Last spring, Paul Strode gave an unusual survey to his advanced-biology students at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. The first five questions were:
- Define as best you can: What is a racial group?
- Define as best you can: What is an ethnic group?
- Define as best you can: What is meant by the term genetic ancestry?
- True or False: There is too much overlap between racial groups to use a single biological trait (like skin color) to distinguish one racial group from another.
- True or False: When several traits are combined they can be used to distinguish one racial group from another.
The next day, Strode showed his students—all seniors—their aggregated results. On some questions, the students were mostly in agreement. More than 80 percent of them, for example, correctly marked question four as “true.” But other topics were muddier, and on several questions—including number five—the students split nearly 50–50. “They’re guessing,” Strode says. (For the record, the answer he says he was looking for on number five was “false.”)
Strode’s exercise is an anomaly. Most American biology textbooks and curricula don’t discuss race at all—nor do they grapple with the biology of sexual orientation or gender, for that matter. To some, these omissions seem appropriate. Early-20th-century biology textbooks, after all, were replete with ignorant racial and gender stereotyping and classifications purporting to be scientific—and some even extolled the virtues of racial purity. It would be hard to find such discussions in today’s biology classrooms and supporting materials.