Race: A scientific idea ready for retirement
I was reading through this year’s responses to the annual Edge question, What scientific idea is ready for retirement? and came across a gem of a response from Penn State’s Nina Jablonski regarding race.
It’s just so perfect, I’ve gratuitously excerpted practically all of it here:
The mid-twentieth century witnessed the continued proliferation of scientific treatises on race. By the 1960s, however, two factors contributed to the demise of the concept of biological races. One of these was the increased rate of study of the physical and genetic diversity human groups all over the world by large numbers of scientists. The second factor was the increasing influence of the civil rights movement in the United States and elsewhere. Before long, influential scientists denounced studies of race and races because races themselves could not be scientifically defined. Where scientists looked for sharp boundaries between groups, none could be found.
Despite major shifts in scientific thinking, the sibling concepts of human races and a color-based hierarchy of races remained firmly established in mainstream culture through the mid-twentieth century. The resulting racial stereotypes were potent and persistent, especially in the United States and South Africa, where subjugation and exploitation of dark-skinned labor had been the cornerstone of economic growth.
After its “scientific” demise, race remained as a name and concept, but gradually came to stand for something quite different. Today many people identify with the concept of being a member of one or another racial group, regardless of what science may say about the nature of race. The shared experiences of race create powerful social bonds. For many people, including many scholars, races cease to be biological categories and have become social groupings. The concept of race became a more confusing mélange as social categories of class and ethnicity. So race isn’t “just” a social construction, it is the real product of shared experience, and people choose to identify themselves by race.
Clinicians continue to map observed patterns of health and disease onto old racial concepts such as “White”, “Black” or “African American”, “Asian,” etc. Even after it has been shown that many diseases (adult-onset diabetes, alcoholism, high blood pressure, to name a few) show apparent racial patterns because people share similar environmental conditions, grouping by race are maintained. The use of racial self-categorization in epidemiological studies is defended and even encouraged. In most cases, race in medical studies is confounded with health disparities due to class, ethnic differences in social practices, and attitudes, all of which become meaningless when sufficient variables are taken into account.
Race’s latest makeover arises from genomics and mostly within biomedical contexts. The sanctified position of medical science in the popular consciousness gives the race concept renewed esteem. Racial realists marshal genomic evidence to support the hard biological reality of racial difference, while racial skeptics see no racial patterns. What is clear is that people are seeing what they want to see. They are constructing studies to provide the outcomes they expect. In 2012, Catherine Bliss argued cogently that race today is best considered a belief system that “produces consistencies in perception and practice at a particular social and historical moment”.
Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but is necessary.
Well put, I think. Read the rest here.