Racism in science: The lingering stain

A type of glass eye used in the twentieth century for “race” classification.Credit: David Harrison

Superior: The Return of the Science of Race Angela Saini Lighthouse (2019)

In her latest book, PredominantAngela Saini investigates how the history and preservation of dubious science justifies and regulates hierarchies among “racial” groups.

In reflection on power and conquest, Predominant Open in the halls of the British Museum in London, which houses the collections of Lower Nubia and Ancient Egypt. This imperial prelude sets the stage for a historical lesson on the origins, rise, denial, and revival of race studies in Western science. The story spans the region-based description of five human “races” (Caucasians, Mongols, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays) by German physician Johan Blumenbach in the 18th century, as well as on race and intelligence A modern discussion of the assumed correlation between.

Saini Celebration 2017 Down Investigates the disturbing relationship between sexism and scientific research. She deftly shifts from personal reflection to technical exposition, and now explores an equally enduring blemish: Some scientists are still looking for measurable biological differences between “races” even though decades of research have yielded no supporting evidence.

Research has repeatedly shown that race is not a scientifically valid concept. Worldwide, humans share 99.9% of DNA. The traits that define our common understanding of race—hair texture, skin tone, facial features—represent only a few of the thousands that define us as a species. Visible traits tell us something about population history and gene-environment interactions. But we cannot consistently divide humans into discrete groups.

However, despite a lack of scientific rigor or reproducibility, this reliance on race as a biological concept persists in fields from genetics to medicine. The consequences of this dependence include justification for school and housing segregation, support for the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries, genocidal policies against indigenous communities around the world, and the Holocaust.

Saini reminds us that in early 19th-century Europe, the dehumanization of people of color saw South African Khoikhoi women caged and displayed in public. Sara Baartman (her birth name is unknown) is insultingly called “Hottento Venus” due to her fascination with her genitals. A century later, the eugenic pseudoscience of the early twentieth century began to influence U.S. policy. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 deliberately prevented southern and eastern Europeans from entering the United States and banned Asian immigration outright.

exist Predominantone cannot help but see the parallels between the 20th century movement of race-made ideologies from the laboratory to the political arena and the current rise of global xenophobic politics.

a long history

Saini tells us that the book reflects her childhood dream of understanding and talking about the historical and social context of the concept of race.She does it in an approachable and convincing way, from that piece of history to tricky topics like research Homo sapiens, or the production of medicines for people of color. (For example, the heart failure drug BiDil (isosorbide nitrate/hydralazine), approved by the FDA in 2005, was marketed only to African Americans.) Persistence of race concepts transcends disciplines and provides a basis for data collection. Everything is colored with policy recommendations on immigration.

In a chapter titled “Racial Realists,” Saini vividly portrays Jewish eugenics and genocide historian Barry Mehler in the 1980s as he discovered an active network of “race scientists” The obvious fear felt. Second World War. She pointed to shadow funding from the U.S. extremist nonprofit Vanguard Fund, which supports eugenics, race and intelligence research, and channels such as so-called scientific journals that support eugenics. Human QuarterlyShe also noted that in the 1980s, the media writer and scholar Ralph Scott was appointed by President Ronald Reagan’s administration to serve on the Iowa Civil Rights Advisory Committee member.

A box containing tufts of hair of different colors.

Hair color markers for “race” classification.Credit: David Harrison

Apart from a brief discussion of the slave trade and profits of the pharmaceutical industry, the role of capitalist and colonial expansion in underpinning the concept of race is not discussed here. However, Saini does show that our current moment is part of a wider and longer social experience. She argues that racial categories that many see as immutable can be changed, just as they have in the past. These categories have changed and aligned with current societal “needs,” for example, from Celtic to Hispanic, to the current US census classifying Middle Easterners as white.

This variability can make racial categories seem random and purposeless. However, they have long been the scaffolding for building and maintaining empires.

I wonder who Saini imagines her main audience is. She uses the royal ‘we’, maybe as a way to build community with readers, who I think she sees as scientifically literate white people. This may be due to the lack of diversity in science and scientific writing. At the same time, she reminds us that she is Indian-British and will therefore be the subject of a race-based investigation.in her discussion Human Quarterly, she took the term “political correctness” seriously — a term that has been disparaged from those calling for a more inclusive dialogue. In reflections on the Human Genome Diversity Project, which aims to collect DNA from indigenous communities around the world, she called the 1990s the dawn of “identity politics” — a term often used to disparage minority views. She didn’t question the tropes.

In this way, Saini seems surprisingly willing to dispel that criticism by presenting her critical analysis of race science in language often used by those more interested. A generous reading of her approach may be a subversive attempt to appeal to skeptical readers. However, I’m not sure that was her intention.

Saini’s views on contemporary practitioners of race science are less clear. To her, there seems to be a difference between scientists who used Pioneer grants to support eugenic research and researchers who are now “race realists” who continue to search for the biological component of race. She does explore the shortcomings of current research and openly question why people persist in this fruitless field of research.

The tension between the deadly legacy of historical race science and the ethically disturbing embodiment of the race framework in current research emerges in a lengthy interview with David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Known for her work on DNA and human evolution. Reich told her: “There are real lineage differences between different populations, and it has to do with the social structure we have.” He added: “We have to address that.” But, As Saini points out, when racism is embedded in the core fabric of society, this kind of research is born out of the same social relationships.

collective denial

It seems to me that too many academic voices provide this cover to their peers. This reluctance to consider the possibility that racism actually supports research that has been shown to have demonstrably detrimental results has me craving a stronger takeaway message.

finally, Predominant Most influential in describing the continued support for the idea of ​​class differences from the Enlightenment onwards, in the face of political backlash and the inability of researchers to even define the main variable at play: race. Saini has rightly pointed to the denial that runs through so much of our public conversation. She reveals how shame about an irreconcilable past affects our ability to have difficult conversations about its long shadow.

Predominant Perhaps best understood is to continue the tradition of seminal work that contextualizes the deep and problematic history of race science. including 2011 deadly invention by Dorothy Roberts and The social life of DNA (2016) by Alondra Nelson (see FLC Jackson nature 529, 279–280; 2016). Saini contributes to this conversation by connecting the desire to realize race, especially in terms of measurable health disparities, with society’s underlying desire to free itself from these inequalities.

She finally argues that when researchers use race as a proxy, they must at least know what they’re measuring. I would add that they should contend with what it is not – and what they create.

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