Category: Harriet-Elliott participants

By all accounts, I think we can say that this year’s event was a smashing success!

The panel discussion was absolutely fantastic: the blog questions were stimulating and the audience questions were excellent as well. We had well over 200 attendees, many of them students. Honestly, with how dynamic the discussion was, we could have gone on for another hour. Our sincere thanks to the panelists, Drs. Baker, Nelson, and Jackson, and to the moderator, Dr. Cheryl Logan. They really made the discussion. It was clear from the audience’s questions that many people have a personal investment in the panel’s discussion, focusing as it did on issues of ancestry and how genetic information is used to contruct identity.

The turnout for Dr. Hawks’s keynote address was amazing: there must have been over 300 people! Dr. Hawks gave a wonderful presentation on Neandertals and, yes, many modern humans DO have Neandertal genes! Thanks to Dr. Hawks for joining us.

Check back soon, as we will be posting the video of the panel discussion and the keynote address on the blog.

We’d like to keep the conversation going, so please post your comments on this year’s event here…

The event is upon us! So, here is the schedule of events for tomorrow (Wednesday, March 23rd; a map of UNCG’s campus is available here):

1. 3-5pm EUC Auditorium: panel discussion featuring Dr. Alondra Nelson (Columbia University; see her bio here, and check out this post and this post), Dr. Lee Baker (Duke University; see his bio here and this post), and Dr. Fatimah Jackson (UNC-Chapel Hill; see her bio here). Each participant will be asked to speak for 10 minutes about how they see their research intersecting with this year’s theme (“Our genetic past and genomic future”), and then a roundtable discussion and audience questions will follow (moderated by Dr. Cheryl Logan, UNCG; see her bio here). Much of the roundtable will focus on questions submitted beforehand via this blog (see below).

2. 5-630pm EUC Kirkland Room: a reception will follow after the panel discussion. Refreshments will be provided (it’ll be a great spread, trust us…). This will serve as an “open house” of sorts,  allowing the participants to interact directly with the student body and the general public. Students from UNCG’s Student Anthropological Society (SAS) will be available to direct people from the panel discussion to the reception.

3. 7-9pm Meade Auditorium (Sullivan Science Building 101): keynote address by Dr. John Hawks (University of Wisconsin-Madison; see his bio here and check out his weblog here). The title is “Neandertime: Deciphering the Secrets of Ancient Genomes”. The talk will consider the state-of-the-art in Neandertal genomics; it should be fantastic. Q & A will follow the talk.

Some general notes:

  • Given the late afternoon time of the panel discussion, we understand that people may not be able to show up right at three or stay until the end. We encourage people to show up at any time and listen to what our panel has to say.
  • Microphone stands will be available for the audience to ask questions at our panel and after the keynote address. However, you are also encouraged to submit questions beforehand to our participants. You can do so here. Keep in mind that you don’t have to attend to submit a question; we’ll be recording the entire event and will post the file on the blog afterwards…so, you will still be able to hear and see your question being addressed!

We hope to see you all at the event!!

Our keynote speaker John Hawks posted on his blog yesterday about his keynote address this Wednesday. It should be really, really great. From his blog:

I’ve got to tell you, the talk I’m giving about Neandertal genetics is the very best I’ve ever prepared. I don’t say this kind of thing lightly, but if you’re in the area and care about Neandertals, this is as good as it gets. We are discovering new stuff every day, the pace of discovery right now is running way ahead of the pace of publication.

So, if you were thinking about attending, then this should give you good reason to definitely come!

Well, we’re all back from Spring Break here at UNCG…and our event is only 8 days away! Check out event details here, and don’t forget to post questions for our participants here.

Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating interview with Daniel Sharfstein about his book, “The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.” His book shows just how fluid the idea of race could be, even in the American South, which was pretty rigid about the concept, particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s lots of interesting discourse here, so you should check it out, but here are a couple of things worth quoting:

Q: You note that an early 18th-century governor of South Carolina granted the Gibsons, who clearly had African-American ancestry, permission to stay in his colony because “they are not Negroes nor Slaves.” How did the governor reach such a nebulous conclusion?

Sharfstein: It shows how fluid understandings of race can be. The Gibsons were descended from some of the first free people of color in Virginia, and like many people of color in the early 18th century they left Virginia and moved to North Carolina and then to South Carolina, where there was more available land and the conditions of the frontier made it friendlier to people of color. But when they arrived in South Carolina there was a lot of anxiety about the presence of this large mixed-race family. And it seems that the governor determined that they were skilled tradesmen, that they had owned land in North Carolina and in Virginia and—I think most important—that they owned slaves. So wealth and privilege trumped race. What really mattered is that the Gibsons were planters.

Q: One of your subjects, Stephen Wall, crossed from black to white to black to white again, in the early 20th century. How common was that crossing back and forth?

Sharfstein: My sense is that this happened fairly often. There were many stories of people who, for example, were white at work and black at home. There were plenty of examples of people who moved away from their families to become white and for one reason or another decided to come home. Stephen Wall is interesting in part because at work he was always known as African-American, but eventually, at home everyone thought he was Irish.

Q: As you look at the United States now, would you say the color line is disappearing, or even has disappeared?

Sharfstein: I think the idea that race is blood-borne and grounded in science still has a tremendous amount of power about how we think about ourselves. Even as we understand how much racial categories were really just a function of social pressures and political pressures and economic pressures, we still can easily think about race as a function of swabbing our cheek, looking at our DNA and seeing if we have some percentage of African DNA. I think that race has remained a potent dividing line and political tool, even in what we think of as a post-racial era. What my book really works to do is help us realize just how literally we are all related.

See our keynote speaker Dr. John Hawks talking about rapid genetic evolution among modern humans (“Rapid evolution: Can mutations explore historic events?”) at the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Check out Dr. Hawks (our keynote speaker) and Dr. Kate Clancy on Although not directly related to our event’s theme, they do have interesting discussions on fertility in Poland and the challenges facing women in science.

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.

Well, according to Ernst Mayr’s Biological Species Concept, which holds that species are “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups,” the newest genetic data (see a previous post on this blog) suggest that perhaps they should be considered the same species. A nice summary of the debate is provided by Ann Gibbons in Science. While some paleoanthropologists (including our keynote speaker John Hawks, who is quoted in the piece; check out his blog post on the subject) consider Neandertals and modern humans to be the same species, others maintain that the two are distinct species because the anatomical, developmental, and behavioral differences between Neandertals and modern humans are much greater than what we see among any modern population.

Check out Gibbons’s piece and tell us what you think. Are we the same species or not (remember, it also depends on what species definition you decide to use)?

It is likely that Dr. Hawks will be addressing some of these issues in his keynote lecture (we now have a title for the talk: “Neandertime: Deciphering the Secrets of Ancient Genomes.”) 


Gibbons, A. (2011). A new view of the birth of Homo sapiens. Science 331: 392-394.

UPDATE 2.10.2011. Dr. Hawks has blogged about the applicability of the Biological Species Concept for extinct human groups.

Please use the following form to submit your questions for our Harriet-Elliott participants. We will collect these before the event, present them to our participants, and select a group of questions that our participants will answer during the event.