Why Racial Prejudice Isn’t Scientifically Sound: The Evolving Concept of Race in Science

By: Jessica Moore

“Heart failure (HF) is a big problem, especially for African Americans. If you’re African American, you’re more likely than people in other ethnic groups to get HF at a younger age, and you’re more likely than others to be hospitalized. Unfortunately, African Americans are also more likely to die earlier than are other people with HF” (1). This quotation comes directly from the website of BiDil, a heart failure medication marketed specifically for African Americans, based on supposed genetic markers. This current drug, which insinuates that ‘race’ can influence someone’s health, and therefore that certain races require different healthcare treatment from others, is a recent example of the constant involvement of the concept of race in science. However, this concept seems to be losing any holding it once had. New genomic advancements have taught us that race, as a concept, and race-based treatments like BiDil, have little to no place in modern scientific thought.

The concept of race, in modern understanding, began in the Americas with the first race-based slave system in the 1600s (2). Before this, language, religion, and class were the primary determinants of a person’s position within society. It wasn’t until the founding of the American colonies that race was utilized to determine social class.

THE SCIENCE OF PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES

However, ideas of physical differences are much older. Scientific observations on the physical differences between people date back to 400 BC, with Hippocrates (3). Hippocrates advocated that environmental factors determined the differences in human populations. He stated, “The forms and dispositions of mankind correspond with the nature of the country” (4). This thought, though scientifically sound at the time, was followed by his equal belief that geographic factors not only influenced physical appearance, but behavioral characteristics as well. This represents the first notions of prejudice based on geographic stereotyping alone. This was further enhanced by the Middle Ages belief in “black sin,” that Africans were descendants of Ham, who was depicted as a sinful man, and “his progeny as degenerates” (5).

Moving into the 17th century, there was a distinct increase in the scientific study of humans, and a push for naturalists to classify humans and their differences (6). This was the result of a sweeping scientific effort at taxonomy by naturalists and their desire to categorize all living systems. Skin color, stature, and food habits were all considered in classifications, but it was ultimately decided that geographic origin was the best determinant of human differences. However, the concept of “race” was yet to be defined (6)

The concept of a “country of origin” was arguably a positive direction in classifying human differences, as it simply focused on heritage and its impacts on physical stature. However, moving into the 18th century, the development of the Americas was marked by a dramatic increase in the slave trade, leading to a degenerate approach to this classification (4). Cultural and political notions favoring the concepts of racial superiority tainted early scientific discoveries (7). This century was marked by the inclusion of behavioral and psychological observations of human differences, retroactively reflecting the “scientific” views of the Middle Ages (7). This concept led people to believe that race, and its subsequent behavioral traits, were innate and unchangeable.

With the rise of taxonomy in science, scientists began to believe that humans could be categorized into subgroups of Homo sapien (4). This is where the concept of race truly arose, along with the suggestion of a hierarchy of races, each with distinct physical, and supposedly behavioral, traits. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is credited with defining race in 1779 with his division of humanity into five distinct racial groups: the Caucasian race, the Mongoloid race, the Malay race, the Negroid race, and the American race.8 His findings were widely based on cranial research (wherein he evaluated differences in the circumference of the head). Interestingly, he held the unpopular view of the time that races were equal and that, “there is no so-called savage nation known under the sun which has so much distinguished itself by such examples of perfectibility and original capacity for scientific culture, and thereby attached itself so closely to the most civilized nations of the earth, as the Negro” (3). However, his works would sadly be misinterpreted, and his definition of race later used to enforce the concept of innate differences among man (8).

FLAWED RACIAL JUSTIFICATIONS

In the 19th century, there was a movement to shift understanding of race from a mere taxonomic use to a biological one. This was where racial conflict became particularly rooted in scientific thought (9). Using Blumenbach’s methods, scientists Francis Galton and Alphonse Bertillon measured shapes and sizes of skulls in order to determine differences in races, ultimately relating these findings to markers of intelligence (10). This represented the conceptualization of the idea that one’s race could also reflect group differences in intelligence and character. Many scientists began to assert that these differences were obvious, and the concept of race was used to dramatically divide groups by culture and physical appearance. It is important here to remember that this ‘scientific’ belief was widely supported by the political agenda of the 19th and 20th centuries, which needed a socially acceptable justification for actions such as the Eugenics Movement and wide campaigns of oppression and genocide (11).

During the late 20th century and early 21st century, tensions rose between individuals who believed race generated a hierarchy of mankind and those who believed in human equality. Further understanding of DNA and the human genome led scientists to believe that while race, which had been socially accepted as the general classification term for differences between groups of people, was an inherited characteristic, most behavioral attributes were primarily determined by factors such as environment and culture (11). However, the social construct of race was so deeply ingrained that re-evaluating the concept of race as one with a truly sound scientific basis took much time and convincing (12). In 1978 UNESCO released a “Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice,” which declared this important ideal: “Any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior, thus implying that some would be entitled to dominate and eliminate others, presumed to be inferior, or which bases value judgments on racial differentiation, has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity” (3).

Reflecting this ideal, the early 21st century has been marked by a period of increased research in how environment and culture impact behavior over race. The Human Genome Project showed that the concept of race has limited basis in genetics. Francis Collins, former head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, called race a “flawed” and “weak” concept that scientists need to move beyond.12 Racism and the concept that it has a basis in inherited characteristics produces bad science, bad healthcare, and furthermore, bad human relations (13).

As we head into the next decades of scientific development, it is important for us to look back on how race has evolved in science over time, and to recognize that it may not have a place in the sciences any longer. We must evolve past the concept of race in society, and accept what scientists have coined “geographic ancestry” instead as a definer of the physical differences present in the human population. As genetic research has come to show us, the basis for which we have justified so much prejudice and violence needs to be left in history as we take our next steps as scientists and influencers into the future. The concept of race and its prejudices, though a relatively modern construct, has no place in modern scientific society.

 

Jessica Moore ’21 is a freshman in Greenough Hall.

WORKS CITED

[1] Arbor Pharmaceuticals. BiDil. https://www.bidil.com/ (accessed Oct. 2, 2017).

[2] Gossett, T. Race: The History of an Idea in America; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 1963.

[3] Brace, C. “Race” is a Four-Letter Word: the Genesis of the Concept; Oxford University Press: New York, 2005.

[4] Augstein, H., Ed. Race: The Origins of an Idea, 1760–1850; Thoemmes Press: Bristol, England, 1996.

[5] Snowden, F. Before color prejudice: the ancient view of blacks; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1983.

[6] Stanton, W. The leopard’s spots: scientific attitudes toward race in America, 1815–1859; University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 1960.

[7] Shipman, P. The Evolution of Racism: Human Differences and the Use and Abuse of Science; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1994.

[8] Gould, S. The Mismeasure of Man; Norton: New York, 1996.

[9] Dain, B. A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2002.

[10] Banton, M. Racial Theories, 2nd ed; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1998.

[11] Hoover, D. Conspectus of History. 1981, 1.7, 82-100.

[12] Koenig, B. et al. Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age; Rutgers University Press: Piscataway, NJ, 2008.

[13] Malik, K. The Meaning of Race; New York University Press: New York, 1996.

[14] Sarich, V.; Frank, M.. Race: the Reality of Human Differences; Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 2004.

Categories: Fall 2017, Uncategorized

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