What Is Race?

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Some have argued recently that there's no such thing as race. Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House and Color Conscious are probably the two most notable discussions. Scientists often take this view without realizing all the philosophical leaps in reasoning they've made to get to the view (see, for example, this article, registration required). Others think it's merely a social category (most philosophers who write on the topic, usually on the same basis as the scientists above but with more sensitivity to issues about human language and social catgegorizations. There are also two possible positions according to which it's a genuine biological category, one of which I think is easily refuted by the data. The other seems to me to be a legitimate view that hasn't been discussed by philosophers or scientists to my knowledge (though I think economist Thomas Sowell may have suggested such a view -- I'm not quite sure yet). Below are the arguments for developing and sorting out these various views.

Before you read this it might be helpful to look at my first two posts in this (sort of) series. First is a set of cases to test your intuitions on racial classification, with the followup giving the data from my students' answers to those same questions.

Appiah presents three pieces of information worth considering just to get the scientific data. (The above-linked science discussion also has some helpful stuff about species variation when compared with variation between sub-species in other animals. The conclusion is that racial groupings in humans have much less variation than sub-species in other animals, genetically speaking. This, however, is a poor argument for the conclusion that there are no groups such as races. All it should show is that there aren't nearly as many or as significant variations between human races than sub-species in other animals. It doesn't follow that groups such as races don't exist.)

Appiah (In My Father's House, pp.35-36) presents one important fact. There's a measure called J -- homozygosity. It measures the likelihood of a randomly selected gene being held in common by any two randomly selected people of a given population. It's .852 for the human population as a whole and .857 for the population of Caucasions. So the chances of differing on any randomly chosen allele on a randomly chosen gene between two randomly chosen Caucasians is 14.3%, while it's only 14.8% for any two randomly selected human beings, not a great difference.

In Color Conscious, Appiah gives further data. On p.69, in a footnote, he says that .2 percent of human genetic material will differ with any two randomly selected people (and yes, I know this differs from the above, so perhaps it's been revised with further research, or maybe it's measuring something different -- I know little enough genetics to say). Of that .2 percent difference, 85% of it will be variations within local populations, 9% variations within ethnic groups that aren't assigned different racial status (e.g. Italians vs. French), and only 6% due to differences between racial groups (e.g. Europeans vs. Asians). So that's 6% of .2%, which is .012% of all human variation. These facts make it difficult to think of race as purely genetically defined, since racial differences seem like such a small component of human diversity. Yet again it doesn't necessarily follow that there are no races, as we'll see.

Another fact on the next page (of the second book) complicates this for the racial distinctions between African Americans and white Americans. 40% of African Americans have Native American ancestry. 5% of white Americans have African ancestry. 20-30% of the genes of African Americans come from European and Native American ancestors. So even if we could identify groups based on ancestry, it would be difficult to assign a number of people full status in those groups if that's all it's based on. The mixed race case is a special case, and some say such people have no race but others do, but it turns out to be a special case that includes most black people in the U.S., a very large special case.

Now a few issues will be relevant to how you're going to respond to the data. This doesn't flat-out show that race is non-existent, because that depends on what race might be. There are at least four views I can identify, one of which I haven't found anyone holding.

1. Race is purely biological, and you can read it off our DNA. This would be the racial essence view. There's some element of racial groups that gets passed on genetically, and that thing is present in all descendants of people of their race. The racist version based on narratives of racial purity has black essences trumping white essences so that black ancestry makes someone black and therefore not white, even if white ancestry is present. A non-racist version might allow someone to be both black and white. I think both versions are clearly refuted by the above data, though I'm not here going to trace out carefully how that goes. This is the view many people on a popular level seem to have, though, but I've never seen a philosopher trying to argue for it recently. Immanuel Kant is a good example of someone who seemed to say this sort of thing, though without talking about DNA. In fact, many philosophers give him the dubious honor of first expressing this sort of view and thus list him as the author of the modern concept of race.

2. Race is based on biological characterists that are almost arbitrarily singled out over other characteristics that could just have easily been singled out. Social practices and historical factors do the work in singling these out. So it's a biological category, but it's picked out in a way that other categories that are equally significant genetically aren't picked out (e.g. the category that includes just those who have the gene for blue eyes, the gene for tongue curling, the gene for six-fingeredness, and the genes necessary for having a height of over 6 feet, most of which are not always actualized with the traits in question). We could have arbitrarily picked any such criteria and grouped people according to those categories rather than bone structure, hair type, and skin color. But since we didn't, the reality of the groups we have picked out does remain and is based in real biological characteristics. To differ from #3 below, this view would have to argue that these biological characteristics are the main ways of distinguishing between races and not some of the other factors in Mills's 10 cases (from Blackness Visible, ch.3; see the links to my earlier posts above for the cases). I'm not quite sure how to sort through those issues yet, but I've never seen a philosopher arguing for this view, and it seems to me to be worth having on the table at least.

3. Race is purely a social grouping on the order of liberals, basketball teams, philosophy departments, first-year college students, and fomer presidents of the United States. It's based not so much on people's views about the nature of race as on the social practices of assigning racial categorizations. This view would have to distinguish itself from the second view by looking at cases like those of Charles Mills and showing that those traits named in view 2 aren't the only or even the main issues involved in racial classification. This is Naomi Zack's view as far as I can tell (as judged by Thinking About Race), though she thinks with borderline and mixed cases the person has no race (see her Race and Mixed Race for those arguments). I haven't seen her Philosophy of Science and Race yet, but that has more detailed discussion against a biological view. Most philosophers who write about this subject take this view or one similar enough to it (e.g. Charles Mills and Linda Alcoff more straightforwardly place themselves in this group, though Mills has a more complicated taxonomy than mine). The main idea seems to be that our terms get their meaning from how we use them, not what we believe about them (which would lead to view 1 for most people). If we do indeed use them in ways that classify people into genuine groups, even if there are borderline cases, then it seems to me that this view is at least on the table.

4. Race is purely fictional. There's nothing that corresponds to our notion of race. Our notion of race is #1 above, and nothing fits that, so the terms must not refer to anything. This is Appiah's view. To argue for this view, you'd need to look at Mills's cases and show that our notion of race doesn't allow us to hold either 2 or 3.

The main obstacle to this view has to do with the nature of language and how our terms refer to things in the world. We have many terms whose concepts associated with them don't match up to reality. This is particularly true with science. When people thought of water as an element, does that mean their terms for water didn't refer to water? When people thought of heat as a substance, does that mean their terms for heat didn't refer to average kinetic energy? Most philosophers think there's an external aspect of how our words get their meaning, having to do with what the best candidate is really out there to refer to based on our usage of the term. The terms 'evening star' and 'morning star' refer to the same thing, the planet Venus, since that's the thing that people point at when they use those terms. At one point people who looked at the sky didn't know they were the same thing. Do their concepts make it that they're not the same thing? Most philosophers say no.

If you then apply this to race, then you have to say we should find the best candidate that does exist that our terms refer to. To take view 1, there needs to be such a thing as a racial essence, so that doesn't seem an option. View 2 is possible, since we can classify people according to biological traits, even if we think they're arbitrarily selected. Still, those groups do exist, even if there are borderline cases (which there are of most groups, and it doesn't stop there being such a group; it just leads us to wonder whether certain people or things are genuine parts of that group). The question is whether that group is the most likely referent of our terms for racial classification, and that might require looking at how we actually use the term. It seems as if the social groups that allow more factors to be considered than just biology would seem to be a possible candidate also. You have to sort out which more closely fits our usage. To argue for view 4, you'll need to show that both groups are very poor candidates for reference of these terms or that somehow the history or concepts involved with view 1 infect the terms still in such a way that this argument will get resisted. That's what Appiah tries to do.

One other argument in Appiah is, I think, misguided. He says all sorts of morally illegitimate attitudes are attached to our racial terms. Therefore, we should stop using them. (This is a different point from saying that no group corresponds to those concepts.) The problem with this is that we can't address racial injustices that still go on, against any group, if we can't admit that the group exists. We have to refer to the injustice by naming it and describing it. Patricia Williams frequently makes this point, mostly when talking about normative whiteness and how the very idea of stopping talk of race is used to hide unconscious racist practices, including racial narratives, that will no longer be mentionable or observable to those who remove race terms but will still go on without the terms. In some ways that seems even worse. She envisions a time, possibly, when that will happen, but we're not there. Also, it doesn't allow us to affirm people for who they are if the groupings do exist, and that's as crucial for solving racial problems as it is to point out faults. [My own take on such issues is that there might well be something evil built into some notions while still it being necessary to use those notions looking forward to a time when those notions are no longer necessary. That may well be what's going on here.]

Also, if the group exists then we're not speaking falsely when using these terms, and that's the primary issue I'm looking to answer here. Even if it's morally illegitimate to use the terms, the groups might still have reality, and if so then the terms still refer to those groups. Therefore the moral argument doesn't give us any way to say there's no such thing as race, just to say that we hope there will one day no longer be social practices that allow us to use such terms. The other arguments would need to do the job to show that there aren't such groups.

In future posts, possibly, I'll look at the various suggestions I've made here to sort out more specific questions. This is the general state of the topic as I've been able to observe in current discussion, and as I develop my own work on the issue perhaps I'll have more to say.

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I myself hold a variation of #4. As you point out "The main obstacle to this view has to do with the nature of language and how our terms refer to things in the world. We have many terms whose concepts associated with them don't match up to reality. This is particularly true with science."

Luckily, your objection fits with my view. My view is essentially that language has its inadaquacies. Because of these, language does not always line up with reality. As you point out, this happens in science all the time. (e.g. particles? waves? quantum theorists would say that neither describes reality adequately. Yet the terms are still used and are useful.)

So our language is often inaccurate. That is not to say that the inaccurate words are meaningless or purley fictional (as view 4 would have you believe). It simply means that the words don't always line up perfectly with reality. The meaning that we associate with these words still adheres to the words though there will always be border cases where the meanings no longer fit due to the inaccuracy of those words (e.g. partlcles and waves on the quantum scale).

So it is with race. We mean something by the term "race", but that meaning does not entirely line up with biology or anything else for that matter. That does not nullify the meaning of the word. As a result of the inaccuracy of the word, there will always be exceptions to any definition we use for the word (e.g. multi-racial backgrounds, statistical genetic anomolies which could in theory have parents of the same race produce a child of a different race, etc.).

This is no different than many words in our language. It hardly means that our language is meaningless. It just means that our language is not perfect.

(For what it's worth, I suspect that "life" and "person" are similarly inaccurate words, which makes the abortion issue incredibly complex as we get down to the scale where those words become very fuzzy--the embryo scale.)

Thank you for this. I find it all strangely fascinating, even though I don't know enough about the whole thing to even have an opinion.

I think the language issue is what's at stake here. Consider 'flat'. There are three options.

1. It means what we ordinarily think of, when surfaces have no bumps. There's just hardly anything that's flat, and we say false things all the time. That's ok, though, because we know what people intended to say. It's just ridiculous to try to say such things so our sentences come out literally true.

2. It means whatever the best candidate for the reference of our terms turns out to be. So when we say things are flat, the things we call flat should tell us what the term means. After all, usage determines meaning. So tables with small bumps really are flat. It's ok to say it's flat as long as it's roughly flat. That's what 'it's flat' literally means, based on actual usage.

In the first case, pragmatics will explain why it's ok to say false things. In the second, semantics has built-in charitable functions (charitable to reality, not to our concept of race or water or flatness).

Most philosophers nowadays tend more toward the second kind of option, as far as I can tell. The examples I gave of 'heat' and 'water' are definitely like that. If you want a view like 4, you need something like the first view here. I'm just not inclined to that kind of view, so I don't have an easy way to get to a view like 4.

"There are three options."

What's the third option?

I guess I'm inclined towards the first view. Though rather than say "it's ok to say false things", I'd rather say that is is acceptable to have a certain amount of inaccuracy in our language. Or alternately to say that language has certain inadequacies.

The second view sounds good and is tempting. However, I think it has serious problems when applied to "borderline cases". Take your "flat" example. The borderlines arise when you go to different scales. Under a microscope, a table doesn't look flat at all. At the subatomic level, where everything is described as wave functions, flatness isn't even applicable. Options 2 seems to have a hard time accounting for these "scaling" issues, especially when we get to the subatomic level where flatness isn't applicalbe. Option 1, however, lets us say that we meant "reasonably non-bumpy", but the word is inaccurate on the microscopic level and inadequate on the subatomic level.

Note that option 1 buys you the same charitablity to reality that option 2 does. That is because while usage does indeed determine meaning, intent does as well (as intent is part of the usage). And intended meaning is often inaccurate. Thus usage determining meaning could be used to defend both option 1 and 2.

Flatness is a pretty standard example of Contextualism. It's not that "flat" literally means "reasonably non-bumpy" (for some absolute standard of "reasonably"), nor that it literally means "perfectly non-bumpy". Rather, it has no absolute meaning, but instead will vary according to context.

In ordinary contexts, it is literally true that "the table is flat". If you're talking to a man who does microscopic analyses of bumpiness, then the very same sentence may then be literally false. This is because the word "flat" means different things, depending on the context. Other common examples are "tall/short", "hot/cold", etc. Any sort of 'relative' measure.

So, to bring this back to the race issue, I guess (persuaded by Jeremy's reasoning) I'd have to reject #4 (despite it's appeal), and perhaps go for something akin to #3 instead.

Here's a possible variation:

#5) There is some set 'S' of those characteristics which are associated with any given race (these may be biological, social, whatever). None (or few) of these characteristics are by themselves necessary or sufficient, but the better an individual's characteristics "cohere" with those in S, the more inclined we are to say he belongs to said race.

I think Wittgenstein said something similar with regard to the concept "Game". If you compare solitaire, to professional sports, to chess, etc (he gave better examples, which I can't remember), there is no unifying element which brings all games together. Instead, there is a confederation of loosely-bound concepts, which any given example may conform to, to a greater or lesser degree.

Perhaps the concept of race is similar?

Though rather than say "it's ok to say false things", I'd rather say that is is acceptable to have a certain amount of inaccuracy in our language. Or alternately to say that language has certain inadequacies.

I think that amounts to the same thing, if 'it is acceptable' is something about the pragmatics of language, such as its being ok to say that it's 5:00 when it's really 5:02. We don't care. I'd still say that the sentence is false. What you meant by it might be true, i.e. that it's close enough to 5:00 to say it's 5:00. That doesn't make the sentence true.

I think what Richard said was supposed to address your borderline case worry. In English, 'flat' is a context-sensitive term anyway. When we're talking on the level of just needed someone to sit down, a sloping hill isn't good enough, but a bumpy grassland is, and we might call it flat. When we're looking for something to use as a writing surface or we're doing home design and using a carpenter's level, our standards go up, and fewer things count as flat. When we're talking about microscopic structures of surfaces, nothing is flat except abstract planes. I'm pretty sure I see these context shifts as built into the semantics. What the term 'flat' means in these sentences depends on the context, and therefore whether the sentence is true also does.

Your equality of charitability point is right. Some philosophers see themselves as being charitable by working these things into pragmatics. I think it's more charitable to work it into semantics, because it reads people's sentences as true as much as possible. If you take the other option, hardly anything we say is true. It's just ok to say false things all the time. I'm much more attracted to the semantics approach for that reason.

This idea that racial terms are contextually sensitive is intriguing. I'll have to think about how that would work. Could it be that in some contexts there's no such thing as race, while maybe in others it's a socially determined biological category, and in others perhaps it's a purely social group? What contexts would these be?

Variant #5 is really just one instance of 3, I think. I didn't specify how the social practices that determine racial categories would do so. You've given one example of how one aspect could get fleshed out. I think if you take a social view, this sort of thing is the right way to go. That's what the 10 cases from Charles Mills were supposed to show, as he intended it.

Here's a curve for you. To what extent is race today biologically determined by the social strictures (or preferences) of yesterday? If you are raised on a reservation or a ghetto the racial identity assigned to your parents, which may have been arbitary, are passed to you.

Therefore culture maps to biology and back again. Are Jews a race?

Yes, that's all part of what I meant by social factors. So on view 3, those do determine racial groupings. On view 2, those would only be able to determine which biological criteria are used for classifying people according to race.

If these are relevant to what race is, that would somewhat favor view 3 over view 2. Now that I'm faced with this contextualist view, though, that might just be a context shift, moving us to a concept of race that's more 3-ish, when we may have been using a concept of race that's more 2-ish beforehand.

It's difficult for me to see race as case three because it simply seems to ahistorical, postmodernist and all that. To beat a weary drum, there are power relationships inherent in racial classifications which aren't so easily shifted around. It may very well be that our perception is more slippery, but that is a consequence of a changing power dynamic in the American Middle Class. I can't imagine that race would be 3 in Brazil, where they are a lot more specific in their qualifications than we are, and handle the mixtures more handily than we.

Cobb, I'm not sure you understand what I'm saying view 3 holds. What you're saying seems to me to support rather than undermine 3. I'll repeat what I said in the post: "It's based not so much on people's views about the nature of race as on the social practices of assigning racial categorizations."

The power relationships are part of those social practices. Racial classifications are different in different societies where the social relationships are different. It's still social practices that handle the mixing cases better there (if that's the right way to think of it -- I'm taking your word on this), and it's social practices that control the inverse one-drop rule in Haiti. Racial groupings are different in these different locations because the practices are different. That's what you'd expect according to view 3.

Again, the problem you raised in your first comment assumes that today's social practices ignore yesterday's, which isn't true. Today's social practices rely on yesterday's, even if many people aren't conscious of that fact. Therefore, if race is determined by social factors, then it's determined by those as much as by anything else. That's why I think it's view 3 that you really believe.

I'm wondering if you're misunderstanding what we've been talking about as context shifts. It's not as if I can take on a new belief, and then some absolute fact about racial classifications all of a sudden changes. The facts about racial terms are more complicated, and different contexts of using racial terms will require different senses of the terms. In some contexts, the terms might not refer to anything. In other contexts (e.g. genetics discussions), they refer to biological features that are socially determined. Perhaps in most contexts they refer to social categories. Then this is all just in the U.S. at the current time. Other times and places have different linguistic practices that may be similar or may be very different.

Well I tend to think of race via ethnicity. I can trace my father's side of the family to slave plantations in North Carolina but no further back than that. So to the extent that a name was passed down, genetics are passed down and I am as black as my Great Great Grandfather via the one drop rule established then. However arbitrarily initiated or interpreted the one drop rule may have been, it is based in some biological reality. And although your examples are well made, I find it difficult to believe most people are so ignorant about their lineage for race to be disproportionately type 3.

So I'm saying that the genetic path exists independently of how we assign value to it via our social interpretations. I am also saying however that 'genetic race' is not as mutually exclusive as 'social race' but there is a real and conscious correlation of the two as evidenced (at least) by the idea of eugenics.

By saying the Brazilians are more handy in their qualifications, I only meant to say that they might capitulate less at your questions because they have some notions of 'quadroons' and 'octaroons'.

I am also saying that such things as 'passing for white' are passed down by parents to children but not taught in school. The value of that cultural artifact would suggest that light-skinned african americans marry those who would pass the 'paper bag test' or the 'ruler test', which again reinscribes a real biological component into questions of race. Such ideas and practices persist and are self-replicating. Whatever genetic race is, how certain are we that sexual preferences are not highly influenced by something more concrete than social values? I'm suggesting that a boy is attracted to a woman who looks like his mother for more than social reasons and that replicates something aside from what society's assigns meaning.

Finally, I wonder if you might be familiar with Adrian Piper.

I've heard of Adrian Piper. I've never read anything by her, but her name came up in a race class I took. She's supposed to be a good philosopher, according to my professor Linda Alcoff, who I believe knows her well.

I'm not sure why you think 3 has to do with ignorance of race. It's 1 that requires ignorance of biology. There's no such genetic reality as anything corresponding to the 19th century idea of a racial essence, and that's what view 1 requires.

Views 2 and 3 both allow that biological elements are allowed in determining what race is. View 2 says social and historical realities fix which ones we pay attention to (skin color, hair type, and bone structure rather than big toe size, whether earlobes are attached, or how hairy one's arms are) but that it's primarily biological characteristics that count and none of the social practices like how others will treat you or how you will self-identify. View 3, on the other hand, sees race as a social classification, some of whose characteristics are biological ones and some of whose characteristics are social. Given that, I'm not sure what your problem with view 3 is. You're making it sound like view 3 involves saying biological properties are irrelevant, but that's not it at all. It's just not saying race is a biological category, as the first two views say.

Is the concept of race a post-Columbian invention or has it been around forever?

If you mean post-Christopher Columbus, then yes. Kant was a good deal after Columbus, and most race scholars think the modern concept of race traces back to Kant. From what I've read on the subject, I think they're right.

A lot info

I am currently reading Multiculturalism and Political Theory and I wanted to quickly comment on something I came across. In the social sciences these days it is common to see the claim that there is no such thing as race and that it is purely a social construct. For example, Charles Mills points out in “Multiculturalism as/and/or Anti-racism” that “”race” is itself now taken to be non-existent.”(1) The argument for this position points out that there are no morphological or genetic traits that all purported members of a race possess. For example, it is still common to hear people discussing race as skin color. When discussing a recent affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court, justice Anthony Kennedy stated “the question is whether or not you can get into the school that you really prefer. And in some cases that depends solely on skin color [emphasis mine].” The argument of those who deny the existence of race rightly point out that for any purported defining racial characteristic--skin color for example--it is possible to produce counterexamples of people who allegedly belong to a race yet lack that characteristic. The same goes for an account that defines race as the possession of some genetic trait, a “race gene”. For example, Ian F. Haney Lopez writes:
"There are no genetic characteristics possessed by all Blacks but not by non- Blacks; similarly, there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all Whites but not to non-Whites. One's race is not determined by a single gene or gene cluster, as is, for example, sickle cell anemia. Nor are races marked by important differences in gene frequencies, the rates of appearance of certain gene types. The data compiled by various scientists demonstrates, contrary to popular opinion, that intra-group differences exceed inter-group differences. That is, greater genetic variation exists within the populations typically labeled Black and White than between these populations. This finding refutes the supposition that racial divisions reflect fundamental genetic differences." (http://academic.udayton.edu/Race/01race/race.htm).

Since there are no essential common morphological or genetic characteristics that are shared by all purported members of a race it is concluded that either race doesn't exist or that it is merely a social contruct.

Unnoticed in the social sciences, there has been a similar debate in the philosophy of biology over the fact that there are no morphological or genetic traits that all hearts, or kidneys, or any other biological items possess. But of course it would be absurd to conclude that therefore no hearts of lungs or kidneys exist. The answer is that biological items are categorized by their history, not by the possession of a trait. For example, not all hearts have four chambers or even pump blood. Certainly diseased ones or dead ones don't. What makes something a heart is that its function is to pump blood, whether or not it currently can or does, and something gets a function by having a certain evolutionary history, i.e., being selected by natural selection for the features that pump blood, and then being copied from your parents' hearts through ones genes.(2) Likewise, race is the possession of a history; race records the history of the migrations of people around the world from the original migration out of Africa. In your race you wear the history of your ancestors on your sleeve, as it were. Philosopher Ruth Millikan, for example, divides the world into 3 types of things:
“Substances fall into at least three basic sorts, which I call ‘historical kinds,’ ‘eternal kinds,’ and ‘individuals.’ (Millikan, Language: A Biological Model, p. 109.)

Eternal kinds are things like atomic elements, chemical compounds, particles, planets, stars and the like. They possess some common nature and are similar because of it, not because they are copies of some common ancestor. Historical kinds are groups of individuals that have been copied from each other or a common ancestor for a functional reason. Biological categories such as organs are examples of this catogory, but so are behaviors, language, arts, food, and race. Basically, any living thing and its behaviors fall under this category. Manufactured objects, for example, are generally copies of some prototype and the objects are copied along this design because this allows them to perform some function. Animal behavior falls into this category as well: each time I turn on lamp by flipping the switch is a copy of that behavior and the reason I keep copying that behavior is because it serves the function of fulfilling my desire to illuminate the room.
It is clear from this discussion that race is an “historical kind.” It is not uncommon for historical kinds to lack some feature generally found among that kind. Broken televisions that can't display a picture, diseased hearts that can't pump blood, incorrect performances of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, are no less cases of what they are copies of simply by the lack of some stereotypical feature. And so the argument from counterexamples does not apply here as it would if it were claimed that race was an eternal kind. The fact that race is an historical kind makes it no less or objective a phenomena.
This is of course not to claim that how we categorize people into races, and what categories we accept as valid is not a political and cultural act as it surely is.
(1) In Multiculturalism and Political Theory, p. 93.
(2) See Millikan, Ruth, “Propensities, Exaptations, and the Brain,” in White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice.

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