Rethinking Race and Science: Biology, Genes, and Culture

Advanced Seminar

May 2–6, 2010

Rethinking Race and Science: Biology, Genes, and CultureRethinking Race and Science: Biology, Genes, and CultureAdvanced Seminar Chaired by John Hartigan, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin.Rethinking Race and Science: Biology, Genes, and CultureAdvanced Seminar Chaired by John Hartigan, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin.

“The notable aspect of current discussions of race in public culture and the scientific community is how fast and thoroughly received wisdom from recent decades is being assailed and reevaluated,” said John Hartigan, chair of the “Rethinking Race and Science: Biology, Genes, and Culture” advanced seminar. “Freshly minted genetic verities, such as ‘There is no basis in the genetic code for race,’ are being directly challenged by new research that purports to prove that race has a genetic basis, one that is crucial for understanding racial health disparities.”

From another direction, he points out, recent work in biology suggests that racism may be a contrary basis for these same disparities. The concept that race is a social construction has been used to challenge claims for a biological basis for race, but this “may actually divert attention from the linkages between race and biology that are an important next step in addressing the impacts of racism,” said Hartigan. “This recognition leads us to grapple with the task of rethinking basic analytical conceptions of culture, biology, and genetics, rather than relying on assertions that ‘race is socially constructed’ to be our primary contribution to rapidly changing public discourses and policy debates.”

As a dialogue between cultural and biological anthropologists, this seminar focused on exploring their respective approaches to understanding the connections between race, disease, and environment in relation to human biological and genetic variation. The participants employed a two-point process in their discussions. They assessed the ways people make claims about race and the operative assumptions behind their claims, and then they assessed their own concrete claims about how to better comprehend human biological and genetic variation. The intention was not to critique or to “bash” science, but rather to model good practices for taking race seriously while acknowledging how it distorts our thinking and perceptions. For example, cultural anthropologist Sandra Lee describes how an “infrastructure of racialization” has emerged in the field of pharmacogenomics (the study of the effects of individual genetic variations on drug response), as drug manufacturers become increasingly interested in developing and marketing drugs to “niche-markets;” that is, specialized products targeted for different races.

The research of the biological anthropologists at the seminar expanded the focus beyond the realm of genetics to consider biological variation broadly in relation to race. “By pursuing an attention to racial health disparities, they powerfully indicate the difficulties that a strict constructionist stance to race encounters when confronted with evidence for differential disease outcomes among racially defined groups,” wrote Hartigan. Another important implication they discussed was how race becomes biology. Christopher Kuzawa’s research highlighted the transgenerational aspect of how social influences and stressors get passed down and embodied, reflecting “race” categories.

Hartigan brought attention to the problems created when cultural anthropologists rely upon an earlier era of genetics as the grounds for asserting that “race is socially constructed.” He pointed out that “as the basis of genetics research changes and such claims are reconsidered, anthropologists find themselves unclear about how to specify the cultural dimension of racial classification.”

Throughout the seminar discussions, the scholars made an effort to maintain three levels of in their understanding of race: “the temporal depth of the human species and how we carry changes from what came before, how the plasticity of human biology is adaptive, and how the concept of race warps people’s thinking and deeply conditions us to a set of expectations about how and why difference matters,” Hartigan said at his colloquium.

“The common thread among the participants in this seminar is a recognition that anthropology—despite its’ long engagement with the fraught, complex relationship between race, biology, and genes—has yet to formulate an effective and relevant response to the recent surge of public interest in, and misconceptions about, these concepts today,” said Hartigan. “We hope the end result will be a fresh demonstration of the relevance of anthropology—as a discipline with a unique perspective on biology and well as culture—in addressing some of the most pressing concerns facing our society today.” 

John Hartigan, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin Looking for Race in the Mexican Book of Life: INMEGEN and the Mexican Genome Project
Ron Eglash Associate Professor, Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Towards a Cybernetics of Race: Determinism and Plasticity in Ideological and Biological Systems
Clarence Gravlee Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida Race, Biology, and Culture: Rethinking the Connections
Linda M. Hunt Professor, Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University Observations on the Tenacity of Racial Concepts in Genetics Research
Fatimah L. C. Jackson Professor and Director, Institute of African American Research, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Christopher Kuzawa Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University Toppling Typologies: Developmental Plasticity and the Environmental Origins of Human Biological Variation
Sandra S. Lee Senior Research Scholar, Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University The Political Economy of Personalized Medicine and Race: Implications for Health Disparities
Jeffrey C. Long Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico The Aimless Genome
Pamela Sankar Associate Professor, Department of Medical Ethics, University of Pennsylvania Race Concepts among Medical and Forensic Researchers

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