The stripping of James Watson’s honorary titles in response to his offensive views on race and genetics marked an important moment in science history. In PBS’s “American Masters: Decoding Watson,” which aired on January 2, Watson, a pioneering geneticist considered one of the “fathers of DNA,” doubled down on his controversial belief that differences in IQ between black and white people are rooted in their genes.
The reaction was swift. By condemning its influential president and director on January 11, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory made a clear statement about its views on race and genetics.
It also raised a red flag about the broader scientific community, which still upholds beliefs about race that allowed Watson’s views to flourish.
Michael Yudell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public health at Drexel University and author of Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century, a book exploring and dismantling the idea that racial differences are rooted in biology. This concept underlies Watson’s comments. “I think it’s good that people are calling Watson out for his racism, given his stature as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist,” Yudell tells Inverse.
“But a part of me also thinks, my gosh, how many times do we have to strip Jim Watson of some title and acknowledge his racism while not really wrestling with what is perhaps the more significant problem in the way the science community addresses race and population in a way that harms people?”
Where Does Race Fit Into Biology?
Yudell is referring to a problem that has plagued scholars for over a century: Nobody can reconcile the cultural idea of race with a meaningful biological definition. Societies have long drawn racial lines to divide groups of individuals, but those parameters have never been clearly defined in biological terms.
What does it really mean to be black, or white, or Latin-American, or Asian? The Human Genome Project (which Watson spearheaded) revealed some 20,000 genes complicating our notions of race beyond skin color or geographical origin. After the HGP was completed in 2001, many scholars hoped the concept of bio-race, with its “racist biological notions of human difference,” would be done with forever.
And yet, race continues to factor into so many scientific studies that most of us rarely stop to think about it. To the average news reader, it doesn’t seem odd to hear that non-white people have worse hemorrhage outcomes, for example, or that African-Americans express a unique pattern of genes in some cancers. We are used to talking about race because it is part of our everyday cultural conversations, but it’s problematic that it’s become common in scientific research as well.
Studies like these aren’t ill-meaning or racist by any means, and they are important not only because they call attention to people who are overlooked by society, but also because they diversify the pool of people from which we draw conclusions about our species. But, as Yudell argued alongside other biologists and sociologists in a 2016 Science perspective titled “Taking Race Out of Human Genetics,” race is a “poor proxy for understanding the differences between human populations.”
Scientists, they argued, must find a better way to address all humans without dividing them up in terms of race. If they don’t, they not only do bad science, but they also help maintain an environment in which ideas like Watson’s can thrive.
“I think we also need to be honest and acknowledge that although the vast majority of scientists would reject and rebuke Watson’s specific ideas,” says Yudell, “there are ways in which the field of science continues to support the use of race in that has the effect of fostering ideas like this even if it seems so without that intention.”
“It’s unfortunately a broken record in general, he continues, “and also specifically when it comes to Jim Watson.”
So What Do We Do About Race?
“While people like Watson and others are great molecular biologists, human behavior and human achievements cannot be reduced to simple A-C-T-Gs,” Diddahally Govindaraju, Ph.D., a population geneticist affiliated with Harvard University, tells Inverse, referring to the four main letters of the genetic code.
Scientists have argued about this for a long time. The sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out as far back as 1899 that health disparities among black and white Americans weren’t due to race but to unequal living conditions. In 1972, evolutionary geneticist (and Watson’s peer) Richard Lewontin, Ph.D., wrote a seminal paper showing that the genetic differences between people of different “races” account for only 15 percent of variation among humans. Many scholars that came between and after them have argued the same thing.
But there are many reasons the bio-race concept persists in science. Some scientists believe that a group of people who self-identify with a race comprise a legitimate biological category. Others, like Harvard’s David Reich, Ph.D., argue that closing our minds to the possibility of critical differences between races invites rather than prevents racism. Meanwhile, social scientists and economists like it because it’s an easy-to-grasp idea that “sells,” says Govindaraju.
Underlying the various arguments is the fact that scientists haven’t agreed upon a very good alternative to race. Yudell and his colleagues argued in Science that we should use “ancestry” in its stead. Ancestry “can help us understand the events that led to your or my existence,” he says. Race, in contrast, is pattern-based and is tied to arbitrary geographic borders or socially constructed groups. Govindaraju also suggests we consider “niche construction,” an idea in evolution that emphasizes the role of the physical environment and experiences that a person lives through in shaping them.
Whatever system they decide on, it has to do one thing: provide a way for scientists to address all people objectively, fairly, and equally.
“Race Is of Course Real”
We are living through a moment in which race, however our culture chooses to define it, is more important than ever. We rely on race to recognize the people at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, the communities forced to drink tainted water, and the supremacists threatening others with violence. It is important to realize that race means something very different when taken out of a research context, even for scientists.
In a recent video, three researchers with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group using science to address social and political concerns, explained why they think it’s important to fight for racial equity. “There’s really no way that you can advocate for the health and safety of the entire public when you only have the perspective of one group of people,” said research analyst Charise Johnson in the video.
It may feel uncomfortable to try reconcile the arguments of scientists against race with the UCS’s concern that “certain populations in the United States, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and low-income communities,” deal with the worst consequences of environmental injustice. But we must bear in mind that scientists are concerned with the social implications of race as much as everybody else.
“I am a believer in racial biological equality,” says Govindaraju, “but social injustices and inequalities create [these] seeming inequalities among humans.”
“Race, of course, has social meanings, which is what Union of Concerned Scientists is saying,” says Yudell. “In our research, by suggesting that race is not a useful tool for classifying humans in genetic and biomedical research, we do not mean to say that somehow race is not real. Race is of course real.”