When science takes its ease with racial symbolism

Abstract: Some authors use biology to interpret questions of psychology and sociology. This is the reductionist tradition —our behaviors would emanate from our physical constitution. Cultural symbolism is sought in biology, and if it is not found there, it would be illusory. I deliberately take a polemical example, the concept of race, to show that: 1) The mental criteria initially used made no reference to genes, unknown at the time. 2) Nevertheless, some authors today reduce the concept of race to genetics, then denigrate it by its non-existence in gene arrangements. 3) But genetic symbolism is itself denigrated by its absence in molecular models. 4) Reductionism thus removes all symbolism from reality and renders all our concepts illusory. This blinker-based science makes an auto-da-fé of the mind. Let us treat it by restoring independence between levels of reality.

Race as a concept

The concept of race is a difficult legacy. It still founds many institutionalized violences, after the most emblematic of the last century: Jewish genocide and discrimination against black North Americans. Doesn’t the concept, in this case, itself deserve the death penalty?

A normative effort that tends towards annihilation

It has been swept from our biology but remains in people’s minds, motivating its persistence in the humanities. There is a sociology and philosophy of race. Unlike most subjects, this one is very prescriptive. It is difficult to analyze racial behavior without dictating the good and the bad. Scientific neutrality is vanishing. The emphasis is on explanation rather than peremptory moralism. Nevertheless, the norm remains categorical and discourses about race have the appearance of preaching rather than debate. Is it always information or scientific proselytism?

Moral judgment, even with the best of intentions, creates resistance. The quidam is supposed to use the concept ‘race’ with bad intentions. Paradoxically, researchers, who encourage distrust of generalizations, use the same a priori about their audience. They use biology to propagate a new creed: race is a hollow, outdated concept. They thus submit to a dangerous paradigm: that of the reduction of the mental to the biological.

Use the method we are criticizing?

What does an author actually do when she denigrates the concept of race by declaring it non-existent in genetics? She uses exactly the same reductionism that has entrenched the perverted version of racism in our minds. Indeed, the idea of a predetermination of intelligence and character in genes is the foundation of distorted racism. It is, let us remember, an invention of intellectuals of past centuries, and not a popular instinct. Contemporary scientific discourse continues to promote this idea: One cannot escape one’s genes, no matter how much education efforts are undertaken. Categories of humanities are fixed. To escape perverse racism, then, is to begin by refusing the reductionism of the gene, granting their relative independence to the psychological levels.

But this independence obliges us to admit that the concept of race has a real, and not illusory, value in the psyche. That it undeniably exists, without any genetic support. That it influences our behavior, for good or bad reasons. Here we enter the complex field of the interaction of one concept with others, especially those of ethics and collectivism. Race once again becomes an appropriate subject for psychology and sociology. It escaped from genetics but has a place in the social sciences. Its status has changed: from an “irremovable” criterion because it is genetic, it becomes modular: an individual can change her racial label. This is the North American idea of the character “white under the skin” where mental characteristics no longer correspond to the stereotype conveyed by racial appearance.

Concepts vitiated by egalitarianism

A concept is a composite mental object. More or less consensual in itself. Improving its universality requires us to take a closer look at its components. Agree on them. Eliminate erroneous ones. Give the tendentious a makeover. Without getting rid of the concept itself if it is of daily use. In a city where racial criteria identify 90% of dangerous people, not using them would be a lack of caution.

A concept is truncated by egalitarianism. Always virtual, it is never equivalent to the thing represented. It is not equality. Even a material object such as an “apple” can be a fake apple, only look like it. Only part of the concept is right. This does not denigrate our concepts as fusional, symbolic representations. These are necessary, imperatively, to apprehend the world. It is impossible to reconstruct it at every moment from our perceptions.

The value of the symbol

Egalitarianism is a trap for our concepts. As much for supporters as opponents. We equate the concept with the thing represented, as much to preserve it against all odds, as to denigrate it even though it has an undeniable usefulness. The concept of race is under attack by a normative ethic, which wants to get rid of it. But its critics use egalitarianism in the same way as those who misuse the concept. They equate the concept with its bad components for some, good for others.

A fusional representation has an essential symbolic value to simplify the world and guide our will. The role of consciousness is to refine its symbols by working on their composition, not to eliminate them. Destroying symbols loses control over the complexity of reality. Most problematic symbols are not flawed in themselves. They are insufficiently complex. Integrated by a range of events too limited. We have never lived enough. Most of the time, we mimed. The first obstacle to revising a symbol is to lack the confidence necessary to leave it. Those who urge to do so project their confidence and experience onto others. Misplaced sensitivity. Misconception of the other.

An invasion with flowers

Is it surprising, under these conditions, that the normative effort on symbols encounters so much difficulty? The moralizers generalize, replace the experience of the other by their own, while we must do the opposite. To enter surreptitiously into the world of the other is to truly identify with her, no matter how disgusted our own mind may feel. Collectivism is always a withdrawal from oneself, not an invasion. It doesn’t matter what bunches of flowers you hold out in front of you. The lack of confidence behind radical ideas must be revealed.

Symbolism perverted by a certain science

Let us be clear: my aim is not to support racism but to restore the usefulness of the concept of race, undermined by genetic studies. The biological interpretation is too extensive. Genetic symbols are not intended to replace the psychological, at the risk of a loss of control over the world, and painful misadventures. The concept of race indicates in the first place: other race, other way of thinking, potential difficulty in understanding each other, risk of higher conflict, mistrust. A considerable layering of organizations separates genes from concepts. The virtuality of the latter does not make them less real than the materiality of the former.

Are genes better symbols?

Ironically, the symbolic value of genes is also questioned by contemporary biology. They are much less individualized than we thought. As with other levels of reality, they are complex attractors, easier to model but dependent on epigenetic modulation and their macro-molecular constitution. Entanglement with the above and underlying levels in the complex dimension.

The characteristic of a symbol is thus its relative independence. Both fixed and evolving, stable in a certain context, transformed when the limits are crossed. Metastable. The symbol remains, but its constitution has changed.

A predisposition is not a disposition

It is not the symbol that a researcher must attack but its constitution. When she cuts it up, she can separate the best elements from the mediocre. Improve the reliability of the symbol for our benefit. Applied to race, the method does not make racism disappear, it makes it effective. It does not find an equivalent of the psychic concept in genetics but indicates which associations of genes possibly agree with racial criteria. Science tells us that genes largely preprogram our behaviors. And it shouldn’t be used? The important thing is to understand the limits of this knowledge. A predisposition is not a disposition. We all escape our genes. And it is difficult to make an accurate diagnosis of each individual escape.

Making such a diagnosis requires a lot of expertise. Means reserved for the collective and its representatives, judges, psychiatrists, legislators. For these people, race is an irrelevant criterion, or should not be. Because they have the means to break it down into its constituents. To look at every disposition of the individual, not to be satisfied with the crude synthesis called ‘race’.

The individual needs his ostracisms

For the quidam it is the opposite. Even endowed with a very fine perception, she cannot know the background of each person of encounter. She has neither the time nor the means. The criterion of race can save the day. We all use different ostracisms to keep control of our environment. We select our correspondents, our relationships deemed reliable, on criteria not always better than the race: diplomas, clothing presentation, “frank” look or not, etc.

Every symbolism can be improved, it is the work of a lifetime. But the scientist’s job is not to replace one symbolism with another, meaningless in this place. It is not by replacing personality types with neural patterns that we will better understand human beings. It is not by denouncing concepts by their lack of genetic counterpart that we will eliminate the misuse of racism.


3 thoughts on “When science takes its ease with racial symbolism”

  1. If a + c =d, then a+b does not. If this, then that. And so on. I get it. But science is also aware of how differences in humans influence attitudes and, ultimately, behaviors. Science has run afoul of older human-held belief,custom and tradition. Being empirically based has advantages for science and helpings of pragmatism add stability to the mixture. It is also useful to take Gould’s noma stance and not meddle too deeply into matters that are the province of other disciplines. The categorization, social sciences, is a misnomer, in my opinion. Those, as a practical matter, are more closely related to philosophy and religious studies. Science may not say this. But it knows how to choose its’ battles. Mostly.

  2. Brief distinction:
    Science ‘taking it easy on/with’ racial symbolism is different to science ‘taking its’ ease with racial symbolism’. Las idiomas no son idiomas. They are contradictory. Surely (ding!), the propagators of context get this? ‘Taking it ‘easy on’ is different to ‘taking ease with’. Different context. Maybe, different paradigm ? Or, contretemps, people blow smoke and toss word salad? I Like your topical thinking, mon ami. Sur de temps—or is that sur du temps?
    So hard to write with a unilingual device. It does not speak/read/write Lithuanian either. Peut etre, comme ci, comme ca.


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