Race Is Not Biology

How unthinking racial essentialism finds its way into scientific research
race is not biology main.jpg
aspidoscelis / flickr

During the past two weeks, much outrage has arisen over former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine's Harvard doctoral dissertation, which speculated that IQ differences between "Hispanic" and "non-Hispanic' populations were genetically rooted. The claims mirrored those of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's scurrilous The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which made similar claims about the intelligence of blacks. (Murray receives thanks in Richwine's dissertation acknowledgments and wrote recently in National Review Online in defense of Richwine.)

The fury continues. In the past couple days, a group of scholars has circulated a petition excoriating Harvard for approving the dissertation and condoning scientific racism in the process. Their petition situates Richwine within an odious lineage stretching back to the era of eugenics and charges that his work rests on shoddy intellectual foundations. (These scholars are right: the late J. Phillipe Rushton, best known for claiming associations among race, brain size, and penis length, is cited by Richwine.) A group of 1,200 Harvard University students has also put together their own petition.

Medical literature (and uncritical reporting about it) is replete with other examples that perpetuate the notion of biological race as a key factor in disparate disease outcomes.

But the attacks on Richwine are missing something far more insidious than neo-eugenic claims about innately inferior intelligence between races. The backlash against Richwine and Murray, after all, gives some indication that their views are widely considered beyond the respectable pale in the post- Bell Curve era. Richwine and Murray are really extreme branches of a core assumption that is much more pervasive and dangerous because it isn't necessarily racist on the surface: the belief in biological "races." This first assumption is required to get to claims like Richwine's, which argue that between Race A and Race B, differences exist (in "intelligence" or whatever else) that are grounded in the biological characteristics of the races themselves. Public outcry always greets the second Richwine-Murray-esque claim. But the first assumption required to reach it is more common and based on as shaky an intellectual foundation, even as it continues to escape equal scorn.

Even so, the critique of biologically innate race is hardly new. In 1972, the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin famously observed more genetic variation within populations than between them, undercutting the case for fixed and timeless genetic boundaries that demarcated "races." A basic grasp of American racial history shows that today's commonly accepted racial categories -- what the historian David Hollinger calls the "ethno-racial pentagon" - have hardly looked that way during the nation's history. As I wrote in a 2007 piece, "the numbers, names, and members of respective races are always in flux. Go somewhere else on the planet or step back a century, and you'll likely encounter a different racial schema all together," pointing to the Dillingham Commission of the United States Congress, which wrote a century ago: "Some writers have reduced the number of such basic races to 3, while others have proposed, 15, 29, or even 63." The Commission went with five.

But since that piece, the belief in the intellectual validity of racial biology has persisted, along with claims about specific outcomes allegedly associated with distinct "races," including disease rates, physiological abilities, or intelligence. ("Intelligence" is the only one of the outcomes, it seems, to land one in trouble, as Richwine learned.) Disease information sheets available online and in physicians' offices are one common means of reinforcing the notion of biological races. For example, the popular site WebMd.com notes that "Caucasian and Asian ancestry" is a risk factor for developing osteoporosis, which elides the enormous heterogeneity (genetic and otherwise) that actually exists within the "Caucasian" and "Asian" classifications. Another WebMD fact sheet on hypertension similarly declares that "high rates of high blood pressure in African-Americans may be due to the genetic make-up of people of African descent." Just last week, in a news story accompanying actress Angelina Jolie's op-ed detailing her preventive mastectomy, three New York Times reporters wrote: "Mutations in BRCA1 and another gene called BRCA2 are estimated to cause only 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers and 10 percent to 15 percent of ovarian cancers among white women in the United States.

The mutations are found in other racial and ethnic groups as well, but it is not known how common they are," unintentionally accepting the premise that traits and characteristics of bounded racial and ethnic groups might contribute to differences in disease incidence among them. The medical literature (and uncritical reporting about it) is replete with other examples that perpetuate the notion of biological race as a key factor in disparate disease outcomes. (Elsewhere, NYU sociologist Ann Morning, in her fascinating The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, has documented other channels through which biological notions of race are disseminated.)

Presented by

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a doctoral candidate in history and public health at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an Institute of Education Sciences fellow. He is an upcoming Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In