One of the goals of contemporary human population genetics is to understand the distribution of humans globally, using population clusters to designate groups of people. Some researchers in the 21st century use this clustering to argue for the cogency of traditional Western racial types (see: Jorde and Wooding 2004 and Risch et al. 2002). However, fitting these clusters into the traditional racial groups is arbitrary. Anthropologists and geneticists have demonstrated that human diversity is clinal, that is, variation increases gradually with distance. Therefore, any populations that have historically been separated by great distance will likely be more genetically different than groups that neighbor one another, allowing gene flow to occur more readily. A consequence is that groups that have historically been categorized into the same racial group can be easily genetically differentiated as is done with people from another of the traditional Western racial categories. Furthermore, the choice of algorithms in the analysis of genetic similarity effects the results.
Anthropologists have long argued that ‘race’ is not a viable biological category and in fact is culturally constructed and maintained. These culturally made categories have real social and biological consequences. For instance, Gravlee (2005) demonstrates that membership into the culturally-contingent racial categories has measurable biological ramifications. Negative health outcomes that are correlated to race (i.e. heart disease among African Americans) are not caused by genetic ancestry, but are the consequences of membership in a particular social race and class within a certain social context.
Science, as a cultural authority, holds a certain privilege in maintaining social structures, particularly in cases that confirm already held beliefs. Things presented as objective science have power to confirm previously held beliefs and there is no better example than that of race. Science is often accepted more readily when it conforms to peoples already held beliefs and rejects as in conflicts with them. This is seen in American society by the low rate of acceptance of evolution as the cause of organismal diversity due to its perceived conflict with religious beliefs. Because race is so firmly cemented in American society, studies that confirm antiquated views of race have a profound impact. Not only do these studies perpetuate general beliefs about the viability of race as tenable and descriptive biological categories, but also, inadvertently or not, result in the maintenance of class structure. If races are natural categories then any social difference could be the product of innate genetic, psychological, or physiological differences that surely must exist between the races. This has been argued in highly influential works such as Charles A. Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994), work by Philippe Rushton (2005; 1995), and Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance (2014). Arguments included in these works reify the authors’ own class statuses and maintain historically produced class structure, and, despite extensive research demonstrating race’s place as the result of class and power, continue to perpetuate notions of the superiority of those occupying the highest class station and justify the domination of those below.
My new project will evaluate the early days of genetics and its contribution to legitimizing and maintaining American racial categories and the subsequent maintenance of race-divided-class. Today, scholars continue to argue for the naturalness of class and race and in order to understand contemporary beliefs of the relationship between race and class, it is necessary to explore the effect that the early years of genetics had on American thought, namely, how we engage with race and class in the 21st century.