The core problem here remains that biology courses in high school and college are taught by individuals who, at least subconsciously, buy into the “race as biology” and “genetics as deterministic” perspectives. There are very, very few high schools in the United States where accurate information on human biological diversity is offered. There are few courses even at the college level where such information is provided or where contemporary evolutionary theory and biology are the norm. Inside and outside the classroom, students are mired in implicit “race talk” related to issues of biology and an overemphasis on genetic control of behavior. Think about discussions of professional sports, testosterone, violence, sexuality.
When human biological diversity is discussed it is often misrepresented. The two most common examples of human evolution and health given in classroom contexts are sickle-cell anemia and lactose tolerance. The sickle-cell example is always situated in Africa-the-continent, writ large, not West Africa, from where the examples are almost always derived. There are rarely examples drawn from the Arabian Peninsula or South Asia, where similar genetic variants arose. Nor are the Mediterranean thalassemias mentioned, a different genetic response to similar environmental pressures. In the case of lactose tolerance, the core examples come from Europe, not those populations in Africa and central Asia where the same types of genetic modifications expanded. In the classroom, sickle cell becomes a “black” genetic issue and the ability to digest milk a “white” one, regardless of the fact that neither of these genetic patterns is truly apportioned by continents or “races.”
When one does see a discussion of human genetic diversity in the biology classroom, it usually involves comparing a few populations from three or five continents, thus reifying a “racial” norm as the standard mode of comparison. The one most telling piece of information about human genetic diversity that has not made its way into most biology classrooms is that there is more genetic diversity in all the populations of sub-Saharan Africa than all the combined variation outside of the African continent; human genetic variation is not apportioned uniformly or discretely by continental landmass. This means that the continents are not appropriate contexts or markers for discussing genetic variation. They are proxies for race, and their (mis)use as such continues to reinforce the “race as biology” motif.
I’m also sharing it because I spotted a familiar name.
Some of these beliefs have been promoted for years by well-funded racist organizations such as the Pioneer Fund; this group had among its members the late Philippe Rushton, who believed that there is an inverse relationship between penis size and IQ. But there is also the more mainstream Heterodox Academy, an online forum dedicated to pushing the academy to the political right because, the group’s members believe, liberal scholars teach orthodox ideas “without any real evidence.” Listed among the entrenched, unsubstantiated orthodoxies held up for critique by the Academy is this one: “All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members” They don’t like the idea that scholars question what actually constitutes human behavior. Notables listed on the Heterodox Academy’s advisory board in 2016 include Steven Pinker of Harvard, John McGinnis of Northwestern and John McWhorter of Columbia. It is fascinating that some scholars think evolutionary biologists who challenge the idea that humans can be neatly sorted into racial groups are doing so for political reasons.