Straw Men and Their Followers: The return of biological race
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Evelynn M. Hammonds is professor of the history of science and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Her current work focuses on the intersection of scientific, medical, and socio-political concepts of race in the United States. She is completing a book called The Logic of Difference: A History of Race in Science and Medicine in the United States, 1850–1990.

Until Armand Marie Leroi’s New York Times Op-Ed of March 14, 2005, it is unlikely that many Americans, even among the daily readers of the paper, knew that we are living in the midst of a raging debate over the existence of human races. This debate is occurring among and between a variety of researchers in genetics and social scientists from a range of disciplines. A number of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, biological anthropologists and medical researchers have recently challenged the view put forth by other scientists and social scientists that “Race is only social concept, not a scientific one.” They claim rather that current genetic research shows that “races are real” and that using race in genetic research has clear benefits especially for researchers who are trying to uncover the genetic basis of diseases that have a greater prevalence in certain groups. The broader claim however, as articulated by Leroi, is that those who have argued against race as a biologically meaningful concept have based their arguments not on current genetic data but rather on political grounds. He erroneously claims that the originator of this so-called political view is the eminent Harvard geneticist, Richard Lewontin, who in 1972 first argued that since there was greater genetic variation within any given race than between races the very concept of race was not a useful way to understand genetic variation in humans. Those scientists who continued to use race, Lewontin argued, did so less for scientific reasons than for ideological ones.

For Leroi and those unnamed scientists who support his view, Lewontin’s 1972 work opened the door to the politicization of race in science. They have characterized those ascribing to the view that race is socially constructed as “race deniers”—people who refuse to acknowledge what any child can see—that human beings can be lumped together in groups by skin color, hair type, eye shape and color, head shape and body type. Indeed, Leroi and others argue, these clear visible markers signal deeper differences within our bodies which are expressed in the differences in our genes. More importantly Leroi notes that, using sophisticated new technologies, “if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia—more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.” Therefore we can look at genes and get right back to the races we started with. Eureka! Race is real!

How could anyone argue with the story Leroi tells? To assert that race is real is not, Leroi claims, a return to the position that races are pure or that some races are superior to others. Thus there is no reason to fear that the use of race in science today could lead to the negative policies or racist attitudes of the past. Race today is a benign and beneficial concept, he says. It is merely a “shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences.” Indeed, through the use of race, medical scientists will be able to achieve the laudable goal of improving the health and treatment of diseases that disproportionately affect African Americans and other groups in which disease has been poorly understood and treated. By acknowledging race, Leroi continues, it becomes clear why we need to value and protect some of the world’s most obscure and isolated peoples. In the end, Leroi wants readers to believe that there are no dangers inherent in the use of traditional racial categories in science today and thus those who argue against its use are the ones who stand in the way of medical progress and the preservation of marginalized populations within the human species.

This is in many ways a familiar, almost Biblical, competitive tale in which the righteous son speaks in the voice of “true science.” In Leroi’s story, his “true” science has vanquished those liberal, but gullible, scientists and other critics who have jettisoned a useful scientific concept in order to affirm a liberal political position. In his cautionary tale, he recuperates race as nothing more than a useful heuristic—a useful shorthand—for obvious phenotypic and genetic diversity. In so doing, he becomes the hero of his own tale for his obvious courage in going against the forces of political correctness in the service of addressing health disparities. In this way Leroi marks his allegiance to other conservative voices who in this politically divisive moment in American politics and life characterize those with whom they disagree as the ones who have politicized the debate.

To make this competition even clearer, with the exception of Richard Lewontin, the critics of the view that race is a useful scientific concept are not named. Indeed, the very position that Leroi argues against—that race is socially constructed rather than “real”—is never explained beyond the few quotes attributed to Lewontin. For Leroi and others of his ilk, the opposition is a straw man. There is no need to provide a careful articulation of the opposing argument because the point is not to explain to the public why race remains a complex and imprecise concept for those studying human variation within biology, genetics and medicine. Rather the point is to offer so-called irrefutable scientific confirmation of what we already know about ourselves and our differences from those who are not like us.

It is tempting for social scientists to try to argue against articles like Leroi’s by carefully taking each point apart and showing how it is factually incorrect, illogical or detailing how much more complex the story is. There will be those who point to the explicit genetic determinism implicit in his argument, for example. Some geneticists will take a similar tack, reasonably pointing out the way Leroi has overstated what the data of the best genetic studies actually show about the relationship between race and genetics. Human genetic variation is essentially a continuous phenomenon, reflecting the various histories and migration patterns of groups of human beings. The fact that statistical programs can sort humans into “buckets” that very roughly correspond to “races” provides little information useful for understanding patterns of disease among human beings. They will surely note that while genetic data can be used to distinguish and allocate individuals into groups, whether or not those groups meaningfully correspond to races as defined in the United States remains an open question. These are useful and necessary points to make.

Such an exercise, however, often fails to address the larger questions that Leroi’s article raises. Indeed, often such corrective exercises end up producing their own straw men, pejoratively casting scientists who believe in the usefulness of race as ignorant relics of a bygone era. Leroi’s story has a certain appeal that cannot be undermined by a recitation of different facts about the meaning and uses of race in science. Rather the appeal of a story that links race to medical and scientific progress is in the way in which it naturalizes the social order in a racially stratified society such as ours. Therein lies its appeal and its popular and political currency.

Consider the controversy over the 1994 publication of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.1 The book generated extensive critiques by historians, social scientists and journalists. In the collection of reviews, arguments, historical background and critiques of the work published in 1995, there are detailed criticisms against each aspect of the argument, evidence and research presented by Herrnstein and Murray. The Bell Curve was a serious book that generated several hundred thousand readers within months of its publication and hundreds of critiques afterwards. However, I would suggest that none of the hundreds of critiques had as much appeal as the book and none of the critiques is remembered as much as the main argument of the book that “the ills of welfare, poverty, and an underclass are less matters of justice than biology.” 2

It is the power of biology as a naturalizing discourse that has to be challenged. And race is a key figure in this discourse. In the United States, race serves as a dense transfer point between nature and society. It links our social structure to our individual and group biologies and it links our biological differences back to our social structure. As one of my students quipped, “Race in America is not a biological category; it is a cosmology, an entire world view.” As soon as someone shows that “intelligence” is biological and fixed and it is expressed differently in different races, you have a natural explanation for all sorts of social ills that can be linked to racial differences in intelligence. The same is true of disease. If the incidence of disease differs by race and if race is biological, then we must use race to explore the cause and treatment of disease. Race in America has always explained too much and too little. Yet, Americans are deeply attracted to and readily accept racial narratives – especially when they are produced by biology.

The biologizing of race in the US has put biologists in a difficult position since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the period before World War II, some American biologists rushed to use the then new research in genetics to explore racial differences between African Americans and white Americans. When this project encountered methodological and political problems and its links to the horrific uses of racial science under the Nazis was exposed, such work was repudiated. In the period after World War II, some biologists thought they had successfully separated biology from race and politics. Social science buttressed this position by arguing that culture and societal structures were far more significant in human affairs than biology.

The consensus in the social sciences that race is a social concept grew so strong that by the end of the twentieth century it was rarely questioned. At the same time, a new generation of biologists armed with new technologies for understanding human genetic diversity that resulted from the Human Genome Project readily adopted common notions of race as the rubric for explaining this variation. Race is a term few of this generation of geneticists and biomedical researchers had ever questioned or even defined. It is not surprising, then, that many find it troubling that despite their best intentions, their work is used to confirm or deny lay views of race. It is even more troubling to geneticists that there is no consensus within science as to what race is, how it should be used, or its utility for predicting health outcomes in individuals. This uncertainty within science over the meaning and status of race has been politicized and exploited by a wide range of public and private entities that few Americans know about. Leroi’s opinion piece is just the most recent salvo in what promises to be a growing and contentious debate.

If we are not to use our differing views about race as either a machine to produce straw men or to reproduce old narratives that naturalize the many social inequities that have produced health disparities in this country—a different approach is needed. It is time for geneticists and biomedical researchers to directly confront the methodological limitations, errors and uncertainties in the way they use race constructs in their research designs and statistical analyses. Social scientists are rightfully skeptical of scientists’ use of race when the term is not clearly defined or thoughtfully employed. The system of peer review must be enlisted to ensure that scientists clearly specify why and how racial categories are used in their research. It is time too for the leading scientists in genetic research to produce a consensus document on the use of race. This cannot be done without the help of social scientists. Social scientists know that much of the power of race comes from the fact that it is open to differing and contradictory interpretations. There is a critical need for rigorous interdisciplinary work on race between geneticists and social scientists to develop new ways to analyze and explain the relations between biology and society and how they interact with each other. Unlike consensus documents on race produced in the past, resolving the issues of the meaning and uses of race today will engage a complexity not seen before. Can we use race to capture the complexity of human differences from the genetic to the social? If so, to what extent? How? And if not, why not?

Lastly, journalists and reputable news organizations have a duty to reveal the ethical, legal, financial and social implications of genetic research that invokes race. More importantly, they need to reflect in their accounts that they understand that racial narratives are always narratives about power. The need for informed and critical reporting is clear. Pharmaceutical and computer companies, politicians, and so-called independent experts are using Americans’ attraction to racial narratives to obscure their own interests in the outcomes of genetic research. The recent New York Times article on the launching of a new DNA database is a case in point.3 The project called “The Genographic Project” is a joint venture between the computer giant IBM and the National Geographic Society. The goal is to “combine population genetics and molecular biology to trace the migration of humans from the time we first left Africa, 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, to the places where we live today.” The project organizers plan to invite public participation by encouraging Americans to purchase a DNA test kit for $99.95. The buyer then returns the kit with a cheek swab with their own DNA which will be analyzed and stored in a database owned by IBM and the National Geographic Society. The article in the Times reported little more than what was in the press release of the project. At no point were serious concerns raised about the launch of a project to create one of the largest privately owned DNA databases in the country. By marketing the project as a way for Americans to find their “true” origins and to participate in a scientific project, the report seemingly left little room for criticism. And none was found in the article with the exception of a few cautionary statements by a Yale geneticist. The public was given no information about the potential problems that this project raises, the most obvious being questions of privacy, future use of the DNA that will reside in the database, and even the waste of money that might have gone elsewhere.

We are in the middle of a debate about the power and authority of genetic information and the meaning of race. Can genetic research tell us who we really are, where we come from, who we are related to, or why we get sick without resorting to concepts of race that confound and distort these very questions? Leroi is among those who are using race as biology as a ruse for making progress on health disparities. When one scratches the surface of his argument, one sees that it is little more than a thinly guised continuation of a long tradition of using biology to explain racial differences in order to claim that such disparities are due more to genetics than to the societal forces that have historically disenfranchised people of color within the US health care system. If we want to avoid this naturalization of the inequities of our current health care system and make real progress toward understanding the underlying causes of health disparities, then we must abandon any use of race that fails to capture the true complexity of human genetic variation. In the end, there can be no simple answer to the problem of race in genetic research—until we confront the problem of race and racism in America and understand that they are not the same thing.


1 R. Herrnstein and C. Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York, 1996).

2 p. ix, R. Jacoby and N. Glauberman, The Bell Curve Debate (New York, 1996).

3 Nicholas Wade, “Geographic Society is Seeking a Genealogy of Humankind,” The New York Times, April 13, 2005.