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Sunday, June 20, 2021

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OPINION: Modern biology departments must confront how racist viewpoints twist science

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. This article contains expletive language.

In a recent article, The Collegian reported on Dr. Yucel Yanikdag’s revelation that, during the mid-1900's, courses within the UR biology department included eugenics. One course, “Genetics and Eugenics,” started in 1930 and continued for several decades. 

Coming soon after the revelation that a campus dorm is named after Douglas Southall Freeman, a man who promoted eugenics, it is an important reminder that support of this racist pseudoscience has been part of the past discourse on campus. 

Repudiation of racism must be part of our current discourse in biology. The biology department unequivocally condemns eugenics and affirms our goals of confronting these issues in the classroom by helping our students recognize how this misuse of science has ripple effects, even today. 

Eugenics is an ugly part of the history of science, where promotion of this ideology has caused loss of liberty, forced sterilization, murder, and widespread ethnic cleansing of marginalized people. Proponents of eugenics are known to distort the work of Mendel and other scientists to further their racist agenda. 

While the scientific principles of inheritance and population genetics themselves are not inherently racist or inappropriate, misunderstanding or over-interpretation of the science can, at minimum, lead to confusion, or at worse, be twisted in service of a reprehensible agenda. 

For example, it is well known that skin color is genetically-based. Skin color stems from where one’s ancestors lived on the planet, and the amount of UV light to which they were exposed. Despite rampant use of skin color to assess ‘race,’ there is no single skin tone that correlates with broadly used categories of race. 

Race is a classification system that humans invented and definitions of race differ substantially across cultures. These racial categories do not apply to genetic studies of human populations. Instead, studies of human genetics primarily focus on geographic origins––a parameter that is only loosely correlated with broadly used racial categories. 

When comparing humans from different geographic regions, only 0.1% of our DNA differs from one another. Less than 5% of that 0.1% is shared among people descended from the same areas of the world. Even then, none of these variants are universal across one geographic region and completely absent from other regions. In other words, the genetic traits that one might commonly associate with race do not actually correlate with our society's definition of race.

Yet, the echoes of eugenic pseudoscience are still detected today in biases that have real world consequences. Eugenics perpetuates false claims that genetic differences underlie a hierarchy of races. Eugenic arguments reappear as new advances in genetics, such as genome sequencing and gene therapies, are misused to support racist agendas.  

For example, recent videos have used imagery of white supremacists chugging milk to claim superiority based on the ability to tolerate lactose as an adult. However, this trait is also widely present in people descended from parts of the Middle East, West Africa and East Africa, in addition to its prevalence in Europeans. 

Understanding how past histories of our ancestors can lead to traits in people today is a critical part of science and medicine. However, it is too easy to misunderstand the nuances of genetics and perpetuate false ideas about race. 

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It is important for biologists and biology departments to reckon with racist pseudoscience of the past and the present, as well as how this racism impacts marginalized groups today. In our current Biology classrooms at the University of Richmond, professors confront the painful impact of the eugenics movement and how its effects linger in systemic racism today. 

We talk about how we are vastly more genetically similar than we are genetically different. And where small differences do occur among individuals, these distinctions teach us about our history and our health. We discuss how modern genome sequencing shows us that society’s racial categories are not genetically distinct groups. We unpack how stereotypes and misunderstanding of genetics can affect equitable treatment in medicine and public health. 

Dr. Yanikdag’s revelation of the disgraceful history of eugenics on our campus is a good reminder of why it is important that we prepare our students to identify and disrupt racist contortions and misuse of science. Just as our community seeks to understand how racism has been propagated throughout higher education and at UR, we will continue to interrogate how racism affects science. We will learn from our students and our colleagues in the sciences and in other disciplines, and continue to bring this conversation to our classrooms. 

While many faculty members were able to contribute and sign this piece, not all Biology faculty were able to do so in the short time available at the end of the semester. Thus, this list may not include all faculty who support the sentiment of this statement. 

Angie Hilliker 

Melinda A. Yang

Dan Pierce

Laura Runyen-Janecky

Isaac Skromne

Eugene Wu

Kristine Grayson

John Warrick

Krista Stenger

John Hayden

Amy Treonis

Rafael O. de Sá

Colleen Carpenter-Swanson

Emily Boone

Carrie Wu

Jory Brinkerhoff

Peter Smallwood

Shannon Jones

Linda Boland

Priscilla Erickson

Omar A. Quintero-Carmona

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