BILT Funded Projects, Decolonising the curriculum, News

Dr Adam Rutherford seminar report: Race, genes and scientific racism: the history and legacy of the invention of race

The BILT-funded Decolonising STEMM groups have been working on a number of projects to decolonise and diversify the curriculum within their disciplines. This work has included reviewing teaching content and exploring staff and student attitudes to decolonising. One response we sometimes receive is the view that STEMM subjects are factual and objective, so decolonising is irrelevant to our disciplines. However, there are many examples of where bias and inequity can be seen in science, or where unethical research practices have been used to exclude or minoritise groups of people. In order to try to explore this idea and open up conversations about how colonial roots persist as racism and Eurocentrism in our courses, we invited a leading expert on scientific racism, Dr Adam Rutherford, to give a seminar, which was open to all staff and students at the University.

Over 200 staff and students from across the University attended the online seminar on 21st July 2022, with a further 250 watching the recording in the following week. The talk provided a fascinating journey from the birth of scientific racism in the 17th century, up to the latest genetic data on human population variation and how this can be used to subvert the theory of biological essentialism, the notion that there are biologically distinct, discrete groups of humans, which is the cornerstone of eugenic thought and white supremacy. Adam explained how modern genetics experiments have debunked this theory, showing that genetic variation between populations is continuous and there are no distinctly defined genetic groups of humans: race, as a biological concept, does not exist. Adam was clear to point out that race does exist as a social construct and, like other social constructs such as time and money, we can no more ignore race than we can stop paying our bills or arriving at meetings on time.

The talk was, by chance, the day after the 200th anniversary of the birth of Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics. Adam described how important scientific discoveries, such as those of Mendel in unravelling the basis of genetic inheritance, can be co-opted for a particular political purpose, such as justifying eugenics. For instance, Charles Davenport’s over-interpretation of Mendel’s findings were used to justify his eugenics work trying to overcome social problems in the USA in the early 20th century. Davenport surmised that Mendelian inheritance could be used simplistically to understand patterns of inheritance of everything from eye colour to occurrence of schizophrenia, and therefore he applied eugenic thinking to eliminate ‘undesirable’ characteristics. This led to up to 80,000 people being sterilised against their will during the 20th century, mostly descendants of enslaved African people or indigenous American people, with these laws, shockingly, only repealed in the 1980s. This is a terrifying example of scientific methods and results being misrepresented or misinterpreted and used to apply social policies and agendas such as white supremacy.

The final part of the seminar concerned bias in data collection and the problematic fact that many of the important datasets that we use in science (and importantly, medicine) are hugely skewed towards people of European ancestry. This is largely due to the majority of the work being done in Europe and North America, but may also reflect historical racial bias in science. An important example of this is in the genome-wide association study (GWAS) datasets, which link genetic markers to disease incidence. In 2005 around 90% of the GWAS data were from individuals of European decent, hugely over-representing this population compared to the global diversity of humans. Shockingly, this bias has actually increased over the past decades, with Europeans now accounting for 92% of the GWAS data. This is despite the fact that the majority of human genetic diversity is within people of African descent: we are only sampling a very small and unrepresentative pool of human genetic diversity in these studies. These datasets are used to make medical decisions, resulting in healthcare inequalities and potentially poorer clinical outcomes for people who are not of European descent.

As another example of bias in supposedly objective data, Adam discussed a dataset of reported national average IQ levels throughout the world. Clear racial bias here results in a much higher IQ level reported for European and North American countries than countries in the Global South. This dataset has been cited in hundreds of academic papers and continues to be cited, yet when we dig into how the dataset was collected we see that it is misrepresentative and often fraudulent. In some countries, the IQ data was based on a small sample of school-aged children, often being tested in a language that was not their mother tongue. I wonder how many British people would have scored highly in an IQ test in German at the age of 12. This is a clear example of a dataset collected by known scientific racists, but still used to this day in scientific papers where scientists failed to check the provenance of the data. 

Adam finished by inviting us to think carefully about the provenance and context of data when we use it as scientists. We should consider who acquired the data, how, why, what is it used for, who it represents and whom it benefits. The talk inspired a great many insightful questions from the audience, leading to some fascinating discussions, thoughtfully facilitated by Dr Caroline McKinnon. Adam considered whether it’s right to judge historical figures by contemporary standards and the role of social media in spotlighting extreme views, making them seem more common than they really are. There was also a discussion of the very contemporary misuse of scientific literature to justify racial hate and aggression, such as the recent killings in Buffalo, in which the shooter cited several recent genetics papers in his ‘manifesto’. Should we then, as scientists, be responsible for the eventual politicisation of our work? Adam argues that we cannot be responsible for what other do with our findings; all we can do is try to ensure our science is as rigorous and fair as possible, and aim to present the data in a way to try to minimise the risk of it being misrepresented and used for malicious purposes.

Adam’s latest book Control: the dark history and troubling present of eugenics is now available in hardback and audiobook format. You can find out more about his work from his website and follow him on Twitter.

Article by Alice Robson, on behalf of the BILT-funded Decolonising STEMM groups

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