International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M220
Individual papers
Brains, Race and Genes: Implementing Biolgogical Concepts

The biological reality of race does not underwrite the social reality of race: A response to Spencer

Kamuran Osmanoglu (University of Kansas, United States)

In this paper, we criticize Quayshawn Spencer’s (2014) ‘radical’ solution to the race problem in his A Radical Solution to the Race Problem. Spencer defends the biological reality of ‘race’. He argues that ‘race’, as used in the current US racial discourse, picks out a biologically real entity. He lays out his argument in two steps: first, he argues that race, in the US racial discourse, is a proper name for a set of human population groups, second, by relying on recent data from human population genetics, he contends that the set of human population groups matches the Blumenbachian partition, i.e. the US meaning of ‘race’ is the set of populations at the K = 5 level of human population structure. Therefore, Spencer argues that ‘race’, in its US meaning, picks out a biologically real entity. We raise two criticisms against Spencer’s account. First, we argue that limiting the racial discourse to the current US Census is not the right way to talk about ‘race’. We find limiting the racial discourse to the US Census problematic. Why do we need to care only about what the US racial discourse tells us about human population groups? We think that Spencer, by limiting the racial discourse to the US race, does not do justice to the culturally diverse social reality of racial discourse. We argue that ‘race’ is a fluid concept and it takes different shapes in different cultural and historical contexts. Second, we argue that there are other biologically interesting ways to classify human populations into different groups (such as classifying human populations according to their hemoglobin production, lactose resistance, or classifying human beings into different groups by examining if they have Denisovan gene or not etc.) as opposed to K=5 clustering that Spencer defends. Therefore, Spencer needs to answer the following two questions if he wants to argue for the biological reality of race in the US racial discourse: First, how is it even possible to biologically support an inherently social category like ‘race’? Second, what makes the Blumenbachian partition better than hemoglobin production (or any other biologically interesting classification) for social clustering of human populations? Unless this is done, his account cannot be considered successful.

The brain-as-instrument: A new approach to probability in biological systems

Christina Stiso (Indiana University, United States)

Graves, Horan, and Rosenberg (1999) proposed that the processes of evolutionary biology can only be understood as deterministic and epistemic, i.e., that the chance seen in fitness and natural selection is a result of our own uncertainty rather than real indeterminism in the world. But, this subjective notion of probability in a deterministic universe raises deep philosophical concerns. If probability is epistemic, a property of the observer, then it seems illicit to use it in models of objects in the world. I would like to propose a new way of thinking about epistemic probability that alleviates these worries. This involves looking at the brain not as an outside observer looking out at the world, but as an instrument within a system of instruments. In doing so, this new interpretation shows that Rosenberg et al’s conclusion, that epistemic probability necessitates an instrumentalist view of evolutionary theory is misguided.

The evolutionary gene and the “extended evolutionary synthesis”

Qiaoying Lu (Sun Yat-sen University, China); Pierrick Bourrat (University of Sydney, Australia)

The increasing profile of epigenetic inheritance raises the question of whether it has major implications for evolutionary theory. In this paper, we argue that the many disagreements on this matter are partly caused by the fact that people from different sub-fields have different notions of the gene, the phenotype and the environment. Based on Haig’s conception of the strategic gene, we define a notion of evolutionary gene stripped-down that includes only what is needed for genes to play their role in formal evolutionary models. This concept of the evolutionary gene incorporates not only nucleic acids but also other heritable materials such as epialleles. Once coherent notions of gene, environment and phenotype are distinguished and it is recognized that they are not equivalent to what molecular biologists usually understand, we show that the main contentious claims originating from epigenetic studies disappear, and that current evolutionary theory can easily accommodate them.