A Philosopher of Science Explores The Question: What is Race?

QuayshawnSpencer-001Dr. Quayshawn Spencer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy at University of San Francisco. After receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University, Dr. Spencer served as an MLK Visiting Professor at M.I.T. in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy. Dr. Spencer also completed a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Department of Philosophy at Stanford University.

His research interests lie in philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of race. He has especially been fascinated in the intersection of these fields. He is currently exploring whether race has any biological basis, and is focusing on three questions:

  • Question 1: “What is race?” – A traditional question in philosophy of race
  • Question 2: “What is biological reality?” – A general philosophy of science question
  • Question 3: “Is race biologically real?” – A question that properly belongs to philosophy of biology since it requires careful attention to contemporary biological research.

His recent paper, titled Introduction to “Is there space for race in evolutionary biology?” was published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Background of the paper

This is part of a larger book project. I’m currently writing a monograph, tentatively titled Three Views on Race, that communicates my full theory of race. In other words, it answers questions 1-3 above. The paper referenced here communicates results from the part of the book that addresses question 1. Now, what led me to ask question 1 in the first place? This question is part of why I became a philosopher!

In college, I took a scintillating advanced undergraduate course in philosophy of science called “Knowledge and Objectivity” with a well-known philosopher of science, Richard Boyd. In that class, we read Herrnstein and Murray’s infamous book The Bell Curve. We read and discussed the standard critiques of the book, which were entirely methodological. However, at the end of the lesson, Boyd posed the following metaphysical question to the class, “Why think that race is a natural kind?”

Philosophers of science use the jargon “natural kind” to talk about kinds made by nature (e.g. planets, species, molecules, etc.) as opposed to imposed onto the world by humans (e.g. the euro, automobiles, buildings, etc.). The dominant view in philosophy of science is that only natural kinds are proper kinds to study in the natural sciences. So, if race isn’t a natural kind, but is rather just a kind that humans made up, it’s not a proper kind to study in biology; which would render Herrnstein and Murray’s genetic explanation of racial differences in IQ scores a metaphysically confused hypothesis. However, if race is biologically real, then Herrnstein and Murray’s explanation is not metaphysically confused, but still subject to methodological objections. At any rate, this course, and Boyd’s question, led me to take questions 1-3 seriously, and seriously enough to change my intended career from biochemist to philosopher of science.

What is Race?

The conclusion of this paper is that “What is race?” is a confused question and has no single answer. However, if the question is contextualized to a specific linguistic community (that is, a community of people who use the term ‘race’ in the same way), then the question is no longer confused, and has a single answer. Here’s what I found.

From looking at the “race debate” literature in academia, I was able to unravel three distinct and popular race debates among academics. One I call “the philosophical race debate” since most of its participants are self-identified philosophers of race, such as Anthony Appiah, Joshua Glasgow, Linda Alcoff, and Sally Haslanger. In that debate, the participants are interested in figuring out the nature and reality of race as race is understood among contemporary ordinary Americans. In other words, the philosophical race debate is about how ordinary people in the U.S. today use ‘race’.

Next, I was able to find a distinct race debate among biomedical researchers, such as epidemiologists, human geneticists, and medical anthropologists. I call that race debate “the biomedical race debate”. The participants in this debate are interested in determining whether U.S. racial groups (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau since 2000) can be useful in biomedical research and clinical practice. Some major figures in this debate are Neil Risch, Esteban Burchard, Hua Tang, and Duana Fullwiley.

Finally, I identified a third, and much older, debate that has primarily occurred among evolutionary biologists, biological anthropologists, and philosophers of biology. I call this debate “the biological race debate”. In this debate, the interlocutors are interested in knowing whether race, as understood by biologists, is biologically real. For instance, much of this debate has focused on determining whether there is any way to divide humans into biological subspecies. This debate seems to have started with Immanuel Kant and his student Gottfried Herder in the late 18th century, and has included many famous figures, such as Charles Darwin, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Ernst Mayr. Today, major participants in this debate are people like Richard Lewontin, Alan Templeton, Robin Andreasen, and Lisa Gannett.


One major practice implication is that race scholars need to be crystal clear about which linguistic community’s use of ‘race’ they’re investigating. Otherwise, race scholars will talk past one another instead of engage in a legitimate argument. Unfortunately, this already happens far too often. For example, Robin Andreasen and Joshua Glasgow had a lengthy exchange about race from 2003 to 2009 that totaled at least six academic publications. However, they were not really arguing, they were talking past one another. Glasgow was arguing for a particular view about race in the philosophical race debate while Andreasen was arguing for a particular view about race in the biological race debate.

One major policy implication is that funding agencies (e.g. NSF, NIH, etc.) are likely funding projects on race that are too confused to yield useful results. For example, suppose that medical researcher A conducts a study to show that Blacks (in the U.S. Census Bureau sense) are more likely to develop disease D. Then, another researcher B conducts a follow up study to check whether A is correct, but does not stratify subjects by U.S. Census Bureau race. Then, it’s unclear whether B’s results are relevant for cross-checking A’s results. However, if grant seekers were required to be crystal clear about which race debate their research engages in, we would have much less “talking past one another” in future research.

Next steps

This finding will be included in the book I am writing. The next step I will take is following up on a hypothesis I have about how these race debates interrelate. I have a hypothesis that the race being investigated in the philosophical race debate is identical to the race being investigated in the biomedical race debate, but is not identical to the race being investigated in the biological race debate. If I can show this, then I can show that the work that philosophers of race have been doing is relevant to the biomedical race debate and vice versa, but that the work being done in the biological race debate is largely orthogonal to the other two race debates.

Thoughts from the field

Although I consider myself to be a specialist in three different fields, I consider my main field to be philosophy of science. If I were talking to a young person looking for advice on how to become a philosopher of science, what I’d say is, first, make sure you’re passionate about science. Nobody becomes a philosopher of science just because they want to criticize science. People become philosophers of science because they love science and want to ask hard philosophical questions about science in order to learn more about science.

Second, make sure you’re well educated in at least one particular science. Often philosophers of science earn a B.S. or M.S. in a specific science so that they can be up-to-date on the most current state of the science that they want to specialize in. Not having done in-depth study of a science before philosophizing on that science is a recipe for doing bad philosophy of science.

Third, I would strongly recommend studying the history of a science before doing philosophy on that science. Also, I would recommend that every student of philosophy of science study the history of how modern science arose: from Ptolemy to Newton. History of science adds so much insight to philosophy of science; it’s amazing.

About the department

There are eleven full-time faculty members in my department, and we are a heterogeneous bunch. While our department is housed in a Jesuit university, we subscribe to no dominant philosophical tradition. We have Continental philosophers, Analytic philosophers, Catholic philosophers, and Pragmatist philosophers. We also have a wide variety of topics that we research. Seven of us do ethics. Four of us do philosophy of race. Three of us do history of philosophy. Two of us do philosophy of science. Despite all of this heterogeneity, we all get along very well.

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