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Philosophy of Race: Hardimon's 'Minimalist' Concept of Race

Many philosophical questions arise when considering race and racism, which at the same time have implications for a great number of philosophical topics (in particular related to epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science). Both social constructivism and biological realism, for instance, involve deep analyses of racism, oppression, intersectionality, and reparations. This article will specifically explore Michael Hardimon’s (2017) minimalist concept of race with a view to showing how it successfully represents biological race as “a nonracialist and nonracist relatively modest biological kind” (p. 158) by virtue of allowing for blurred lines that distinguish different races and as a non-malefic alternative. To this end, the article presents Hardimon’s minimalist concept and explains how it differs from that of a racialist concept. It then offers a potential objection to Hardimon’s concept via his appeal to Noah Rosenberg’s (2002) article on genetic clusters. Hardimon indeed appeals to discrete units in Rosenberg’s paper which are arguably a racialist feature in any concept of race, yet this article goes on to defend Hardimon’s minimalist concept of race clarifying how (i) the appeal to Rosenberg’s work merely refers to genetic information alone, and (ii) Hardimon in fact offers a useful and non-malefic—inherently nonracist and nonracialist— biological concept.

1. Minimalist Biological Race

This article starts by presenting Hardimon’s minimalist concept of race which he describes (2017) as the barest, most stripped-down characterisation of the ordinary concept of RACE possible(p. 150). Hardimon’s account indeed proposes the most basic concept of race by appealing only to the fundamental conditions that characterise race. They constitute the very core of the ordinary concept (Hardimon, 2017) and make up a minimalist group-level concept of race. Hence, what it is for an individual to be a member of a race is specified in terms of what it is for a group to be a race. A (minimalist) race is thus a group of human beings which, as Hardimon (2017, p. 150) puts it:

  1. “Are distinguished by patterns of visible physical features”

  2. “Are linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members of the group”

  3. “Originate from a distinctive geographic location.”

The minimalist concept of race is notably compatible with contemporary biological findings. Such compatibility is important since Hardimon uses modern biology to show that minimalist races both exist and are genetically distinct (genetic ‘distinctness’ is addressed in section 3). Moreover, the appeal to modern biology allows for “blurry” (Hardimon 2017, p. 151) lines which separate different races. Blurriness proves crucial for Hardimon’s account to succeed at representing (biological) race as nonracist and nonracialist biological kind.

Figure 1. Swedish Botanist Carolus Linnaeus divided humanity up into racial categories according to his notion of shared essences among populations (Müller-Wille, 2023).

Importantly, Hardimon’s (2017) minimalist concept does not require that the lines distinguishing races be sharp on purpose, and this applies to each condition noted above. In condition (i), for example, the patterns of visible physical features constitutive of minimalist races need not be sharply distinguished. Instead, different races might exhibit very similar (or distinct, or ‘somewhat similar’) visible physical features. Further, it is not a requirement that the lines dividing the lineages of different races be precise either. Nor again does the concept require any clear-cut distinction between the geographical regions from which different minimalist races originate. This is then critical for Hardimon, since the non-requirement of sharp lines is what makes his concept entirely different to any ‘racialist’ concept of race. A racialist concept maintains that races have biological essences (i.e., nonrelational features possessed by all and only members of the race) that fix normatively important features of their members such as intelligence and moral character and that races can be objectively ranked as superior and inferior on the basis of these features (Hardimon, 2017). Indeed, it is almost impossible to deny that this type of concept (held by many historically) is racist, racialist, and simply wrong.

Hardimon’s (2017) minimalist concept is completely different since absolutely no part of his concept requires that races be sharply distinguished. Unlike the racialist concept, which adheres to biological essences thus invoking hierarchy amongst different races, the core idea underlying Hardimon’s minimalist concept of race is to not do this. Minimalist races do not possess any non-relational features unique to all and only members of the group. In fact, sharp lines are simply unnecessary on Hardimon’s account for a good reason. As it is explored next, different race groups need not be sharply distinguished to be biologically distinct.

Figure 2. Craniometry is the systematic collection of head measurements, once used as a means of characterising human ‘races’ (Gould, 2013).

2. Appeal to Rosenberg’s Article and ‘Discrete Units’

One must now further investigate the apparent compatibility between ‘minimalist races’ and contemporary (evolutionary) biological findings since Hardimon’s concept aims to be compatible with such findings. In this section, this article suggests a potential issue with Hardimon’s account in doing so, namely that it risks becoming close to a racialist concept because of its appeal to genetic clusters.

Compatibility with present-day biology is certainly important since Hardimon’s account seeks to present biological race as a biological kind. Obviously, one cannot take Hardimon’s minimalist concept of biological race seriously if it is unable to coexist with contemporary biological research. Also, any incompatibility might lead one to question whether minimalist races genuinely ‘biologically exist’ (Andreason, 1998) (i.e., questioning whether biology vindicates ordinary racial classification), therefore adopting what Quayshawn Spencer (2015) calls “biological racial anti-realism” (p. 46). The anti-realist stance poses a serious threat to Hardimon’s minimalist concept since this view posits the non-existence of biological race. Hardimon, therefore, goes into some detail concerning the coexistence—the compatibility—of contemporary biology and minimalist races, thus explaining how minimalist races are genetically distinct (arguing that they biologically exist as a result).

Figure 3. Responses to “How Close Do You Feel to Your Ethnic or Racial Group?” (Bearman and Parigi, 2004).

Hardimon (2017) first acknowledges the fact that variation between human populations is mostly clinal (i.e., gradual). Not only does this suggest that minimalist races can exist, but it also supports the idea that they do not need to be sharply distinguished. Hardimon (2017) then uses “population thinking” (p. 154) to further suggest that biological reality does not require any sharp lines between groups on the basis of the individual group members’ intrinsic properties. So-called population thinking states that regularities that occur in populations such as extinction, speciation, and adaptation emerge from the collective activities of individuals (Ariew, 2008). Hardimon (2017) argues that population thinking, along with biological existence, can allow for “ontological blurriness” (p. 154). The main idea is captured nicely when Hardimon (2017) describes that the impossibility of drawing sharp lines between minimalist races would be not a good reason for doubting their existence(p. 154). Any alternative view on biological existence (i.e., existence and sharp lines to distinguish races, implying that they therefore biologically exist) is simply outdated, Hardimon notes. This is not what contemporary biological findings infer either.

Hardimon nevertheless considers geneticist Professor Noah Rosenberg’s (2002) celebrated article on genetic clusters which may allow for the possibility of sharp genetic lines between minimalist races. Hence why this may be used to present a potential objection to Hardimon’s supposedly nonracialist minimalist concept of race. Rosenberg’s (2002) article on The Human Genetic Clustering Results in Population Genetics has famously been interpreted as evidence for biological racial realism (Spencer 2015). The study, representing genetic clusters based on measures of overall genetic similarity, found that without using any prior information about the origins of individuals, six main genetic clusters may be identified (five of which correspond to major geographic regions and subclusters that often correspond to individual populations) (Rosenberg, 2002). Evidently, the article is not about race but about genetic clusters. It does, however, present genetic clusters corresponding to five major geographic areas. Each cluster is separated from its neighbour by a line marking a relatively sharp allele (i.e., different versions of the same gene helping to distinguish different clusters in Rosenberg’s work) frequency break (Hardimon, 2017). Hardimon points out that Rosenberg’s article draws sharp genetic lines between clusters. Hardimon (2017) claims that “it is possible to bring the 2002 article to bear on the question concerning the genetic distinctness of races” (p. 154). Despite the conscious effort to avoid discrete units, biological essences, and sharp lines in the minimalist concept of race, Hardimon in effect then enjoys the idea that sharp lines could distinguish minimalist races. Having embraced blurriness previously, Hardimon (2017) then claims that the “Ethiopian, Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay and American populations” are “apt candidates for the application of the minimalist concept of race.” (p. 155). Further, “this is because they appear to be distinguished by patterns of visible physical features corresponding to geographical ancestry”, says Hardimon (2017, p. 155).

Figure 4. Rosenberg's visualisation of world-level clustering patterns. 'K=6' shows that broader patterns of cluster membership generally “correspond” to geographical divisions (Wills, 2017).

One must point out that Hardimon’s sudden appeal to sharply distinguished continental-level minimalist races is somewhat close to discrete units in the racialist concept of race. One could argue that Hardimon’s account thus becomes contradictory. Although the minimalist concept of race is clearly nonracist, one may suggest that it is problematic since it gets so close to the racialist concept and idea of discrete units and biological essences. The original idea of minimalist races was to avoid any sharp lines thus allowing it to characterise biological race as a nonracist and nonracialist concept. Yet the sudden appeal to Rosenberg’s article and sharp genetic lines between minimalist races goes against this.

3. A ‘Non-malefic’ Alternative

Hardimon is of course very keen to contend that his appeal to the 2002 article involves a “race-blind mechanical procedure [a statistical algorithm] to assign individuals to continental minimalist races solely on the basis of genetic markers” (2017, p. 156). Hardimon also makes it clear that continental minimalist races are genetically discrete units on the basis of genetic information alone. Hereafter, this article defends Hardimon’s minimalist concept of race as a nonracist and nonracialist modest biological kind. This is whilst acknowledging that Hardimon’s use of genetically discrete units to distinguish continental-level minimalist races—on the sole basis of genetic information—remains a risky move.

Figure 5. The Humanae project: these images by photographer Angélica Dass match skin tones to the Pantone colour system (Saini, 2019).

Hardimon (2017) describes Rosenberg’s article as “indirect support” for the existence of minimalist races (p. 157). He marks caveats to this, namely that (a) the genetic differences in the 2002 article found between continental-level minimalist races are very small, and (b) the genetic markers used to draw the lines between populations are not biologically significant in themselves (Hardimon, 2017). Although this is suggesting the use of sharp lines to distinguish minimalist races, Hardimon’s account remains nonracist and nonracialist. Firstly, the sharp lines (grounded by genetic information alone) are entirely different to that of the racialist concept. Dissimilarly, the racialist concept invokes biological essences (features possessed by all and only members of that race which then fix normatively important features of their members). Even if Hardimon does appeal to something similar, concerning genetic information only, Hardimon’s concept does not once make any reference to biological essences or hierarchy thereafter. Secondly, continental-level minimalist races indicate something completely different to that of the racialist concept: they remain genetically (and remarkably) similar. Despite any advocation of discrete units here, the distinctive lines are not sharp in the sense that different races are utterly different to one another. Rather there are multiple genetic markers to draw sharp lines between the continental-level races. Appealing to Rosenberg’s findings is not meant to suggest that there are sharp lines distinguishing minimalist races, but instead, it is intended to show that minimalist biological races are genetically distinct.

Hardimon’s minimalist concept of race subsequently becomes a relatively modest biological kind. The blurry lines allow this to be the case. Notably, minimalist races are also biologically significant (i.e., biologically real, and therefore a significant kind) because minimalist races are adaptive. This is to say that most visible physical features characterising ‘race’ are a matter of gradual evolution. As Hardimon (2017) puts it, “visible physical features such as skin colour are almost certainly evolutionary adaptations to the aboriginal home of the minimalist races” (p. 158). Such features are biologically significant and particularly important. They are certainly not biologically arbitrary. With this being a very relevant aim of biology (i.e., to appeal to adaptation), Hardimon concludes that the minimalist concept of race counts as a biological kind. It is not as ‘robust’ as a racialist concept since it does not draw sharp lines to distinguish races. It is instead a modest biological kind. Moreover, it is a non-malefic (i.e., purposefully harmless) alternative to the racialist concept (Hardimon, 2017). Appealing to Rosenberg’s article and discrete units may be somewhat antithetical, but the core idea is that a minimalist concept of race is benign whilst being compatible with contemporary biology. This modest biological concept of ‘race’ is what allows it to be nonracist and nonracialist. The modesty (or lack of robustness) may be a drawback, but it is nevertheless a useful and nonracist/nonracialist biological concept.

Figure 6. Photograph of Noah Rosenberg (2002), famous for his studies of human genetic clustering.


In sum, this article has argued that Hardimon’s non-malefic minimalist concept of race succeeds as a representation of biological race as a nonracialist and nonracist relatively modest biological kind. This is to say that Hardimon achieves what he sets out to do since the very characteristic feature of minimalist races is to be exactly that: nonracist and nonracialist.

Bibliographical References

Andreasen, R. O. (1998). A new perspective on the race debate. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 49(2), 199-225.

Ariew, A. (2008). Population Thinking. In Michael Ruse (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 64-86.

Hardimon, M. (2017). Minimalist Biological Race. In Naomi Zack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 150-9.

Rosenberg, N., Pritchard, J., Weber, J. L., Cann, H. M., Kidd, K. K., Zhivotovsky, L. A., et al. (2002). Genetic structure of human populations. Science, 298(5602), 2381-2385.

Spencer, Q. (2015). Philosophy of race meets population genetics. Studies In History And Philosophy Of Science, Part C: Studies In History And Philosophy Of Biological And Biomedical Sciences, 52, 46-55. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2015.04.003

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Rebecca Ivory

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