When people talk about race, it can be confusing. The term can refer to discrete human groups, non-discrete human groups, or socially constructed racial categories. It can also be used as a catch-all term to describe the cultural significance of race.
Race is a concept that has faced a number of philosophical challenges over the years. Some important thinkers have attempted to dismantle the foundations of racial identity and others have maintained them.
In the early twentieth century, a new scientific concept of race emerged. This concept was born of the concern for taxonomy. Biological concepts of race hierarchy gained prominence in the writings of Chamberlain and Grant. However, the historical concept of race has also encountered significant scientific challenge.
The term “race” was not defined in its present form until 1775, when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published his dissertation, announcing four human “varieties”: the “Caucasian,” the “Eastern,” the “Siberian,” and the “African.” During this period, Africans were considered a second race, while people living in Siberia and eastern Asia were classified as the third.
The idea of the cladistic race is a genetically clustered group of breeding populations that have certain physical characteristics. There is a statistical correlation between the number of genes in a race and the phenotypes associated with the group. Moreover, there are differences in the genes between individual members of the same race, which does not result in the occurrence of general racial traits.
The idea of the populationist race is an attempt to capture the non-malefic reality of race. Unlike cladistic races, whose physical characteristics are genetically fixed, a populationist race is based on a combination of biological, ecological, and sociocultural factors.
Another approach, called the deflationary realism, is a genetic conception of race that argues that individuals differ in color based on their geographical ancestry. Similarly, political constructivism holds that a distinction between races is a matter of differential power relations. These philosophies have shaped debates in the field of race, with some scholars arguing that racial identity is a social construct.
A third approach, known as racial skepticism, holds that the underlying essences of different races are imaginary. Moreover, some claim that the concept of race is not logically coherent.
Despite these various scholarly approaches, the concept of race is a complex one. Some argue that it is a social construct, while others claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Still, many believe that it is inconceivable to understand racial difference without a racialized social hierarchies.
Many important philosophers have defended and criticized the idea of the racial category. Ashley Montagu, for example, argued that a person is not a member of a race until they have a definite genetic characteristic.
As more researchers became aware of the complexity of the biological processes that determine racial differences, a number of debates arose. For example, whether genetic evolution occurs through a process of polygenesis, as some philosophers had argued, or through a process of natural selection.