SciCafe Returns Oct. 5 To Debunk the Scientific Myth of Race main content.

SciCafe Returns Oct. 5 To Debunk the Scientific Myth of Race

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On the first Wednesday of every month, the Museum hosts inquisitive minds for cocktails and conversation about the latest science topics at SciCafe. The popular after-hours series returns on October 5 with an evening devoted to scientific evidence about the nature of race and “racial” differences led by Museum Curators Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, who recently co-authored a book on the subject.

SciCafe brings together scientists and curious minds for a night of cocktails and conversation.
 © AMNH/R. Mickens.

Dr. DeSalle, an evolutionary geneticist, and Dr. Tattersall, a physical anthropologist, will discuss the lack of biological evidence for racial boundaries among human populations, the evolutionary processes that account for distinctions among Homo sapiens, and more. They recently answered a few questions on the topic.

Why is race a scientific myth? What has science or culture done to perpetuate it?

Tattersall: “Race” is a within-species phenomenon. And within a species there are two possible processes, the effects of which are diametrically opposed: diversification and re-integration. The human diversity we see today, and its distribution, is a product of both, producing a messy picture that is not helpfully clarified by trying to recognize discrete “races.”

DeSalle: Why race as a biological concept keeps raising its ugly head is a question that is addressed by biologists, sociologists, and historians all the time. Almost all racialist scientific approaches have been detrimental to our understanding of human cultural variation and have led in some instances to the worst atrocities committed in the name of science. Social Darwinism, Eugenics, Nazism, and the IQ Debate all stemmed from scientific racialism.

Your new book, Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth, describes how many features that we consider markers of race are actually of recent biological origin or superficial. Could you give an example?

Tattersall: Our species is extremely young by general mammalian standards, and modern diversity appears to have even more recent roots. All the variations in modern human skin color, for instance, appear to have originated within the last 50,000 years, a mere blip in evolutionary time.

DeSalle: Skin color is, ironically, the one trait that most racialist biology is based on. But there are many ways to produce dark skin, just like there are many ways to produce height or weight in humans. There are equally many ways to produce light skin and a multitude of ways to produce “in-between” skin colors. Skin color then becomes one of these complex traits that exist in human populations, like weight or height or tolerance to altitude—or any of a number of other traits we humans have evolved.

What’s unique about speaking at SciCafe?

DeSalle: The informal tone creates a “living room” atmosphere, but with a lot of people in the living room. The format forces the scientist to relate better to the audience. There’s no hiding behind slides or a flashy PowerPoint presentation at these things.