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Non-overlapping magisteria for the social and biological?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 15, 2012 1:26 AM

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Most of you know that Stephen Jay Gould proposed 'non-overlapping magisteria' for science and religion. I don't care much for the framing myself, though neither am I on the same page as Sam Harris and company. But I thought of this model when reading this comment below:

Kind of a tangent, but I think it gets slippery considering which construction is more “real.” We tend to come at it as the “reality” being genetic ancestry upon which a socially constructed (“not real”) conception of race is sloppily mapped. However, I get the social science perspective that the socially constructed race is the category that is often much more “real” — it is the lived experience of everyone in that group. If you are visibly black (or white) and part of that community, then you “really” are black (or white) in many, many ways that matters, whether you’re 90% African or 0%. In the context of the topics we mainly discuss here — population genetics, medical genetics, etc — genetic ancestry is “real” and social race categories matter less. This is why I’m mostly in favor of letting social science have the word “race” and would really push for biologists to use better-defined terms (like ancestry). It’s a mistake to say that human artifice is “less real” than genetics, it’s context dependent. I recognize that the social construction of race is a sort of unrefereed crowd-sourced attempt at deriving ancestry, but as we start to divide causal factors into social / biological aspects of race, this mapping is more of a hindrance than a help. A first step is to stop using shared language to discuss them.

This all sounds reasonable, and some of the points are of course factually correct (e.g., racial identity as it is lived is a real thing, irrespective of one's genetic heritage). And to some extent I implicitly accept the idea that social and natural scientists should use differing language; I often use terms like 'population' when I could just as well use race. As I said, for me the key is not the language, but the set of propositions you do, or don't, accept. But consider this:

will social scientists stop citing 'Lewontin's Fallacy' in the near future?

I doubt it. Biological science has prestige and privilege, and social scientists will naturally attempt to integrate biological arguments when it serves their interests. Additionally, those social scientists who reject scholarship which focuses on the intersection of the biological and social sciences, such as evolutionary psychology or behavior genetics, have to use biological language as best they can. This is due to the fact that in the hierarchy of disciplines biology is more fundamental than the social sciences. By analogy, a biologist who rejected the utility of models and methods from chemistry really needs to address chemistry on its own terms. If they don't do this, usually the skepticism of chemical reductionism reverts to vague assertions of complexity and emergence in biological systems. Some cultural anthropologists address this point frankly by rejecting the categorization of their discipline as science.

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