Science: April 2004 Archives

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.

Nanotechnology in goats

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Scientists are experimenting with nanotechnology in goats. Don't get alarmed, though. They're been doing this sort of thing for far longer than we've had the term 'nanotechnology'. Here's more. The people at Language Log are calling it organic nanotechnology.

From McConchie on Bioethics: It's healthier to pick your nose and eat it than it is to refrain. At least, that's what an Austrian professor of pulmonary medicine says. Your finger is a more effective tool than a handkerchief, so you get more out. That much is common sense. What's surprising is his claim that eating it will build your immune system. I guess it's not that surprising if you know anything about the immune system, but it's surprising that an M.D.-Ph.D. is saying it. What's interesting to me is that he says eating the dry remains builds your immune system. What about the fluid stuff? Does it not build your immune system because of the form it takes, or does even he not want to suggest that because it's too gross? We already know that sucking it down your throat builds your immune system, so what would be unhealthy about eating it? I think the guy's just too much of a wimp to say it.

Back of the Envelope says the scientific community in Galileo's time did have reason to resist his claims but also that he was well-received within the Roman Catholic Church. This is the first I've heard of this. Does anyone who knows more about it have anything to say about it, either in support or in defense?

It's been clear to me for a long time that many people have used Galileo's case to assert that the Bible itself said what the Roman Catholic Church at the time was claiming it said, and I think that's demonstrably false. People have also tried to make the claim that Galileo was on the side of science against religion, which ignores his deeply-seated Christian convictions. So it doesn't surprise me that even more of the common claims about Galileo turn out to be false. It's just that these two are new to me.

I found a passage in Lucretius that anticipates Galileo's famous thought experiment about falling objects of different weight falling at the same speed:

And if by chance someone thinks that heavier atoms, in virtue of their more rapid motion straight through the void, could fall from above on the lighter atoms, and that in this way the blows which generate the productive motions could be produced, he has strayed very far from the true account. For everything which falls through water or light air must fall at a speed proportional to their weights, simply because the bulk of the water and the fine nature of the air can hardly delay each other equally, but yield more quickly to the heavier bodies being overwhelmed by them. But by contrast, at no time and in no place can the empty void resist any thing, but it must, as its nature demands, go on yielding to it. Therefore, everything must move at equal speed through the inactive void, though they are not given by equal weights. (On the Nature of Things 225, in Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, ed., Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, p.64.

He's wrong on a number of details here, but it's amazing how close to the truth he is, even on some things Galileo didn't even get right. Lucretius lived in the first half of the first century before Christ. Galileo lived in the 17th century after Christ. There was something like 1650 years between them. Philosophers who say they don't need to bother reading the philosophers of history and just focus on contemporary stuff are opening themselves to missing something that's already been said on their topic, as Galileo did. Of course, ignoring philosophy in other traditions has the same problem, and I don't know much about African or Asian philosophy, but I don't really know where to begin. I've been looking for a good textbook looking at those traditions from an analytic perspective, but I don't know if anything like that exists.

Update: I posted this over at OrangePhilosophy, and it's started to get comments there.

The time has arrived once again when I have too many things to blog about and not enough time to do it, so before some of this stuff gets too old I'll at least link them and say something about them.

Discoshaman comments on the scientists on the verge of creating life in a laboratory to the effect that someone's going to start denying that it's happened on the grounds that only God can create life. Read the first comment, the one about the dirt. It's hilarious and exactly the right to say here.

This one's been old for a while, but I just found it. Philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson has been a gradual convert to conservative thought over the course of his life. He wrote this before the big brouhaha over liberal professors in academia of the last few months, but it looks at why so many liberal thinkers think conservatives are stupid in a way that's neither insulting to liberals nor favorable to the position that conservatives tend to be stupid.

Speaking of philosophers discussing important issues, Jeremy Chong gives a near-formal deductive argument for the conclusion that soy milk is indeed milk. I would have argued on the same basis but in a very different way, focusing more on philosophy of language but really for the same reasons and based on the same intuitions.

Volokh: A 15-year-old girl is up for child pornography charges for taking pictures of herself and sending them to people through the internet. Get a load of what they're charging her with.

Also at Volokh, Jacob Levy, from my alma mater Brown, mentions two things of note in one post. First is his reference to Buddy Cianci, former mayor of Providence who was convicted of a felony and then later re-elected mayor for multiple terms while still not serving any terms. It's as if he's a cartoon character. What Jacob says about him is precious. Then he goes on to tell a great story of the new attorney general of RI calling Marvel Comics to get Stan Lee's permission to use a quote from the first appearance of Spiderman.

Yet again at Volokh: Anyone up for a vampire slaying? This one wasn't posted on April Fool's Day. At least the guy was already dead.

Last but not least, you have to see the latest two comments on my post from January about the racist Condoleeza Rice poster that had been circulating at the time. It would be ideal if you go and look at the family pictures on my old blog site first to appreciate the full humor of what these two guys (assuming they're two people -- I haven't checked the IPs yet) think they can get away with saying. Update: Sam weighs in. I like the MTV comment. It's too bad I didn't catch that. It's insulting enough to assume that I don't know my wife. To assume that I watch MTV may even be worse.

I've got a couple more, including another from Volokh, but I'll hold off on them in the hopes that I might be able to say a little more about them.

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