degeneration as they moved south from one climate to another” (345). In other words, Kant argues that Indigenous American ancestors had migrated too quickly for “any Keim fully too unfold” (345).  On the other hand, Whites were also beyond full racialization. However, “the consequence was not weakness” as with the Americans “but strength,” for the Whites “had moved slowly enough not to trigger the development of one Keim at the expense of another” (345).

From Race to Racism: whiteness to white supremacy

While neither Americans nor Whites were fully raced, White persons were naturally extraordinarily strong and potent. Consider Kant’s remarks on the obvious  superiority of European stock: “If one asks with which of the present races the first human stock (Menschen Stamm) might have had the greatest similarity, one would, though without prejudice, pronounce in favor of the Whites because of the evidently greater perfection of one colour over others” (Qtd. in Larrimore 345). Juxtaposed with Kant’s comments on the semi-race of Americans, and a very unsavory portrait–depending on one’s sensibilities–beings to emerge, whereby Kant moves, almost immediately, from the development of a racial typography to the establishment of a white supremacist hierarchy. Consider Kant’s statements in his work, “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy,” remarking upon the inherent laziness of Negroes and Americans as informed by Pauline Kleingeld:

That their temperament has not become entirely adequate to any climate can also be inferred from the fact that it is hard to find any other reason why this race, which is too weak for hard labour and too indifferent for industrious work, and which is incapable of any culture even though there are enough examples and encouragement in the vicinity [namely, the example set by the European colonial settlers], stands far below even the Negro, who occupies the lowest of all other levels which we have mentioned as racial differences.  (Qtd. in Kleingeld 574)

 It is likely that Kant believed his racial theories could serve as a basis for global human unity, as his monogenetic theory was congruent with pervading Christian mythology (the whole of humanity as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve) and the teachings of the church, of which he was exposed to through the Pietism of his religious upbringing. Prima facie, there is nothing inherently illogical or immoral (i.e., racist) about Kant’s hypothesis–thus far. Kant does claim to believe that all human beings are human beings notwithstanding their varieties.  However, Kant (a la Aristotelian natural slavery) moves beyond mere description of the natural history of human genetic and hereditary variation, and proceeds to develop racial prescriptions that are indicative, and at other times deterministic, of human ability. For example, “their mixtures”; “anomalies and relative strength or weakness,” as derived by—and in some instances determined by—race (Larrimore 346).  The problems that plague Kant’s thought are captured explicitly in footnotes spanning the much of his oeuvre. A footnote in Lectures on Anthropology, written between 1781-2 reads “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the Whites” (Qtd. in 574). One must wonder: just how did Kant understand perfection? Was this statement confined to be applied to a specific moment in time, or was this a blanket statement, applying to all of the people, in all of the places, at all times? Kleingeld helps to flesh out Kant’s prescriptive ideas when she informs that “… [Kant] asserts that Native Americans are the lowest of the four races, as they are completely inert, impassive, and incapable of being educated at all. He places the ‘Negroes’ above them, as they are capable of being trained to be slaves (but are incapable of any other form of education) (Italics added) (Kleingeld 576). Another footnote in on ‘Of the Different Human Races’ seems evidence of an endorsement, at worst, and a casual banality, at best, concerning slavery. For example, Kant writes of the utility of Native American slaves in comparison to African slaves:  “To mention just one example, in Surinam one uses red slaves (Americans) only for domestic work, because they are too weak for work in the field. For field work one needs negroes” (Qtd. in Kleinfeld 576).

What is truly fascinating is how hierarchical notions of race and the fantasy of white supremacy were concomitant with the so-called Enlightenment of Europe. The allure to study racial pathology crescendos into mysterium fascinans in light of the fact that Europe’s greatest philosopher, for all his foresight and piercing intellect, was nevertheless blind drunk on the myth of white supremacy.   In any case, however, is Kant’s special treatment of whiteness. Albeit, Kant’s treatment of whiteness is  unsurprising given the preceding 250 years of European history which saw the not only the discovery of the New World in the Americas, but had also saw what could only be described as a nascent racism, citing the history of European imperialism and genocide in the Old World[2], New World, and Africa.

Immanuel Kant, the most prominent philosopher to discuss race, juxtaposed a natural (meaning genetic based) understanding with a scholastic (meaning phenotypic resemblance based) one and situated the race concept in the genealogy-based perspective: A scholastic division is based upon classes and divides things up according to similarities, but a natural division is based on identifying lines of descent that classify the animals according to reproductive relationships. The first of these procures a scholastic system for memory; the second, a natural system for the understanding. (Of the Different Human Races) What is a race? The word is not to be found in any systematic description of nature, so presumably the thing itself is nowhere to be found in nature. The concept which this expression designates is, well established because every nature observer has been produced via interbreeding. That means a union does not lie in the concept of its species, but was certainly originally placed in the lineal system stock of the species itself (On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy 13).

Race Today

In 2001, Andrew Peyton Thomas published a robust yet poignantly constructed biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, aptly entitled, Clarence Thomas. In Peyton Thomas’ historical panorama,  race functions as the aggregate sum of distinct cultural and genetic markers, and aligns with the view that race is simultaneously socially and biologically valid. Uncovering Justice Thomas’ familial roots back to that morally bereft era of American history when the enslavement of Africans and African descendants was protected by local custom, and inevitably enshrined and preserved in local, state, and federal laws, Peyton Thomas writes that contemporary antebellum white slave-owners, “To avoid contracting malaria, to which African blacks (conveniently enough) were genetically more resistant than whites, the local rice aristocracy entrusted the cultivation of this crop to the slaves while retreating to higher ground in the summer”, and thus Peyton Thomas’ conception of race entails: (1) genetic distinctions and (2) cultural distinctions or hereditary habits found in the agricultural “expertise” of  enslaved Africans (Thomas, A.P. 15).

Peyton Thomas’ variegated conception of is race in the 21st century is not an anomaly. Many other thinkers and scientists have come to accept race as a valid concept along both scientific and social lines. For example, the following descriptions of race were are all commissioned in the 21st century:

[A] phenotypically and/or geographically distinctive subspecific group, composed of individuals inhabiting a defined geographical and/or ecological region, and possessing characteristic phenotypic and gene frequencies that distinguish it from other such groups. Homo sapiens can be subdivided into five races on the basis of the geographic origin…. (Qtd. in Fuerst 38).


“Genetic differences between these groups have accumulated throughout the thousands of generations during which they have shared only a minute portion of their ancestry. Certain constellations of characteristics have become typical of the peoples of East Asia, others have become just as typical of Europeans It is the breeding population into which one was born which determines one’s race, not one’s personal characteristics… One cannot change one’s race, but, by mating with someone of another race, one can produce offspring who may fall into a different classification: only the future can tell” (Qtd. in Fuerst 39-40).

Both descriptions exhibit an affinity for race as biologically and socially solvent.

Notwithstanding the valid biological aspects of race, race is a dynamic concept and often exceeds a simplistic representation. While there are biological aspects of race, there are also social aspects of race, which are manifestly historical, cultural, and performative.  Capturing Peyton Thomas’ biography is noteworthy for its nuanced treatment of the concept of race in the context of American history. Justice Thomas, who Peyton describes as “proudly independent to the point of vice,” exhibits what can only be described as complex views on race. The complexity of Justice Thomas’ view are encapsulated in his 1998 address to the annual session of the National Bar Association entitled “I Am a Man, A Black Man, an American”:

As Ralph Ellison wrote more than 35 years ago, “Why is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro, they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis?” Those matters accomplished by whites are routinely subjected to sophisticated modes of analysis. But the when the selfsame matters are accomplished by blacks, the opaque racial prism of analysis precludes such sophistication, and all is seen in black and white. And some who would not venture onto the more sophisticated analytical turf are quite content to play in the minor leagues of primitive harping. (Thomas, Clarence 1998)


Works Cited

Fuerst, John. The Nature of Race: the Genealogy of the Concept and Biological   Constructs

Contemporaneous Utility. Open Behavioral Genetics. Dec. 20, 2014. 301293756_The_Nature_of_Race_the_Genealogy_of_the_Concept_and_the_Biological_Construct’s_Contemporaneous_Utility

Kleingeld, Pauline. “Kant’s Second Thoughts on Race.” The Philosophical             Quarterly. Vol 51.No 229. Oct 2007.

Larrimore, Mark. “Antinomies of Race: Diversity and Destiny in Kant. Patterns of Prejudice. Vol. 42. No.4-5, 2008.

Thomas, Andrew Peyton. Clarence Thomas: a Biography. 2001. New York.

Thomas, Clarence. “I am a Man, a black man, an American.” Speech to the National Bar Association. Memphis TN. 1998. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-to-the-national-bar-association/

Tilton, Lois. “From Aristotle to Linnaeus: the History of Taxonomy.” Jan. 10 2009. https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2051


[1] Kant uses the word Keim or ‘seeds’ to refer to latent human potential.  See Larrimore 343-344.

[2] King Edward I expelled all Jews from England in 1290. Jews were not allowed to return until 1656. Likewise, Queen Elizabeth I barred”blackmoores” [sic] from her realm, thus establishing a long tradition racial-ethnic animosity long before Kant. The UK national archives provide electronic versions of the Queen’s decrees free of charge.  See link for further reading:http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/early_times/elizabeth.htm

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