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The 2014 Annual Question at Edge.Org, surely a site you should check in with periodically, is “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?”  176 people respond.  That gives you two days each to read through everyone before the year is up –well less, because you’re starting late.  One that caught my eye is Nina Jablonski’s succinct answer: Race.  She points out that despite recent debunking of the idea of “race” as showing differing categories of human biology, it persists — not only in popular culture, but to some degree in the disciplines of medicine and biology.

Despite major shifts in scientific thinking, the sibling concepts of human races and a color-based hierarchy of races remained firmly established in mainstream culture through the mid-twentieth century. The resulting racial stereotypes were potent and persistent, especially in the United States and South Africa, where subjugation and exploitation of dark-skinned labor had been the cornerstone of economic growth.

After its “scientific” demise, race remained as a name and concept, but gradually came to stand for something quite different. Today many people identify with the concept of being a member of one or another racial group, regardless of what science may say about the nature of race. The shared experiences of race create powerful social bonds. For many people, including many scholars, races cease to be biological categories and have become social groupings. The concept of race became a more confusing mélange as social categories of class and ethnicity. So race isn’t “just” a social construction, it is the real product of shared experience, and people choose to identify themselves by race.

The short essay is well worth reading, not the least for the news (to me) that Kant and Hume had much to do with the adoption of the idea. She is not unclear about what is needed.

Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but is necessary.