Dr. Alondra Nelson, one of the panelists for our event, was recently interviewed by Radio Boston in connection with the opening of the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? at the Museum of Science in Boston. The exhibit has been touring the US since 2007 and will be at the Durham Museum of Life and Science from October 8, 2011 through January 22, 2012.  This exhibit is an outgrowth of the American Anthropological Association’s RACE Project, which provides an integrated look at the history, biology, and culture of the race concept. A couple of interesting points are made both by Dr. Nelson and Dr. Alan Goodman (Hampshire College and past president of the AAA):

1. Darwinian evolution, with its focus on change over time, is antithetical to the popular, modern conception of “race,” which is all about sorting people into 2, 3, 4, 5 (or whatever) unchanging types.

2.  Modern genetics has shown us that modern humans are, on average, about 99.9% genetically identical. There is a lot of interesting and important information that can be revealed in that 0.1% difference, such as ancestry, geography, or adaptation. But, what is fascinating is that many people choose to focus only on that 0.1% difference to the near exclusion of that 99.9% similarity.   

3. As a species, we are pretty good at categorizing things (can you imagine how difficult it would be to negotiate the world without that ability?). What we tend to do with human categorization, however, is to mesh those categories with the creation and upkeep of power relations between different groups (be it by “race,” ethnicity, socio-economic status, or some combination of these). People in power, of course, do not want to relinquish that power and so, in order to legitimize their relationships with other groups, they often resort to biology (something that is presumably unchangeable) rather than human institutions (which are presumably changeable).

4. The rise of DNA ancestry tests have, in many ways, complicated how people think about who they are and where they come from. Dr. Nelson notes that when a DNA ancestry test does not match up with how an individual construes their own social identity, the scientific tests often do not transform the way an individual thinks about themself. 

5. Science does not exist in a vacuum. Just like anyone else, scientists can bring their own social, historical, and political biases to the lab.

For more on this issue, see Dr. Nelson’s video interview on the Race in the age of genomics post on the blog.