Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice

By Catherine Bliss | Go to book overview
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4 Making Sense of Race with Values

IT IS HELPFUL to envision the genomics of race as embracing a spectrum of working models.1 On one end of the spectrum is a “biologically deterministic” model, which corresponds to older typological notions of race.2 The biologically deterministic model posits race as a proxy for biological distinction. An extreme version is the notion that races are akin to subspecies. Europe’s first human taxonomists—natural historians like François Bernier, Carl Linnaeus, and Johann Blumenbach—established a precedent for dividing humanity into mutually exclusive and hierarchically ranked continental subspecies.3 Subsequent nineteenth-century scientists were so influenced by this idea that they debated whether there was in fact one human species.4 Eventually, Darwin’s notion of races as endogamous reproductive populations—populations of the same species that, through breeding, comprise unique gene pools— replaced the idea that races spontaneously emerged on different continents.5 Postwar geneticists recuperated the Darwinian notion of races as endogenous breeding populations as a counterpoint to social Darwinist and eugenicist theories that focused on hierarchies of social and behavioral characteristics.6 Today we can see traces of this argument in some continent-based definitions of human ancestral populations, and in common lay notions of race that assume there are biologically distinct races, which can be typed by a set of visible, heritable traits. It is also present in claims that while race is something biological and social, it is chiefly genetic. When taking such a position, scientists may articulate an array of social factors involved in biological pathways—factors such

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