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Marat

Is Race a Biologically Real Concept?

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As a first line of defense against racism, most people say that race has no biological validity and that all apparent racial differences are just skin deep. But this defense mistakenly assumes that our very important moral value -- that all human beings must be treated with equal respect -- can only be sustained if it also happens to turn out to be the case that all human beings are in fact equal in every respect, and especially equal by race, which can at most be a contingent fact which later evidence could always prove false. Since our moral commitment to treating all people as equal is absolute, while any scientific evidence that races are equal in all capacities and aspects can at most be contingent, this should be clear evidence that our moral opposition to racism in no way commits us to any view about all races being biologically identical. Pygmies as a group may be no good at basketball, but they will always be entitled to equal legal and moral respect, since facts and values are distinct.

 

But to return to the scientific question, there is a lot of evidence that race is a valid biological concept, because it refers to physically significant and measurable differences between groups of people. In transplant medicine, human leukocyte antigen matching is important, and it is well-known that these physical features differ by race. Native Americans are much more likely to have type B blood than other groups. Blacks on dialysis survive much longer than Whites do. (M. Tannor, et al, "Patient Survival," American Journal of Kidney Disease, vol. 36 (6) 1175 (2000)) Ashkenazi Jews have a much higher than normal incidence of Tay-Sachs disease. Blacks have a much higher incidence of sickle cell anemia. Blacks have greater autonomic reactivity than Whites, which can affect a wide variety of behavioral characteristics. (G. T. Wilson, et al, 'Abnormal Psychology' Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995, p. 337) Examples could be multipled, but the point should be clear that our moral value that all should be treated as equals cannot depend on any contingent facts about whether it is possible for people to differ biologically by race.

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This is obviously a sensitive subject. However examination of DNA can be used to point to race. It just so happens that we have had a serial rapist convicted of his crimes in the UK. According to a TV program it was known that the criminal was of caribean origin long before he was arrested from examination of his DNA.

I think the healthy attitude is to say clearly that different races do have different attributes, but that we are all human beings who should be treated with the same respect.

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well, before the modern era where global travel has become common place, the amount of interbreeding among geographically seperate groups was low. so different mutations have cropped up between historical groups of people. So it would be possible to tell whether a sample of blood came from a native american or an asian.

 

There are differences, but they are so insignificant its the same as having DNA for a different hair colour.

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I think the social categories of race - white, black, etc. - tend to confuse the issue more. Yes, there are genetic markers that vary widely in prevalence between populations. However, where one draws a line between "races" is very much a social artifact. For example, there is more genetic diversity in sub-Saharan Africa than the rest of the world combined. Yet we all lump all the (dark-skinned) people who live there together as "black," along with the descendents of African slaves living in America, most of whom are also descended from northern Europeans. And so on. So: is race biologically real, or is it a social construct? Both. Kind of. People who need things to be in simple categories will be frustrated.

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Race obviously has a lot of biological differences, a few of them quite relevant to people's abilities and many not. It's not all just to genetics though; different races have different cultures and different diets and different histories and different average social class. Even if it was proven that some of these differences were genetic, what would it matter? I think all persons should be treated equal and genetics does not play a role in how I define a person. I'm not saying that all people are equal, just that belonging to a race that can run faster on average doesn't mean you can get away with murder, or whatever other example you might think of where laws would apply differently.

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As much as I don't feel like having this discussion again, I'll go ahead and put in two-cents. Could it be that the problem with race as a concept is that it presumes some sort of natural social-cohesion among individuals on the basis of similar physical appearance or other cultural identification? I mean, if you would just look at people's medical-biological nuances separately from their skin-color or other racializing cues, would it really be necessary to conceptualize such indications as being culturally meaningful? E.g. let's say you would find out that balding correlates statistically with diabetes. Then you might want to make it a special point to teach balding people about precautions they can take. But then to go a step further and create an ideology that bald people are a separate and distinct sub-species of humans and identify them as a group separate from hair-loss-less people is taking it too far, don't you think?

 

edit: then the real underlying problem doesn't have so much to do with race specifically as with the human culture of collectivizing individuals into factions and demonizing Others for the sake of creating solidarity among people who see their personal attributes as worthy of inclusion in an elite/exclusive club. If there was a more absolute and therefore effective way to accomplish this social function, I don't think racial classification would have developed into the elaborate ideology that it did.

Edited by lemur

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Human biodivesity can be interesting to study pre-recorded history, evolution and genetic diseases.

 

For all interested, I highly recommend following Razib Khan's blog: Gene Expression: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/

 

I think the social categories of race - white, black, etc. - tend to confuse the issue more. Yes, there are genetic markers that vary widely in prevalence between populations. However, where one draws a line between "races" is very much a social artifact. For example, there is more genetic diversity in sub-Saharan Africa than the rest of the world combined. Yet we all lump all the (dark-skinned) people who live there together as "black," along with the descendents of African slaves living in America, most of whom are also descended from northern Europeans. And so on. So: is race biologically real, or is it a social construct? Both. Kind of. People who need things to be in simple categories will be frustrated.

 

Isn't this a good argument for studying human biodiversity/genetics? So when ignorant racists try to make argue, we have real and complete science to point out the flaws?

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Although race is seldom if ever purely instantiated as a biological distinction in any one person, many useful concepts in science also do not have perfect, paradigmatic examplars even though they remain useful distinctions.

 

The real problem with the link between race and biological differences is when these differences concern features we culturally associate with essential human value, such as IQ or self-control. No one is especially bothered about admitting that pygmies as a group are short or that watusis as a group are tall, because shortness and tallness are only mildly linked to our notions of human value. But as soon as people like Professor Herrnstein start presenting data that certain racial features correlate with lower IQ or those like Professor Rushton start showing statistics that racial identity correlates with varying degrees of social self-control and self-discipline. something also supported by the physiological data showing that some races have higher autonomic reactivity, then the tension between science and cultural value requires us to doubt that IQ measures anything real or that self-control can be objectively measured. In Quinean terms, the pressure of inconvenient data is transferred elsewhere in the web of belief to require deformations in other commitments, so if racial equality is a central moral value, we have to doubt that IQ-measurement can be culturally neutral.

 

But I don't think we are just acting here in the role of the Church in telling Galileo his astronomical observations were wrong because they conflicted with the physics which was closely linked to contemporary moral values. Rather, it is important to assume the position of Kant and affirm that what is scientifically true says nothing about what is morally true, so even if murder were factually proved to be evolutionarily natural for humans and generally profitable, it would still be ethically wrong. In the same way, our moral duty to treat everyone with equal concern and respect simply runs along a different track from our scientific awareness that different groups may be proved some day to have various negative features. If I am a basketball coach and someone tells me there is a pygmie waiting outside who wants to try out for the team, my duty is to extend to him every chance to prove his abilities without prejudice.

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The real problem with the link between race and biological differences is when these differences concern features we culturally associate with essential human value, such as IQ or self-control. No one is especially bothered about admitting that pygmies as a group are short or that watusis as a group are tall, because shortness and tallness are only mildly linked to our notions of human value. But as soon as people like Professor Herrnstein start presenting data that certain racial features correlate with lower IQ or those like Professor Rushton start showing statistics that racial identity correlates with varying degrees of social self-control and self-discipline. something also supported by the physiological data showing that some races have higher autonomic reactivity, then the tension between science and cultural value requires us to doubt that IQ measures anything real or that self-control can be objectively measured. In Quinean terms, the pressure of inconvenient data is transferred elsewhere in the web of belief to require deformations in other commitments, so if racial equality is a central moral value, we have to doubt that IQ-measurement can be culturally neutral.

I think the real problem with racial or other kinds of groupism is the precarious positions it puts people in vis-a-vis their ascribed group-status and presence "within cultural difference." So, for example, recently someone said something about me not sounding prudish and that not being plausible because I live in America, which according to him is "a prudish country." So now, instead of just dealing with whether or not I was being prudish or whether prudishness is culturally promoted, there comes a whole complex series of identity-distinctions where people take sides and claim belonging/normalcy vis-a-vis various group statuses/relations. It becomes a complex game of positions/structuring that makes it very difficult to simply express yourself as an individual. This is why you frequently hear feminists boil when someone compliments them and then qualified it, "for a woman." It's probably not so much that that person is defending her solidarity with other women as much as it is just annoying complex to interpret all the implications of such a qualifying condition. Does it mean that you're good for a woman but that you're not that good by male standards, and they're trying not to insult you by patronizing you? Does it mean that this person is sexist and they see you as "just a woman" regardless of what value you might have as an individual? For these kinds of reasons, I think it would be preferable to just drop thinking in terms of humans as groupings generally and just look at individual characteristics and treat individual group-identification as a cognitive behavior and nothing more.

 

But I don't think we are just acting here in the role of the Church in telling Galileo his astronomical observations were wrong because they conflicted with the physics which was closely linked to contemporary moral values. Rather, it is important to assume the position of Kant and affirm that what is scientifically true says nothing about what is morally true, so even if murder were factually proved to be evolutionarily natural for humans and generally profitable, it would still be ethically wrong. In the same way, our moral duty to treat everyone with equal concern and respect simply runs along a different track from our scientific awareness that different groups may be proved some day to have various negative features. If I am a basketball coach and someone tells me there is a pygmie waiting outside who wants to try out for the team, my duty is to extend to him every chance to prove his abilities without prejudice.

That's a very good point. I think this is exactly what the cultural critics of raciology have tried so hard to expose is that the scientific approaches taken to race were not value-free at all. They were strongly rooted in political and economic interests of people who wanted to promote themselves by promoting their racial identity over others. So, morally, you could say scientists had/have a duty to separate their personal feelings of the linkage between race, culture, collectivism, innate superiority/inferiority, etc. but what do you do when they fail to control for those biases and then perform rigorous scientific research that, while applying valid scientific methods in many cases, still ends up propagating the personal assumptions, beliefs, worldview, etc. of the people designing and doing the research?

 

 

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Considering that we are having a lot of troubles of validating biomarkers for about anything, trying to associate weak linkages of certain sub-populations with something as complex as e.g. intelligence is a rather ungrateful endeavor.

 

Also, the basketball coach would determine suitability according to actual size, not due to genetic markers. Even if genetic markers are known, the size prediction is going to be less accurate than, say,actually measuring the size.

 

In cases of pygmies there is definitely a strong genetic component and clearly identifying these could be a good predictor of size. Nonetheless, it also depends on how homogenous the population is, which usually correlates somewhat with degree of isolation. Note that genetic disposition does not necessarily equal the phenotype. Also note that phenotypes are not easily linked to a certain genetic make-up. At best there are strong correlations (but rarely with a mechanistic linkage).

Edited by CharonY

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Considering that we are having a lot of troubles of validating biomarkers for about anything, trying to associate weak linkages of certain sub-populations with something as complex as e.g. intelligence is a rather ungrateful endeavor.

 

Also, the basketball coach would determine suitability according to actual size, not due to genetic markers. Even if genetic markers are known, the size prediction is going to be less accurate than, say,actually measuring the size.

 

In cases of pygmies there is definitely a strong genetic component and clearly identifying these could be a good predictor of size. Nonetheless, it also depends on how homogenous the population is, which usually correlates somewhat with degree of isolation. Note that genetic disposition does not necessarily equal the phenotype. Also note that phenotypes are not easily linked to a certain genetic make-up. At best there are strong correlations (but rarely with a mechanistic linkage).

Maybe the main interest in validating grouping-logics is the feeling of cultural superiority that comes with being able to explain individuals in terms of their group-identities. It doesn't sound as superior to say that someone's height helps them play basketball as it does to attribute it to the person's group-identity. It's like a way of giving yourself the status of being able to understand and explain all people by knowing the group-composition of all human-kind. I.e. it gives people a sense of oversight and superiority as overseers of others. Possible?

Edited by lemur

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I find it useful to remember that when talking about race and complicated traits that it is almost always the case that within group differences are much greater than between group differences regardless of the amount that the differences might be partitioned into genetic or cultural components. With this in mind it is inappropriate to use race as a blanket definition for what any one individual might be like. SM

Edited by SMF

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I find it useful to remember that when talking about race and complicated traits that it is almost always the case that within group differences are much greater than between group differences regardless of the amount that the differences might be partitioned into genetic or cultural components. With this in mind it is inappropriate to use race as a blanket definition for what any one individual might be like. SM

That's a central argument against group-based generalizing, but I find that in practice people don't relinquish such generalizing because of that fact. They just keep reforming their group-generalities, hoping to some that finally work. Thus, I find it helps a lot to compare racial-identity to other non-racialized forms of classification based on body characteristics or culture. Baldness or maybe whether the earlobes are attached or unattached are a good example, because it would be possible to do all sorts of correlation studies with those features, since they are probably mostly genetically determined. Still, no one would think of making it a habit to racialize individuals in terms of whether they are bald and/or have attached earlobes.

 

Where culture is concerned, you can find lots of examples of cultural differences and commonalities that don't obey group-classification. Europeans and Asians both eat rice, for example. Some Germans have a culture of exercise (or exercise-avoidance) while some French have the same; so it makes just as much sense to say that some people with culture of exercise also hold racial, national, and other group-identities as do people with a culture of anti-exercise. In other words, ethnic/racial/national identity need not be given primacy just because it so often is in everyday life due to political-economic concerns. It would be especially scientifically valuable to neutralize the assumption of primacy/dominance in social science research, because otherwise such research tends to function to reproduce, and thus propagate, extra-scientific culture.

 

 

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Lemur. Good ideas, however my opinion (with no scientific evidence) is that racial and other stereotypes are part of our evolutionary heritage from when we lived in small isolated groups. It probably had survival value then and now the only antidote is good education for all. Fat chance. SM

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Lemur. Good ideas, however my opinion (with no scientific evidence) is that racial and other stereotypes are part of our evolutionary heritage from when we lived in small isolated groups. It probably had survival value then and now the only antidote is good education for all. Fat chance. SM

I believe you're right, in the same sense that probably most superstitions or snake-oil remedies had some value. In fact, I think stereotyping and collective egoism/animosity promotes solidarity and peace among people that helps to reduce inter-individual conflict that probably often was a lot more destructive in the past. I think Simmel was the first to notice this effect of demonizing a common enemy to bring people together, though it seems like everyone discovers it anew in their time with the epiphany that maybe collectivism, ethnic warfare, and stereotype-based prejudice and hatred are actually good. Of course it can have good effects, the way a forest fire can cause certain seeds to germinate or the way a natural disaster can bring people together - but does that mean the destructive effects of the fire or other disaster are good?

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An important point to keep in mind when we assess people according to their group membership and our stereotypical assumptions about the predominant characteristics of that group is that all rationality operates on the basis of stereotypes and group membership identification. Language itself is all about looking at a whole range of in fact very different pines, oaks, maples, and palm trees and deciding to force them all into the same group known as 'trees,' with its characteristically stereotypic assumptions about what all trees are like. If we tried to get ahold of the infinite variety of the empirical world in a perfectly individual and thus entirely represenative, unsimplified fashion, with no assumptions about class and type to orient our thinking, we would just be lost in a morass of detail we could never master.

 

So when you see someone of another race or gender and automatically make assumptions, that is just characteristic of the way thinking normally proceeds. But this is not just a flaw to be removed systematically from our thinking, since it IS what thinking amounts to.

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An important point to keep in mind when we assess people according to their group membership and our stereotypical assumptions about the predominant characteristics of that group is that all rationality operates on the basis of stereotypes and group membership identification. Language itself is all about looking at a whole range of in fact very different pines, oaks, maples, and palm trees and deciding to force them all into the same group known as 'trees,' with its characteristically stereotypic assumptions about what all trees are like. If we tried to get ahold of the infinite variety of the empirical world in a perfectly individual and thus entirely represenative, unsimplified fashion, with no assumptions about class and type to orient our thinking, we would just be lost in a morass of detail we could never master.

 

So when you see someone of another race or gender and automatically make assumptions, that is just characteristic of the way thinking normally proceeds. But this is not just a flaw to be removed systematically from our thinking, since it IS what thinking amounts to.

I don't know how universal it may be or not, but there is another way of thinking that involves treating individuals as unique expressions of various general characteristics. So, for example, you might look at a pine for its unique expression of "treeness" or view individuals of various species in terms of any number of categories they engender. For example, a dog may express "carnivoreness" when it hunts, "petness" when it plays with humans, "mammalness" when it nurses puppies, etc. Thus, each individual can be viewed as having similar traits as various others depending on what trait is chosen and how that trait is framed. In fact, I believe that any specimen can be attributed to multiple, non-hierarchical classifications.

 

What is really interesting, imo, is when you relativize mutual exclusionary classification since it has been so propagated and normalized to be nearly completely taken for granted. There's a song in one of the Veggie Tales movies that goes, "if it hasn't got a tail it's not a monkey, it's an ape," which is followed by lines like, "well, a kite's got a tail, is that a monkey?" Anyway, the point is that for some reason it is immensely satisfying for the human mind to realize all-encompassing classificatory schemes that contain all possible elements with no categorical overlaps; i.e. mutual exclusion, but that doesn't mean it's the only possible way to think or that it's necessarily the best or most useful way to think for any purpose.

 

 

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Marat. I am working through this. I think I agree that we "assess people according to their group membership and our stereotypical assumptions about the predominant characteristics of that group" and this "is just characteristic of the way thinking normally proceeds" for us, but only because of our evolutionary past in a very different environment. I don't agree that this "is just characteristic of the way thinking normally proceeds," except within our previous evolutionary history. I think that in terms of our current information world it is possible to act much more rationally, outside of our confining evolutionary past, such that evaluations of others is based solely on the evidence available. A sort of scientific approach to social and societal interactions. SM

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Marat. I am working through this. I think I agree that we "assess people according to their group membership and our stereotypical assumptions about the predominant characteristics of that group" and this "is just characteristic of the way thinking normally proceeds" for us, but only because of our evolutionary past in a very different environment. I don't agree that this "is just characteristic of the way thinking normally proceeds," except within our previous evolutionary history. I think that in terms of our current information world it is possible to act much more rationally, outside of our confining evolutionary past, such that evaluations of others is based solely on the evidence available. A sort of scientific approach to social and societal interactions. SM

But what happens when you encounter an individual or situations where you don't have sufficient information about any group-status or stereotype content? In that case, you would regard them according to known stereotypes of a classification that you could identify them with, right? So if you didn't have any "other group" identities and stereotypes, you would only have self-knowledge to go by, wouldn't you? So, for example, you would just try to speak with them in whatever language(s) you can speak and you would assume they feel similarly and do things similarly to the way you would. Only once you develop other-knowledge can you attribute difference to categorical otherness, right?

Edited by lemur

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I think that human conceptualization of the world essentially relies on making and using stereotypes, since otherwise we would be lost in the morass of detail which is what the world actually consists of. If all we could perceive was that everything is different, we would find ourselves incapable of knowing anything, beyond a chaotic array of disordered sensations striking us in a cascading fugue of impressions having no wider implications. The notions of 'law,' 'regularity,' 'generality,' 'type,' and 'language' itself would find no application.

 

To get right down to the bedrock, what is a word other than a stereotypic generalization? If I want to use the word 'book' to refer to things, I can see an array of items on my desk, some of which are hardback, others paperback, some large, some small, some red, others grey, some in one language, others in another, some about medicine, and others about ethics. So where do I get the idea that I can call all these very different things by exactly the same collective name? It is because the human mind is disposed to organize the infinite regress of empirical data before it by projecting overly ambitious stereotypic classifications onto it, all of which are at least a bit inaccurate, since types are never given in pure form in nature, but only individuals, which are always different and thus allow no classification of them into types.

 

It is tempting to say that we can build up the types which allow us to come to grips with the infinite regress of detail in nature empirically, in a step by step fashion, using induction over the data available, but this will not work. If I want to generalize the concept of 'red,' for example, how do I get it? If I see a red sensation on a round fruit (an apple) and another red sensation in a fluid leaking out of a wounded person (blood), there is no way, without infinite regress, that I can get to the rule that the solid, round, apple red is the 'same' thing that the flowing, fluid, liquid blood red is, because that already implies the existence of a stereotype-generating concept or rule which allows us to say that the differences in the shape associated with each color sensation don't matter for identifying both color sensations as belonging to the same class of thing. We have to start with our stereotype-making disposition or we simply cannot start at all.

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I think that human conceptualization of the world essentially relies on making and using stereotypes, since otherwise we would be lost in the morass of detail which is what the world actually consists of. If all we could perceive was that everything is different, we would find ourselves incapable of knowing anything, beyond a chaotic array of disordered sensations striking us in a cascading fugue of impressions having no wider implications. The notions of 'law,' 'regularity,' 'generality,' 'type,' and 'language' itself would find no application.

 

To get right down to the bedrock, what is a word other than a stereotypic generalization? If I want to use the word 'book' to refer to things, I can see an array of items on my desk, some of which are hardback, others paperback, some large, some small, some red, others grey, some in one language, others in another, some about medicine, and others about ethics. So where do I get the idea that I can call all these very different things by exactly the same collective name? It is because the human mind is disposed to organize the infinite regress of empirical data before it by projecting overly ambitious stereotypic classifications onto it, all of which are at least a bit inaccurate, since types are never given in pure form in nature, but only individuals, which are always different and thus allow no classification of them into types.

But you could just as easily compare a book about ethics with lectures on youtube about ethics as you could compare it with books about frogs.

 

It is tempting to say that we can build up the types which allow us to come to grips with the infinite regress of detail in nature empirically, in a step by step fashion, using induction over the data available, but this will not work. If I want to generalize the concept of 'red,' for example, how do I get it? If I see a red sensation on a round fruit (an apple) and another red sensation in a fluid leaking out of a wounded person (blood), there is no way, without infinite regress, that I can get to the rule that the solid, round, apple red is the 'same' thing that the flowing, fluid, liquid blood red is, because that already implies the existence of a stereotype-generating concept or rule which allows us to say that the differences in the shape associated with each color sensation don't matter for identifying both color sensations as belonging to the same class of thing. We have to start with our stereotype-making disposition or we simply cannot start at all.

And yet it's probably the case that you have a general symbolic interpretation of the color red built up from numerous associations that include apples, blood, stop signs, lips, red sports cars, tomatoes, chili peppers, etc. Cognition is complex.

 

 

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These are some of the questions explored in neurobiology, cognition, and linguistics, in the work of such people as Ned Block and Noam Chomsky. Does the brain have a natural depth grammar for constructing types or are types primarily generated by culturally-directed, preferred strategies for induction?

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These are some of the questions explored in neurobiology, cognition, and linguistics, in the work of such people as Ned Block and Noam Chomsky. Does the brain have a natural depth grammar for constructing types or are types primarily generated by culturally-directed, preferred strategies for induction?

Ok, but I have to wonder when people claim that one type of cognitive linguistic category application is more biologically innate than another, how do all the supposedly "less inate" applications of categories occur? When someone categorizes a kindle being more like a book than an iphone, is this some perversion of natural biological cognition or just one possibility among others for how natural categorical cognition can go?

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Of course race is "real". Everyone can see that a black man is different from a white man.

 

Different in skin colour, skull shape, lip shape, kind of head hair, and behaviour.

 

However, these differences - however blindingly obvious - must not be admitted.

 

Because if they were admitted, they might lead to not very nice conclusions.

 

Conclusions that must at all costs be avoided.

 

Isn't that why most of the posts on this thread, read like gibberish?

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Black skinned people and pale skinned peoples are distant cousins on the biological tree, it would be true to assert that homosapian gene's give the entire race intelligence & that all other differences are cultural rather than biological, essentially all humans are hardwired with the ability to learn and converse intellectually.

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