Against ‘Biological Racial Realism’

Anton Li

Philosophy of Race & Gender

Biological racial realism is the view that race is a genuine biological kind. Although there are various formulations, the theory can generally be thought of as proposing that race divides people in a biologically real way – that is, in a way that is epistemically important in empirically successful biology. This is a rough definition, but will work for the purpose of this paper.

Whether or not biological racial realism is true could have large social implications. If races are biologically real, then the question arises of whether other properties, particularly psychological ones, are correlated with races. I find this question to be particularly relevant because of its potential implications, as well as the history, associated with it. In the past, biological racial realism was construed in such a way to proclaim not only that biological races exist, but that because of biological differences between these races, there were also substantial corresponding psychological differences between the races. This led to beliefs that certain races were psychologically superior to others, which in turn often led to many grave injustices, such as genocide, slavery, and racial discrimination. Though such events are less likely to occur today, racist sentiments are still abound in our world, even in the most progressive societies. If biological realism turns out to be actually true, such sentiments are likely to gain even further support. If biological realism turns out to be false, or turns out to have no psychological implications, then such sentiments could be weakened.

It is therefore important to qualify what biological racial realism actually entails, in terms of psychological implications. The question I will thus explore in this paper is this: if biological racial realism is indeed the correct way to think about races, do the racial differences they show correspond to substantial psychological differences? And if this turns out to be the case, how should society react? In this paper, I will first argue that there are no substantial psychological differences between the races. Second, I will argue that even in the case that there are, society ought to act in a way to remedy them.

It first helps to clarify what is meant by “substantial psychological differences”. Such differences will fulfill two criteria. First, they are differences that are big enough in terms of degree (e.g. a 0.1-point IQ difference between races is minute and would thus not be considered substantial, but a 25-point IQ difference would meet the degree threshold). The exact degree is somewhat arbitrary, but I believe that there is a general area of consensus. Second, they are differences regarding psychological properties that we consider relevant to social functioning or success. Such properties would include interests, intelligence, creativity, etc.. On the other hand, there are properties that would not fall under this category, such as one’s favorite color; if one race generally preferred the color blue and another race generally preferred red, this is not a difference we would consider substantial.

The data I have examined provides support for the existence of genetic differences between races, but fails to show that these differences have substantial psychological implications. First, genetic differences do not necessarily entail relevant psychological differences. In Shiao et al’s paper “Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race”, the researchers themselves acknowledge that the existence of clinal classes among humans confirms the existence of genetic differences, but does not confirm the existence of substantial morphological or psychological differences. Though genetics influences morphology and psychology, that does not entail that the properties that we care about – the substantial ones – are impacted. If genetics played a role in influencing certain races to be inclined to like the color red more so than other races, that essentially has no impact. Further, even if the relevant psychological properties were affected, there would still be the matter of proving that they are affected to a substantial degree. The evidence does not do this. In fact, it seems to point in the opposite direction – that the degree would be minor. The differences between the racial groups are small; in fact, the differences account for only 5% of human genetic diversity. Further, the statistical clustering of the racial groups is only seen after 60-150 randomly selected loci, or genomes. The fact that so many genomes are needed to establish this clustering further lowers the chance of a link between the genetic and psychological aspects.

But let us assume that substantial psychological differences did correspond with racial groups. In this case, what should be done? The first step would be to see if any social factors accounted for those differences, and if so, to amend them to be as fair as possible. But even if social factors did not play a role in bringing about genetic differences, society should still take action. The proposal suggested by Appiah in his paper “Race, Culture, and Identity” could serve as a guideline. In the case of genetic racial differences, Appiah advocates that we seek ways to “remedy the initial distribution of the genetic lottery”, similar to how humans have built up resistance to diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Thus, for the psychological traits that are relevant to social success, such as intelligence, we could take social measures to ensure that the racial groups that are lacking in those areas can catch up.

Some might argue that psychological tendencies are too strong, or engrained in biology to be remedied in this way. But that seems unlikely; even racial realists accept the fact that all humans branched out from Africa over time, which led to the genetic differences. Without going back that far, evidence also exists to suggest that it is highly likely that social influence played a role in creating biological racial differences over generations. Spencer, in his paper “Philosophy of Race Meets Population Genetics”, notes the existence of certain local populations, which are considered in biology to be “fundamental units of population genetics”. These populations were created as a result of human interactions, which led to interbreeding and isolation. Spencer thus concludes that “some entities are biologically real exactly because they are socially constructed” (Spencer 52). This finding suggests that genetic traits, and thus psychological traits, are malleable over generations.


Appiah, K. Anthony, “Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values

Shiao, Jiannbin, “Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race.” American Sociological Association Annual Meeting

Spencer, Quayshawn, “Philosophy of Race Meets Population Genetics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences


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