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Vol. LXIV, No. 11
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
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Tilghman Covers History of Race and Science in Annual James Baldwin Lecture at University

Dilshanie Perera

Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman called for a robust dialogue between scientists, social scientists, and humanists during her talk, “The Meaning of Race in the Post-Genome Era.” Sponsored by the Center for African American Studies, the James Baldwin Lecture featured Ms. Tilghman’s take on how scientific discourse has affected how people imagine race and racial categories over time.

Pointing out the importance of thinking through the social construct of race, Ms. Tilghman, a biologist and university professor, emphasized that the Center for African American Studies at Princeton reflects the university’s commitment to “studying and teaching the meaning of race and its impact on the past, the present, and the future throughout the entire curriculum.”

Building in the capacity for all departments and students to “encounter and grapple with one of the most vexing issues facing this country, and indeed the rest of the world,” Ms. Tilghman said that such conversations enable students to become “true cosmopolitans.”

Beginning her history of scientific formulations about race with 18th-century taxonomist Car Linneaus, Ms. Tilghman incorporated pertinent images and drawings as well as scientific models into her talk.

“I am sorry to have to say that too often when science has been brought to bear on the issue [of race], the outcome has not yielded enlightenment,” Ms. Tilghman said, elaborating upon Mr. Linneaus’s views, which divided humans up into five categories. “Linneaus’s profound error was to conflate race with character, making sweeping generalizations about the traits of categories of people based on prejudice rather than careful observation or measurement. This ‘unscientific leap’ is something that she said “would persist for centuries.”

Next up was late Viennese doctor Franz Joseph Gall, who is known for developing phrenology, or the spurious science of deducing moral and intellectual qualities based on skull shape and size. “Phrenology might have passed into history as an amusing and largely harmless fad a 19th-century version of astrology — had it not been for its inevitable use as a tool to discriminate against the Irish in Britain, and across the Atlantic to justify the institution of slavery.”

Ms. Tilghman noted how the craniometrists began with their conclusion that Europeans were superior, and skewed data in order to prove their hypothesis. The 19th-century eugenics movement spearheaded by Francis Galton further complicated matters, and “acquired a much nastier veneer” after it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in state-sanctioned prohibitions against reproduction, for instance.

“I have dwelled on this history of the scientific study of racial classifications for a reason — it highlights the perils that confront scientists when they venture into a terrain where one’s objectivity, or more accurately lack of objectivity, can play a role in the pursuit of scientific meaning.”

Turning to contemporary science, Ms. Tilghman explained that the idea of sequencing the human genome was suggested in the mid-1980s, though the technology at the time resulted in a slow, labor intensive, and costly process. “The human genome would have taken hundreds of years and billions of dollars to sequence.” A concerted effort by scientists, including Ms. Tilghman, led to the development of better sequencing technology, an “infusion of federal dollars,” and ultimately, the completion of the draft sequence of the human genome in June 2000.

“It was a euphoric moment for all who had participated in the project, but even at that moment of celebration, there was a sense that the genome could potentially open up a proverbial Pandora’s Box of issues, particularly surrounding the issue of race,” Ms. Tilghman said.

“One of the most fundamental questions that the sequence was intended to answer is the genetic basis for the enormous variation within the human species,” she added, referring to phenotypic differences like height, eye, skin, or hair color, and noting that at the level of the genome, we are 99.9 percent identical.

Analysis has revealed that “the differences between individuals are significantly greater than differences between groups,” and that the “degree of human variation is a continuum across the globe.”

Genetic distinctions between individuals defined by society as members of different races are declining rapidly over time. And genetic factors that can reveal disease susceptibility exist beyond what someone looks like.

It is an ongoing debate within the scientific community about how to use new information about genetic ancestry, and Ms. Tilghman noted that “attempts to stop the progress of science have been remarkably unsuccessful over time, and the benefits of understanding the impact of human variation outweighs the risks.

“But I say this with the specter in the back of my mind of someone speaking from this stage in a hundred years time, castigating the scientists of my era for their blindness to the ways in which their scientific findings were used to sustain prejudice and discrimination. How we proceed in this new era, and whether for good or ill, are now up to all of us, scientist and non-scientist alike,” Ms. Tilghman said.

“As a community in which scientists, social scientists, and humanists work and study in close proximity to one another, we can ensure that this discussion be as broad as possible.”

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