South Carolina wants to ban genetic science

The Conquest of Ignorance by René Boyvin after Rosso Fiorentino, 1560s

Philosopher Ian Hacking in The Social Construction of What? wrote that there were three ideas that underlie claims that something is a social construction:

  • Contingency: A social constructionist about race holds that racial categories are contingent, that is, they are not a necessary part of nature but could have looked much different.
  • Nominalism: A social constructionist about race holds that the names we have for races are useful for helping us organize our ideas but do not correspond with actual categories that exist in the world.
  • Stability: A social constructionist about race holds that the reason race appears to be stable over time owes to social factors, not natural forces.

South Carolina’s S0424 claims that the idea that race is a social construction is one of those ideas that are “not firmly and widely established, empirically or scientifically accurate, or that are controversial or theoretical” suggesting the notion that the social construction of race is a product of fuzzy-thinking activists divorced from the hard-nosed reality of science. But scientists who study human variation are among the biggest supporters of the idea that race is a social construct, indeed the very idea has its roots in modern population genetics.

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race six editions from its initial publication during World War II and 1999. Montagu labeled race a “myth” precisely because Montagu embraced population genetics. Montagu worked very closely with one of the founders of population genetics, Theodosius Dobzhansky, indeed they co-authored papers together. Montagu learned from Dobzhansky that genetic populations were tools for exploring evolution, not a system of classification. Modern evolutionary biologists and geneticists follow this social constructionist tradition. They explicitly acknowledge the social construction of race and study human diversity without the concept of race and certainly without using folk races in their analyses.

The American Society for Human Genetics declares, “Although a person’s genetics influences their phenotypic characteristics, and self-identified race might be influenced by physical appearance, race itself is a social construct.” The American Association of Biological Anthropology agrees: “While physical traits like skin color and hair texture are often emphasized in racial classification, and assumptions are often made about the pattern of genetic diversity relative to continental geography, neither follows racial lines. The distribution of biological variation in our species demonstrates that our socially-recognized races are not biological categories.” The American Association of Anthropological Genetics states that “genetic data reveal that patterns of human variation do not show any “natural” subdivision of people into racial groups, nor lend support to culturally constructed racial taxonomies. We do see, however, pernicious biological effects of racism, colonialism, and discrimination on human health.” The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors makes clear that “Race and ethnicity are social and not biological constructs; authors should interpret results associated with race and ethnicity in that context.”

Such statements are not limited to official consensus positions of scientific organizations, but are common in the scientific literature which is replete with warnings about confusing race (a social construction) with scientific terms like “population” or “genetic ancestry:”

  • “Genetic ancestry should not be used as a surrogate for sociopolitical race. Sociopolitical race should not be used as a surrogate for genetic ancestry” Genetics in Medicine
  • “We recognize that racial and ethnic categories are created and maintained within sociopolitical contexts and have shifted in meaning over time” Genome Biology
  • “It is hard to see how the race concept can still be regarded as a useful tool for addressing these and similar questions. However, race does remain an important component of our social and psychological world. This component affects human interactions and social policies, and will not vanish just because some scientists say it has no objective basis. In a sense, then, races exist, and should be kept into consideration. However, on the basis of what is known, they exist only in the sense that the labels we stick on ourselves and on the others have practical consequences, even if they do not correspond to empirically identifiable biological realities” Mismeasuring Man Thirty Years Later
  • “Researchers need to be careful about reifying race or transforming race from a social to a scientific category, which then reinforces pre-existing and incorrect understandings of race. This can create a circular feedback loop that uses science to perpetuate certain harmful assumptions about racial groups.” Science Progress
  • “As a complement to what we have learned about how lifelong harmful environmental exposures can create distinct ‘racial’ phenotypes, we have acquired a much deeper understanding of our shared genetic heritage. Within biomedicine, race-based claims of ‘genetic difference’ have always been the foundation for racism in practice. Recent global genomic sequencing data support the out-of-Africa model of human origin with African populations displaying the greatest genomic diversity; genomic variation seen in other human populations are largely a subset of those in Africans. This vast array of genomic data confirms what should in fact have long since been uncontroversial: as a species, we are all Africans in diaspora.” American Journal of Human Genetics
  • “Given the pattern of health disparities in the United States, research that emphasizes genetic predisposition to disease in socially defined populations could foster a tendency to attribute poor health in racial and ethnic groups to genetic makeup and to ignore alternate explanations” Ethics and Epidemiology

We can read the above statements as aspirational since human geneticists struggle with how to consistently maintain the distinction between socially-constructed race and more legitimate scientific tools (see Section 4.4 of my paper here). Nonetheless, it is plain to see that scientists who actually study human variation maintain that “race” is a social construct, not a biological reality. If the South Carolina legislature is really interested in teaching schoolchildren a “widely established, empirically or scientifically accurate” idea about race, then they would be teaching that race is a social construct; the very idea they want to outlaw.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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