A sensible article on human “race”

August 28, 2017 • 8:45 am

As a biologist, it irks me when ideologues distort biology in the service of politics. My view, which I absorbed from Steven Pinker, is that we should be able to accept scientific facts without perforce turning those facts into government policy.  After all, since morality is subjective and not objective, facts can never by themselves dictate what we should do, which in the end comes down to a reasoned matter of preference. Of course facts can inform policy: learning more about when human fetuses can feel pain might inform debates on abortion. But even so, it’s still a matter of preference to decide whether abortions are permissible, and, if so, at what point in pregnancy should we no longer permit them.

There are three areas where ideology has impinged on biology, trying its best to distort data: differences between human ethnic groups (“races”), between human males and females, and the study of evolutionary psychology. I’ve written about these at length on this site, and won’t go into detail, for this post is just to point you to a good article on race.

The ideologues’ problem with all these areas is the same: were biology to show, for example, that there are genetic differences between sexes, ethnic groups, or cultures, that could be used to justify racism, sexism, and exceptionalism. And indeed, this has happened in the past: all of us know the sordid history of assuming biology translates directly into human rights, which led to eugenics, racism, the denigration of and lack of opportunity for women, and so on.

But there are two ways to respond to any genetic differences that we find. The ideologues’ way is simply to deny the existence of any meaningful genetic (and presumably evolved) differences between human groups or sexes, and to denigrate any findings that show them. (This is, of course, confirmation bias, for these people never look critically at studies that support their ideology.) Evolutionary psychology is denigrated as “pseudoscience”, a phony discipline populated by sexist and misogynistic scientists devoted to propping up the status quo. I’ve been a critic—sometimes quite severe—of evolutionary psychology, as there are a fair number of pretty bad studies. But there are good ones, too, and results showing humans favoring those most closely related, or uncovering evolved differences between men and women in sexual behavior, seem pretty solid. It’s just dumb to say that the entire field is intellectually bankrupt, for if our bodies bear the traces of ancient selection in our ancestors, why not our minds? After all, while non-African human groups evolved in geographic isolation for at most 60,000-100,000 years, males and females have been maneuvering to reproduce for the six million years or so since we separated from our closest relatives.

The other way to deal with distasteful scientific findings is to realize that they shouldn’t even inform political policy, for science is an “is” and policy is an “ought”. It’s unlikely that all ethnic groups, or males and females, will be exactly the same in every aspect of behavior, physiology, intelligence, interests, and so on—down to the third decimal point. But so what? The basis for moral equality and equal opportunity does not rest on genetic endowment, but on philosophical considerations: nobody has a right to claim that they, by virtue of their ancestry or sex, have privileges that allow them advantages over anyone else. Further, the substantial overlap in abilities (except, perhaps, for things like upper-body strength in men versus women) is sufficiently large that it would be just dumb and societally injurious to bar someone from opportunities based on sex or ethnicity.

Further, if you base your notion of moral equality on genetic equality, that makes equality vulnerable to future discoveries in biology that could reveal various forms of genetic inequality. But this can’t happen when the argument for equality and equal opportunity is a moral and philosophical one.

On to “race”, a loaded word if ever there was one. Browsing through Quillette, I found a short but very good 2016 article about race by Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard, and Brian Boutwell, “On the reality of race and the abhorrence of racism“. It’s one of the more sensible pieces on race written for a popular audience, and takes the position I mentioned above; as the authors say, “Promoting a tolerant cosmopolitan society doesn’t require denying basic facts about the world.” Or, as they say, using italics to emphasize their view, “Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals.”

As far as I can see, their biology is accurate.  Winegard et al. reject, as do I—or any sensible biologist—the idea that there are a finite number of easily-demarcated “races” that differ by single diagnostic genes. Rather, we have a genetic spectrum of populations that are fuzzy around the edges, but still reflect some genetic differentiation that occurred in geographic isolation. You can’t diagnose someone’s ancestry or geographic origin from looking at a single gene, but you can do a pretty good job if you look at many genes taken together, as “allelic” differences among different loci are correlated. Using an entire spectrum of genes gives us the ability to discern groupings. Granted, those groupings are not discrete, but are still useful in finding out where someone’s ancestors came from (including Neandertal ancestors). Were this not true, firms like 23 And Me would be of no use whatsoever.

I recommend you read the article. I’ll just reproduce three “objections” that, say Winegard et al., ideologues or those willfully or simply ignorant of genetics raise against the concept of “race”. (Since that word is now irretrievably loaded and pejorative, I prefer to use the term “ethnic groups”.) Their words are indented (mine flush left), and they deal with each objection at length.

(Objection 1): Human variation is clinal or gradual, not discrete. Skin pigmentation, for example, does not come in four, five, or seven distinct colors, but varies gradually from very dark near the equator to very light in Northern Eurasia.

True, but that doesn’t constitute a refutation of genetic clustering.

The most common objection we meet among those denying biological differences between groups is the next one:

. . . . (Objection 2): Human genetic variation is much greater within human populations than among human populations; therefore, variation that exists between groups is of little scientific interest.

This claim is true in a circumscribed sense, but is largely irrelevant to the question of whether population group differences are biologically meaningful. As pointed out by Jeffry B. Mitton and A.W.F. Edwards, the original finding that genetic diversity among human races is insubstantial compared to genetic diversity within races [JAC: this “original finding” came from an analysis by my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin] was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation. Roughly speaking, the original claim about genetic diversity was based on analyses at single genetic loci (spots on the chromosome where genes are located) and not on analyses that considered the correlated structure of multiple genetic loci (many locations). Failure to consider multiple loci assures that broad, distinct patterns of allele (gene) frequencies get lost in the noise of diversity at single loci. This sounds painfully abstruse, but the basic point is this: patterns that are nearly invisible for individual genes become visible if one examines multiple genes at the same time (i.e., looks at gene 1 + gene 2 + gene 3 + gene 4…et cetera).

Empirical studies bear this logic out. The geneticist Hua Tang and her colleagues, for instance, found that self-reported ethnicity corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters from 326 microsatellite markers  (a microsatellite marker is a piece of repetitive DNA in which a series of DNA base pairs are repeated). Other studies have demonstrated even more power to identify people’s ancestry accurately. These studies illustrate that, whatever the meaning of the claim that there is much more variation within than among races, researchers can, if they use the appropriate procedures, distinguish human ancestral groups from each other with remarkable accuracy. The significance of these genetic differences among groups is entirely an empirical question.

Here’s a quote from the abstract of the Tang et al. paper, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, an excellent journal. The article is free online:

Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. On the other hand, we detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.

Finally, the last objection:

. . . . (Objection 3): Human racial classifications are arbitrary. For some purposes, categorizing by skin color is useful; for other purposes, categorizing by, say, antimalarial genes, is useful. These classifications, although equally valid, lead to radically different racial categories.  Thus, one particular classification scheme is no better than the other and none are particularly illuminating.

This claim is wrong. While a particular “classification” may be somewhat arbitrary, that doesn’t deny that some classification schemes are better than others. It would be ludicrous, for example, to classify groups simply by the frequency of Landsteiner blood type (A, B, AB, or O), while it makes a lot more biological sense (and tells us a lot more about evolution and human history) to do multivariate grouping using as many genes as you can.

This article is PCC(E) Recommended Reading.

A final point. The article doesn’t deal with another question that’s worth debating: is all research on differences between sexes and ethnic groups even worth doing? That question is a hard one. If you think “yes, because any result would be interesting”, consider whether you’d approve of a project that sets out to determine whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money than are other groups.

119 thoughts on “A sensible article on human “race”

  1. “Human genetic variation is much greater within human populations than among human populations”

    If I remember correctly;
    I.Q. differences between siblings is also greater than among a given population they belong to, however that does not mean that IQ is not significantly biological/genetically determined.

    1. I would like to know the relative contribution of genes, compared to environment, to the variability (variance) of the IQ. My guess is that the environment would be way more important than genes, but I actually have never seen data.

      1. I am no expert but I get the impression that the latest research indicate that genes/biology/prenatal development plays a bigger role in cognition than the environment as was assumed recently.
        Interesting studies have been done on siblings who obviously share the same environment.

          1. “Pre-natal environment is an environmental factor.”

            But an issue for people that wants to believe that all children are “born” with the same abilities or potential and thus differences in outcome is poor education for example.

            1. There are intricate arguments there. I recommend checking out Ken Richardson’s new book Genes, Brains, and Human Potential: The Science and Ideology of Intelligence.

              1. Thanks for the recommendation,
                By just the synopsys I would not have considered the book.

                “For countless generations people have been told that their potential as humans is limited and fundamentally unequal.”

                I think people get mixed messages, I do not think the narrative above is dominant in the media and education.

                Maybe the book is more objective/scientific than the synopsys suggests?

      2. Within wealthy populations, genes contribute more than environment (about 80%) within poor populations much less (about 40%). As far as genetic contributions to between group differences, that is tough to do when the phenotypical differences might be changing the environment itself (blacks identifying with other blacks, whites with other whites, asians with other asians). It is tricky to control for environment between races, but easier within. In other words, smart white people are likely to be smarter than other whites for genetic reasons, but the same is more difficult to say when comparing whites to blacks. Paul Bloom explains it quite well here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piDznzrNymE (although I think he should give genetic explanations more of a fair chance).

  2. A couple of thoughts.

    On sex. NIH has changed its regulations on the use of animals to be sure that, in most cases, testing is performed on both male and female animals, specifically because they recognize differences in response between sexes. Telling a study section that sex is a social construct seems unlikely to result in funding (you can, however, do what I do and work on an organ only found in males).

    On race. Disparities research is a huge field that includes racial differences. Although some of these are poverty related (including outcomes driving things like healthcare access, However, others are genetic – the elevated risk of prostate cancer, and more aggressive disease found in African American vs. Caucasian men, for example. The high levels of BrCA1/2 mutations in Ashkenazi Jews is another example. You could probably divide the Jewish population into “races” based on the specific mutations that different subgroups carry.

    In a more broadly applicable case, someone of African descent is more likely to respond to sodium restriction as a method to control hypertension, since the SNPs that regulate elevated salt reabsorption in the kidney are predominantly found Africans and people of African descent (which makes complete evolutionary sense). Caucasians are more likely to respond to an ACE-inhibitor. So many physicians will base initial approaches to therapy on skin color, and modify downstream based on outcomes.

    1. In para 3, let’s go with:

      Although some of these are poverty related (including outcomes-driving things like health care access). However…..

      One day I’ll learn to proofread before I post

  3. I think your assumption of moral subjectivism is a false assumption. That is, there ARE moral facts. There is a thesis in metaphysics which argues that there such things as moral facts of the matter called moral realism. You can find a summary here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/moralrea/

    This is not saying that the facts in and of themselves tell us what to do but that the goodness or wrognness of an action or of a state of affairs is actually a property OF the world.

    1. I’m sorry, but nearly ALL philosophers agree that there’s no such thing as an objective morality.

      Would you care to give us one “moral fact” whose truth can be established by observation without ANY injection of preference about what kind of world/society we want?

      Remember, it has to be a “property of the world” that can be observed by anyone, and not contaminated by subjective preference.

      You’re in the very small minority among ethical philosophers. Only Singer and Derek Parfit, I think (besides Sam Harris) think that there are objective moral facts.

      1. Perhaps we should talk about “common sense” / practical morality. Inflicting unnecessary pain for example.

      2. Since morality can only be subjective is it fair to ask for an example of an objective moral fact?
        Its like asking for an objective example of qualia
        Sometimes things get unecessarily confusing.

      3. Jerry is correct. There is no fact which can tell us that it is objectively morally wrong to torture babies or to blow up the world.

        As Hume put it long ago:

        “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

        1. Well, I’ll take on Hume 🙂

          Since the whole world includes his finger, I think we could demonstrate that destroying the whole world (including his finger) is worse than just his finger alone.

          If he’d said ‘all the rest of the world’, now…


      4. Jerry, I entirely agree with you that there is no objective morality, and that morality is entirely subjective.

        However, I think you’re wrong to say that nearly all philosophers agree. Not long about two philosophers (Bourget and Chalmers) did a survey of professional philosophical opinion on a range of topics. The results revealed that 56.4% are moral realists.

        (I consider this a black mark against philosophers that half of them still haven’t arrived at the right answer.)

      5. “You’re in the very small minority among ethical philosophers. Only Singer and Derek Parfit, I think (besides Sam Harris) think that there are objective moral facts.”

        Small minority, perhaps, but not bad company.

      6. The point is quite different. The moral realist would say that making judgments are nor mere reports of our inner thoughts/feelings but a part of the world itself. After all, you seem to agree that moral judgements are sensitive to what we KNOW about the world.

        So the requirement to “show me a moral fact” is wrongly placed as it misses the concept that moral properties are, partly, properties of the world. The article has examples of notions like “Fred is a good person” is a putative property of the world (in this case, Fred).

        Generally, there are MANY moral realists. You are right that most philosophers reject the naturalistic fallacy, the notion that “is” does not entail “ought” (though there are some which reject this even).

    2. There are no moral fact, unless you can name one.

      If, as an hypothesis, you wish to minimize suffering for a particular event, there are objective methods to that help constrain that minimization.

      1. I’ve long been hostile to Searle and his cluelessness about AI and the so-called computational theory of mind. However, I think when it comes to social matters he has something interesting to say.

        In this case: moral facts are like facts about money – they are facts about social arrangements. They are objective in the sense they exist independently of any particular human, but not independently of the species. (The plastic and metal bits in my pouch and wallet are just that if all humans disappear, but have socially mediated emergent properties while we exist – or perhaps just while Canada exists, or the like.)

        Do I buy that? Some days. Other days I think Philip Kitcher in _The Ethical Project_ has got it right – there are no ethical facts, hence no ethical truths. So it is a species of antirealism in that sense. But what if ethics is more like technology than like science? Then ethical statements can be efficient, cost-effective, etc. This too is human-centric in something like the right way (does not reduce to “mere taste”) but also doesn’t go whole-hog-somehow-ethical-properties-are-like-electric-charge problematic realism.

        1. Great points! Moral judgement is about particular states of the world and are properties of those states. They exist whether or not anyone has a feeling which denotes the same judgement.

  4. “… consider whether you’d approve of a project that sets out to determine whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money than are other groups”

    Bigotry-driven science.

    … I think that illustrates how science is more about taking small steps forward, the question formulation process – compared to dimly asking random, wild questions.

    1. “whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money – Bigotry-driven science.”

      I agree.

      But what if the study is about intelligence differences between Jews and other groups?

  5. An excellent post!

    Too often people look at biology to support morals. They do not realise that in Nature you find everything and its opposite. And people do not always understand the biology they cite. I once read a journalist using an example of mutualism between species as an argument for cooperation, against competition, in humans.

  6. As far as I am concerned (unless you deny evolution) various genetic differences between population clusters is somewhat a “known unkown” meaning that they have to exist (even psychological differences) but it is a very difficult to quantify and to isolate cultural and environmental factors.
    Take the highly controversial debate on intelligence, there are differences but scientists should be humble and communicate that the subject is too complex to make any definitive statements.

    There is an interesting discussion on the Glen Show between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter on whether IQ differences should be researched – they did not agree, but both had interesting/intelligent arguments.

  7. The way I view it, your legal rights should have nothing to do with your genetic makeup. Your genetic makeup may influence your success in certain areas, but legally a 140 IQ person and a 90 IQ person have the same standing under the law.

    Taken that way, any potential racial differences are not material to the discussion.

      1. But inability to comprehend and behave according to the law based on intelligence influenced by environment should be considered in one’s treatment by the law.

          1. All serious legal system accept determinism for people of very low intelligence or serious mental illness.
            Determinism, however, sounds to its opponents as extending the same to perfectly neurotypical criminals. Of course, it is inconsistent and does not extend the concept to victims, jurors and judges – they are still considered individuals with free will and are told how they “must” feel, think and act.

    1. This is proximate to my views of the matter about race and also about the sexes. Completey hypothetical here, but suppose there really are intrinsic tendencies for a race to be ‘good’ at some sort of occupation, or suppose men really are better computer programmers. Even if that were true, there would still exist a range of variation, and in that range will be individuals of a different race that are very good at that job, and females who are top-notch computer programmers.
      In a just and moral society, the position to take is that race and gender should not matter for consideration of ones’ job. It seems pretty simple, really.

      1. But that’s probably not the core issue. Yes, talent will out, but what about the bell curve of the distribution of talent. You’re left with unequal numbers of female engineers and black VPs. Equity activism pushes for the elimination of differences.

      2. “would still exist a range of variation, and in that range will be individuals of a different race that are very good at that job, and females who are top-notch computer programmers.”

        Did you follow the controvesy at google?

        Google (any many other companies) a being bullied into achieving equality of outcome.
        Many at the extreme left are not satisfied with removing discrimination and creating a friendly environment for women, but insisting that not having a 50/50 gender ratio is prove of discrimination/sexism.

    2. However, in some jurisdictions, although a 140 IQ and a 90 IQ person may have the same standing, it isn’t quite true of someone with (say) a 10 IQ. In such a case, such a person is likely to be found non-criminally responsible for their actions (for example) and put into a *different* legal category (including their freedoms) than the rest of us.

  8. “If you think “yes, because any result would be interesting”, consider whether you’d approve of a project that sets out to determine whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money than are other groups.”

    I think putting it like that is definitely ‘loaded’ and prejudicial and as such I wouldn’t support it.
    HOWEVER, I can well imagine a research project that compared a number of ethnicities and their abilities in optimising their resources (which might have the same effect) and I probably wouldn’t object to that.


  9. Re “consider whether you’d approve of a project that sets out to determine whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money than are other groups”. I comment frequently on “stupid” scientific studies which seem to be testing perfectly obvious things. But I defend those studies because obvious and true are not synonymous, nor do these studies never reveal something remarkable.

    If one believes in Social Darwinism, it is obvious why Jews are associated so much with money acquisitiveness. As a group historically, they were often prevented from owning property, that being made illegal or unacceptable in business. If one is prevented from accumulating wealth in land, the only other option is in money. Since Jews were forbidden this ownership, they developed a tendency to support themselves through trades and crafts and intellectual pursuits, another “hallmark” of Jews (so say … just who?).

    An honest scientific question is “can social pressures create criteria by which gene selections are effected?” In which case, such studies might produce interesting results (and have valid scientific roots). Putting blinders on because of past inequities is not good science. Also, ignoring social histories is also not good science when studying humans.

    1. Yes, for whatever reason, Ashkenazi Jews seems to have a high verbal IQ, whereas as Sephardic Jews verbal IQ is relatively normal (as far as I know)

      1. I have yet to see evidence it was ever an important force in politics, intellectual life, or society. It is trotted out as a bogeyman in history classes so that it can soundly be defeated by progressivism, the one true ideology.

        1. Good point. It occurs to me that many cultures have believed that traits and even moral qualities are inherited. You can inherit, for example, an evil tendency to theft from your ancestors – original sin – and “you’d better not let your kids marry into that family.”
          Without Darwin, the same attitudes of discrimination are present in any society.

  10. This is a fantastic post and excellent reading. I hope to see a great deal more research about genetic differences in the future. I am not fearful of being told I have no opportunities to be smarter than others…that ship already sailed, I know I’m below most.

    What I want people to think about is that in athletics this has been happening for decades. When I children, female or male, and I see long arms, long torsos, short legs, and innate flexibility I see potential world record holders in swimming.

    Why is it parents have been allowed to informally size up the talents of children based on genetic advantages and yet research can’t come out and quantify those differences without a chorus of insecure people saying its discriminatory and will lead to unavoidable bigotry?

    1. That sort of thing is done early on in China (I think). They identify people at a young age for special training towards the Olympics, or at least that is what I believe I have heard.
      In that particular society, prospective elite atheletes are separated from their families and sent to special training schools. That part of this system seems pretty immoral to me, but I do not know how the individuals or their families really think about the matter.

      1. Most Eastern European countries and Russia as well. In the nineties I knew a few Polish, Finish, Sweedish who were ‘pre-selected’. Overall, they were generally happy. I am sort of torn. On the one hand who wouldn’t want to be raised to the level where adults are able to discern a child’s capabilities before the child is aware of them. On the other hand, it can like a prison, without choice.

  11. Jerry — Do you think genetic racial or ethnic differences have any public-policy implications? (The self-described “racial realists” who tout genetic racial differences in IQ seem to have as their primary hobby-horses immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education.)

      1. But this isn’t the central problem. Equal opportunity may actually make matters worse, like meritocracy. Indeed equal opportunity doesn’t really exist since regardless of opening doors and breaking glass ceilings human beings are not equal and so many won’t be able to take advantage of the removal of obstacles.

        Public policy must determine how individuals with lesser skills can achieve a kind of success that provides a decent wage and social standing.

  12. With due respect to Professor Coyne’s good intentions, I must again disagree with his premise.

    >>> After all, since morality is subjective and not objective, facts can never by themselves, dictate what we should do, which in the end comes down to a reasoned matter of preference. <<>> “Racism […] is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals.” <<<

    These two positions honor the Platonic position, most famously advanced by Hume and Popper, "You can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is." This is an error. Thinking that normative philosophy (ethics/morality/politics) cannot be rooted in "is" enables the error of dualism.

    Right on its face: if our ethics/morality cannot rest on immutable objective reality (is), what does it rest on? Irrationality? The supernatural realm? Whim of the majority? Internet memes? Tradition? (prior contemporary "moral ideals and human decency" valued slavery and human sacrifice, so they were TheGood at that point, right? Well, we could get that back! It's all subjective.)

    We had better build morality and politics on "is." It takes guts, because it might seem to lead to a war over facts, or the attempted enshrinement of “only God provides objective morality.” We should be wary over that, but not afraid, because one fact triumphs over all others: our species, homo sapiens, "is" a collection of individual beings. The individual is the unit of social organization. Not any group. By never allowing any whim to invalidate the individual rights of each human, we erect a firewall against a coercive enforcement of "alt" classism, racism, sexism – any and all collective dualist construction.

    1. I’ve still never seen an “objective” moral truth that doesn’t come out of somebody’s view of how they’d like the world to be. Would you care to present us with a list of, say, ten such truths.
      Morality rests on preference, but preference for things like a society that functions well, and has people who have well being. But that’s still a preference and you can’t “objectively” refute somebody who prefers a different society.

      I’m still waiting for the list of objective moral truths. Curiously, nobody’s given me even one. Why, do you suppose, is that?

        1. Well, John, maybe I’m slow today but I just re-read your previous comment and I don’t see anything that qualifies as an objective moral truth. I see plenty of assertions. I see plenty of rhetorical questions. But I see no objective moral truth. (Whether I agree with the assertions or not is irrelevant.)

          1. @ GBJames

            You don’t consider it an objective truth that every instance of homo sapiens is an individual, and one’s moral code therefore “ought” not contradict this truth?

            ::::: aside :::::

            I think there is an issue with the semantics here. “Moral truth.” That is not a legitimate formulation. It’s a self-contradictory demand.

            A demand for “moral truth” is like a Christian demanding “perfect and infallible” morality as handed down by God. They jump on that all the time.

            Well, ethics and morality are normative branches of philosophy, not factual. They are “oughts.” How one ought to think and act, how society ought to be constructed.

            My contention is not that the search should be for some “moral truth,” but that morality and politics — the norms — should be based on fact.

            And the fundamental fact is: each instance of homo sapiens is an individual being. (see my full statement above.)

            1. “… every instance of homo sapiens is an individual …”

              That’s not a “truth”; that’s a tautology.

            2. You don’t consider it an objective truth that every instance of homo sapiens is an individual, and one’s moral code therefore “ought” not contradict this truth?

              Nope, I for one don’t. Any what do you even mean by saying that a moral code “ought not contradict” a fact? Are you expressing your preference?

            3. “Every human is an individual” is not a moral truth. Can a moral code “ought” contradict a tautology?

              Surely you can do better than that. Let’s have an example of a “moral truth” that is objectively verifiable.

              And, remember, it doesn’t matter whether or not I agree with this or that statement about morality. What matters is whether it is objectively verifiable.

              1. John,

                You said you knew of The Foundational Objective Moral Truth. Now you say there are no such things as moral truths and that the term itself is nonsense. Can you see how people might find your argument unconvincing? I think I, and the others above, are understanding what you have written just fine. Of course what you have written may not be exactly what you are trying to convey, but how can anyone else be expected to know that?

              2. @ darrelle

                Yes, I did say “Foundational Objective Moral Truth.” It was an error. I am accustomed to arguing my position in other contexts where a normative is clearly understood to be an “ought”, and I missed a clue here. The phrase “moral truth” as first responded by Professor Coyne to me [“…I’ve still never seen an “objective” moral truth …”] in this sub-thread #18 I now recognize as a challenge to illicit an ethical formulation that is absolutely, axiomatically true. You can see that I do not make that claim in my very first post. I am not faulting Prof Coyne, I’m simply saying that I did not pick up the switch from my [“rest” on” immutable objective reality (is)] to ‘Show me a moral truth.’

                So, I corrected my mistake in an aside, above. This is what I said:

                >>>> I think there is an issue with the semantics here. “Moral truth.” That is not a legitimate formulation. It’s a self-contradictory demand. A demand for “moral truth” is like a Christian demanding “perfect and infallible” morality as handed down by God. They jump on that all the time.

                Well, ethics and morality are normative branches of philosophy, not factual. They are “oughts.” How one ought to think and act, how society ought to be constructed.
                My contention is not that the search should be for some “moral truth,” but that morality and politics — the norms — should be based on fact.

                And the fundamental fact is: each instance of homo sapiens is an individual being. (see my full statement above.) <<<<<

    2. If you want objective morals you need to find objectivity in an electron or a photon. Just one in the whole of the universe. You will have to prove that.

      There’s probably a 5000 carat diamond floating 1000 km below the surface of a liquid hydocarbon sea on Neptune. You have to prove that it cares about not only your well being but anyone who’s ever been and ever will be in order to show objective morality.

    3. Right on its face: if our ethics/morality cannot rest on immutable objective reality (is), what does it rest on?

      Human feelings and preferences.

      1. And at one remove, on the selective forces that have programmed us with those feelings and preferences.

        1. But human feelings and preferences …

          once included human sacrifice, slavery, oppression of women, etc., not shamefully. These were the normal and accepted feelings and preferences.

          You aren’t for that, are you?

          1. Whether I personally am for or against any particular cultural practice is beside the point, which is that our deepest moral intuitions (as distinct from their cultural expression) derive from our biology, not from armchair reasoning about “immutable objective reality”.

            A species with different reproductive biology or social instincts would have different moral intuitions about things like childcare, infanticide, altruism, and so on, and we’d be in no position to say ours are objectively better, or that there’s some one-size-fits-all morality that’s right for every species.

  13. If you think “yes, because any result would be interesting”, consider whether you’d approve of a project that sets out to determine whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money than are other groups.

    This seems like a poorly posed example. There isn’t going to be a gene-for-aquisativeness. And proposing to hunt for such a specific thing would get you laughed out of your grant.

    We’re going to study traits of either broad interest (like intelligence) or some narrow interest (like a disease) using increasingly large genetic data sets. These data sets will contain people of many racial groups & both sexes. We will learn many things.

    I suppose we could try to intentionally cripple this research by blinding it to race & sex, as we sometimes do for insurance companies. This would delay us by some years by adding noise to our data. But we would surely fail at this anyway, you don’t need a PhD to know that a data sets from Sweden and one from China likely contain a different sampling of humanity.

  14. The basis for moral equality and equal opportunity does not rest on genetic endowment

    But it does. We grant equal rights to humans but not to chimps precisely because of our differential genetic endowment.

    Suppose hominin evolution had gone a bit differently and the dominant species that emerged showed profound sexual dimorphism in cognitive ability, with virtually no overlap between the bell curves of male and female ability. It would be dead obvious to those people (well, to half of them anyway) that the idea of equal opportunity for the sexes was a non-starter, as nonsensical as equal opportunity for chimps.

    The fact that this is not true of us, and that we do have such substantial overlap in the distribution of abilities, is the inescapable biological fact on which your “moral and philosophical” presumption of equality rests. Biology is at the heart of your argument whether you like it or not.

    1. Substantial overlap and substantial differences as well. Both are true in humans now even in some measures of cognitive ability. Does that damn women in our society now? Must we accept this as a moral precept?

      1. There may be measurable differences between the sexes, but to my knowledge they’re not of the same magnitude as the range of individual variation. That’s why discrimination on the basis of group membership is not only unjust but counterproductive: because group differences account for very little of an individual’s ability.

  15. I wonder if Trump knows anything about this topic? Sorry for bringing up the name, but it occurs to me that probably most people(and probably all Trump voters) don’t know about any of the research and the philosophical discussions and probably could greatly benefit from knowing. It seems to me much racial/ethnic/gender tensions would be soothed if everyone had a background in the relevant science. I think it should be taught in civics class in high school.

    1. I think before we get there, they need to understand how determinism works and that genetics isn’t the whole story. It would go a long way if people realized that success wasn’t always about working hard or that sometimes you’re just lucky: lucky to have genetics that provide certain cognitive abilities that happen to be useful in your place and time, lucky to be born into a relatively safe society, lucky to be born into a relatively rich society, lucky to have been at the right place at the right time, lucky to have the genetics that favoured planning and reason over impulse, lucky to lie in a time that rewarded planning and reason over impulse, etc. etc.

      1. As a freshman in college my very excellent lit teacher pointed out to the class that researched showed that we students weren’t as smart or talented as we thought we were. She was referencing diversity and bias indirectly. That was the first breath of fresh reality I’d absorbed since starting the first grade. I think a realistic and sympathetic view of humanity could be instilled far earlier that it typically is.

      2. They know perfectly that genetics isn’t the whole story. Actually, they have little interest in genetics; they are aware that it has nothing to do with the problems that occupy them, or with solutions to these problems.

    2. To me, most Trump voters seem concerned with political, economic and cultural phenomena rather than with biological differences. They are against certain groups of immigrants not because of presumed genetic inferiority but because of their Muslim religion. Also, they are not as much concerned with alleged inferior IQ of blacks as they are concerned with black racism, an issue flatly denied by many leftists, and with affirmative action that leaves them behind.

  16. Dr. C
    “For some purposes, categorizing by skin color is useful;” So, would you consider this particular classification scheme one of the “better ones?”

    1. It’s useful when you’re considering the Fitzpatrick Scale, that’s for sure. Being on the low end of it is why I’m going to the dermatologist to make sure my radiation treatment didn’t give me a new cancer.

  17. But this definitional argument confuses biologically based demes with culturally based “races”, does it not? Seems better to separate the two. For one thing, populations differ on various levels, in humans I can argue that “race” may better map to putative and arguable subspecies such as Anatomically Modern Humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans, et cetera.

    Also, in Swedish there is to my knowledge no distinction between breed and race, so “hundras [dog race]”. I prefer not to conflate all these concepts.

    1. Also, I did not have time to read the underlying article, just commenting on the WEIT one as I understood it.

      1. I take your point but this whole rumour about there being no word for “blue” in Greek is not accurate. They had all sorts of words for blue.

        1. Please expand on that. I’ve been suspicious of that “no word for blue” trope as I am of linguistic relativity in general.

        2. I was as suspicious as GBJ. It seemed hardly possible that they didn’t have words for colours, and if they had words for colours it hardly seems possible that, surrounded by sea, they didn’t have a word for the colour of the sea. (OK I know that sounds like an ‘argument from personal incredulity 😉

          They might have had several.

          It’s possible, indeed quite likely, that their colour names and ranges may not have corresponded exactly with ours, but that’s not the same as ‘having no word for it’. (As an example, Cook Islanders seem to call any very dark colour, whether e.g. Prussian Blue or British Racing Green or even dark brown, ‘black’. To them, only a light to mid blue is ‘blue’. But show them a coloured object and they will name it, just they may classify it slightly differently from us).


          1. Interesting. And ‘colour’ is somewhat of an abstraction in that you have to divorce the colour from the object exhibiting it.

            But, that said, it just seems to me so obvious to group things by similar colour, it seems to me surprising that any culture could fail to do it.


          2. Yes, I’m aware of the research and the way they used colour but saying there was no word for blue is inaccurate.

              1. @Diana

                I’m not aware of the context of Homer’s quote.

                However, I have seen the sea every colour from electric blue to steel grey to (at sunset) gold. I’m just looking at my photos of the Calanques near Saint-Raphael (which admittedly is not Greece but it is the Med) on a beautiful fine June day, the sea is very clear and bright blue reflecting the sky, but close inshore where it reflects the red rocks it is indeed a deep reddish brown.

                Or, go to Google Maps, type in Ile des Vieilles, select satellite view, and zoom in… the water just along the shore is a lighter colour (not blue though) but a little deeper it’s all deep brown.


              2. Yes, the sea can be all those dark colours. It’s not surprising a seafaring people like the Ancient Greeks would recognize that.

  18. Since some people in the comments are arguing about objectivity in morality, I’d like to mention a book that I am currently reading that partly addresses this issue. It’s “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch. He not only argues that objective truths exist in moral philosophy, but also in aesthetics (provided that we can all agree on one thing: that we want a society capable of making progress). He also appeared on Haris’ podcast on two occasions and in the second one he talks to Sam specifically about where he agrees or disagrees with “The End of Faith”.

    1. But then we can’t all agree that we want society to make progress. Or at least we can’t seem to agree on what constitutes progress.

      1. Yes, that’s why he says provided that we wish improvements. And I agree that the definition of progress could vary, although I think that having the stable access to resources to sustain oneself and prevent needless suffering seems to invariably constitute progress across time and cultures.

    2. Just one correction, I believe Deutsch debated Harris about “The moral Landscape” not “end of faith”

  19. If the standard is that the presence of a judgment vitiates a claim to objectivity, I would be interested to hear of an objective fact of any kind. All alleged facts rest on subjective judgment. It is never an objective fact for instance that any two measurements are equal, for that always relies on a judgment that the measures are close enough to count as equal, or that the method used is adequate. This means none of physics, biology, chemistry is objective, by the argument given here.

    1. I think here at least it is important to distinguish a claim (electrons have charge thus and so) from the evidence used to verify it. In principle ethics could work like this. (I am not sure it does, even in a realist perspective, which should be distressing.)

  20. One must be extremely naive to believe society could ethically reconcile genetic inequality with moral equality. It’s not like institutional discrimination and genocide had needed strong genetic evidence in the past… People will always think hierarchically and be prejudiced based on group average, ignoring spread and overlap.

    Population genetics and its impact on mental traits is a rather toxic area of research and I see no possible positive applications of it. I also think it’s pointless as gene expression is never independent of environment on such traits and there is a lot more that can be done about environments than with “genes”.

    If some people have time and money to spend on such research, that’s fine. Actually, it is very unlikely that evolution causes an all good to all bad ethnic hierarchy as “scientific” racist “scholars” pretend. So at least, some counter-intuitive results would certainly humble the white supremacist bio-deterministic crowd.

  21. I am Lithuanian and Irish, Lithuanians have an IQ that is about two thirds of a standard deviation below the European mean according to this study; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12434858 (sorry if that violates some kind of rule about posting links). Irish IQ has been rising and it is debatable whether there is still a significant gap between Irish and non-Irish. Surly this kind of statistic about Lithuanians could be used by some to justify banning any immigration from Lithuania to certain countries and even to create invidious and unfair laws, but it could also be used to help improve the IQ of the Lithuanian people. If we find that there is a genetic component to this low Lithuanian IQ (and yes, Lithuanians are a distinct genetic population) then we should be honest about that as well.
    Knowing that people who are related to me are, on average, less intelligent does not say anything significant about me or any individual Lithuanian.

    1. Even if the study about Lithuanian IQ is accurate, it is irrelevant to the immigration question. Natives do not care about IQ of immigrants. They are concerned about immigrants who tend to resist integration, to depend on welfare, to bully the rest of the population and to engate disproportionately in crime and terrorism. None of this is remotely related to Lithuanians.

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