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Scholars still disagree on concept of race, speaker says

by Michael Kirk - April 16, 2007

The term “Caucasian” was first used to describe white Europeans in 1776 by a scientist who believed that skulls he had unearthed in the Caucasus Mountain region must have belonged to ancestors of white Europeans.

A few centuries later, a leading Harvard researcher used the term “Caucasian” to refer to white people in a paper he wrote, and this surprised his colleague, Evelynn Hammonds, a professor of the history of science and of African and African-American studies, also at Harvard.

She knew the term had been off-base from the time it was coined.

Hammonds related this anecdote to illustrate how far we still have to go in understanding race, during a wide-ranging lecture titled “Race and Science: New Challenges to an Old Problem.”

She gave her talk, one of a series focused on the intersection of science and human rights, in Konover Auditorium on April 4.

During the talk, Hammonds brought the audience on a historical tour of sorts, examining more than 200 years of theories and beliefs on race that still have historians and scientists arguing.

At the core are the questions: Is race a biological or a social category? and Are there genetically-based differences between different races, or are humans genetically homogeneous?

According to Hammonds, race is defined by concepts that “represent social, political, and historical categories that have changed over time.”

She pointed out that in America, today’s “ethnic groups,” such as the Irish and the Italians, are yesterday’s “races.”

She extensively quoted social scientists, anthropologists, and physicians to show how views on race have evolved.

One noted that attributes that have been ascribed to race are completely open to social influence, she said.

“Scientists are still having a problem with it,” said Hammonds.

“Sociologists, historians, and many anthropologists see race as a product of historical and social processes,” she noted, “not as a natural category existing in nature.”

Hammonds disagreed with an audience member who said that many believe the disease sickle cell anemia affects people of African descent more than any other.

She said sickle cell affects others too, including Mediterranean populations.

“Social scientists need to learn more about biology,” she said, “and scientists need to learn a little more history.”

Hammonds said she hopes conversations on the subject of race will “get to the heart of what we want to understand about disease, about genetics, and about health and human differences.”

Richard Wilson, director of UConn’s Human Rights Institute, said the lecture “offered a clear and concise argument for rejecting the category of race as imprecise and arbitrary.

“Racial groups are not scientific categories, but artificial ones created for the purpose of marginalizing and oppressing populations, historically and in the present,” he said.

“What is clear from Dr. Hammonds’ talk and from the science is that we are one human species, and all other biological distinctions are meaningless. The entire framework of human rights is built upon this principle.”

Anne Hiskes, director of the University’s program on science and human rights and one of the organizers of the lecture series, said the lectures have successfully engaged faculty and students from the sciences with the human rights program, and have begun “a campus-wide dialogue on important issues.

The success of the program is due in part to the high quality of the speakers, but it also shows a strong interest by members of this university to examine the ethical and social implications of scientific advances.”

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