Before it was a crime, racism masqueraded as a science. Its prejudiced history began with evolutionary biology in the 18th century, which found its racist origins in the notebooks of Carl Linnaeus—the Swedish botanist who, as part of his attempt to name and organize the world's species, ranked the human races: on one end Homo sapiens afer, the “wild, capricious, greasy” African black, on the other, the “intelligent” and “cultured” H.s. europaeus. Though centuries have passed since Linnaeus presented racist ideology as fact, this prejudice continues to pass as scientific discourse in modern works like Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's 1994 book The Bell Curve, a study that manipulated psychology and political science to incorrectly conclude that our DNA determines our destiny and that environmental factors like nutrition and access to education have no effect on an individual's development, health, or intelligence.
The historical prevalence of dishonest and prejudiced scientists has led many to distrust researchers who examine our racial prejudices and especially those who study our DNA, the very stuff of life. Admittedly, we are justified in our hesitation to allow geneticists the right to measure and define race: numbers possess a cold objectivity. They are free from connotation—nine will always mean nine to everyone—and can trick us into believing that statistical correlation is causation. They can somehow transform opinion into fact.
Yet if faulty research got us into this mess, then carefully conducted and intelligent experiments may help us out. Science, in study and practice, is now more principled and objective than it's ever been before. By insisting on rigorous peer review and complete adherence to the scientific method, today's researchers have proved that science done right—science that acknowledges the unexpected, science that can admit it was wrong—can actually quantify equality: it can prove that an individual’s shape, size, and color do not determine her intelligence or worth. Well-conducted research on race can free science from the clutches of raciology.
Setting the tone
Many scientists are working to alter the way our species views itself. First, scientists stopped measuring skulls and skin tones and instead began decoding the human genome. Then researchers did away with the belief that human genomes could be sorted into distinct racial categories. In 2003, population biologists Jeffrey Long and Rick Kittles traced the development of the human genome from the first appearance of humanoids in Africa around 200,000 years ago to the present day. Their study, published in Human Biology, concluded that human genetic variation could best be understood by viewing some geographic groups as parental to others: all modern races are descended from the first African Hominidae, but they are more closely related to one another because they share a more recent common ancestor—perhaps the subpopulation that migrated to Asia or Europe.
This migration represented a genetic bottleneck, as emigrating groups carried with them, in their blood and bones, only a small portion of the genetic diversity that existed in the entirety of Africa. Each migrating population represented only a small part of that larger African gene pool that still contains the molecular code for every single human trait—everything from red hair to freckles to almond-shaped eyes. Essentially, this means that the human species is genetically homogenous. Racial subpopulations look different not because they are separate from one another, but because their gene pool contains only a fraction of that original African diversity. New Guineans, for example, have lost the genes for certain traits—blue eyes, blonde hair, small amounts of melanin—and so contain only 70 percent of that original diversity. Long and Kittles concluded that we’re really just one big family with sibling races and parental groups, and no one subpopulation can be fully isolated and separated from all the others.
The work of Italian population geneticist Guido Barbujani has further disproved the hypothesis that the human genome is discontinuous—that it could be divided into distinct, genetically-defined races as once thought. In 2006, Barbujani’s lab looked for portions of the genome that existed exclusively in one race and found no such markers. They concluded that though individuals whose ancestors lived on the same continent possessed similar evolutionary traits, racial labels do not correlate with recognizable genetic clusters. Our concept of race actually has no genetic referent.
Proving that race does not exist at the genetic level is not, however, the same as understanding how our racial prejudices shape our perceptions and behavior—nor does it neutralize their effects. Many scientists, like the Smithsonian Institute’s Jennifer Richeson, are now looking to understand how the human mind processes racial differences. Richeson, a social psychologist featured in Smithsonian Magazine, designed a series of experiments that reveal a participant’s hidden prejudices. One such procedure measured brain activity in white student volunteers as they looked at pictures of black men. When Richeson’s team analyzed their MRI scans, they noticed that two brain regions were unusually active in these participants: the right prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex, both of which are involved in the process of self-control. These parts of the human brain help allow people to evaluate and correct their behavior, and this continual self-checking activity—trying not to look like a bigot essentially uses up a portion of the participant’s mental capacity. For this reason, both whites and blacks did poorly on puzzles after encountering an interviewer of the opposite race. Purposefully trying to behave in an unbiased way actually took mental effort that left subjects less equipped for Richeson’s other tests.
Yet responses to racial difference do not necessarily stem from belief in a racial heirarchy: the whites who scored high on Richeson’s measure of racial prejudice were also more polite to their black interviewers. Their brains showed more activity because they worked harder to overcome these instinctive prejudices and came across as respectful and pleasant as a result. In this way, Richeson’s data forces us to rethink what actually constitutes racist thought and who actually displays racist behavior. Her encouraging conclusions suggest that science can be unbiased even if those who conduct it are not; but more importantly, that admitting, exploring, and pushing at the biological limits of race does yield tangible benefits.
Consider BiDil, a prescription drug indicated for the treatment of heart failure in “self-identified African American patients.” BiDil’s controversial history began in 1999, when the Food and Drug Administration rejected it on the basis of its inefficacy. Two years later, however, NitroMed, the drug’s manufacturer, asked for permission to test BiDil exclusively in black patients after discovering its beneficial effects on nitric-oxide deficiency, a symptom more common in blacks than non-blacks. The trial, which was conducted with the support of the Association of Black Cardiologists, yielded positive results so quickly that the investigators ended the study early to begin marketing the drug as soon as possible. If NitroMed’s researchers had not been allowed to acknowledge our racial diversity or the existence and consequence of race-related genes, including those that cause sickle cell anemia or Tay-Sachs, African American patients might never have benefited from this drug.
Scientists must explore the concept of race because racial differences exist (it would be a lie to deny noticing, even enjoying, the tints and tones the human eye has evolved to see), and because, as BiDil's remarkable success has demonstrated, race-based medicine can save lives by separating color, nationality, and genetic variation from judgements of character and capability. BiDil's researchers make no claims about African Americans and rightfully ask the patients themselves to determine whether or not the drug might help them: BiDil is recommended for self-identified blacks. Race, then, can be a useful category to describe people from the same gene pool. Studying its biochemical causes and implications not only reveals truths about human nature but also extends and improves human lives. For this reason, we must trust researchers to explore the complexities and contraditions fostered by racial difference, even if history gives us reason to be nervous, and even if we are nervous about our own prejudiced attitudes. We could all use some honesty.
NUPUR SHRIDHAR B'11 has only recently descended from monkeys.