Cultural Reactions to Scientific Knowledge: The Creation of Race

Attach statistics, images, or the phrase “scientific research” and the basis of a paper can automatically be associated with a greater degree of scientific credibility.  But what happens when the basis for such scientific research is meant to provide “evidence” for the inferiority of one group of humans when compared to another? By exploring race through through the scientific practice that focuses in defining or characterizing it, one can begin to understand the social construct of race, as many investigations in history failed to hold to a rigorous standard and were often tainted by scientists’ own beliefs and agenda.. Yet, we should not preclude the

possibility that current genomics could help us to benefit medicine by studying racial group at

the molecular level in hopes of population-specific medicinal advances. To avoid essentializing

race with these scientific studies, history, and philosophy of race are important to reflect upon in order to pursue one’s understanding of the world.

Merriam-Webster’s general and medical dictionaries define race as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits” (3.3c and 1.2).  However, race is not defined in Merriam-Webster’s legal dictionary nor has it been defined by the legal system in the United States; in spite of that, the legal system has accepted “racial identification” through its reliance on individuals visually sorting people into different races (Miele and Sarich 14).  Most legal scholars would find it peculiar how something does not need to be defined in order for it to be used as an identifying technique in legal court.  When exploring the innate ability of humans to classify humans through racial characteristics, seen as early as three-years-old, Frank Miele and Vincent Sarich, authors of Race: The Reality of Human Differences, likened this evolutionary characteristic of interactive sociality with that of several animals who are also able to identify members of their own social groups and others in order to adjust their behaviors towards certain individuals (25-26).    Similarly the distinctions between racial groups can be valid in a biological sense without the stigmas that are associated with them as there is no present need to fear people of other races for looking different. Furthermore, “the Naturalistic Fallacy” in regards to possible proof on people’s natural behavioral tendencies (fear, aggressiveness, etc.) towards people of other races is now commonly rejected as many reject the idea on the basis that they believe that, as humans, we can choose whether to approve or ignore those innate thoughts (Miele and Sarich 27).

Recent social movements have set out to discredit the creation of “race” as a social-construct rather than a biological one.  However, if there were no genetic differences at all then popular personal genomics and biotechnology companies, such as 23andme and Illumina, would not be able to analyze individual genetic data.  Furthermore, Frank Miele and Vincent Sarich note that when “..given a sufficient number of markers, such analysis is capable of not only identifying race but predicting skin tone as well” ( 23); advancements in genomics such as the one listed above further prove that there are distinctions in DNA between different groups of people.  Nevertheless, scientific basis for this distinction between “races” is relatively recent when compared to the long history of the term “race” and its prejudices based on physical attributes, such as skin color, hair color or hair pattern, and facial features.

When looking at the history of racial classification, the collection and study of human skulls is important in the research it produced along with the different schools of thoughts and beliefs that arose with its inception.  Polygenists believed that different human races were the result of “separate acts of creation” rather than that of evolutionary changes caused by climate or diet (Fabian 83). Samuel George Morton was as American naturalist who acquired a collection of almost a thousand human skulls – widely known for his exhaustive measurements on those skulls.  Like other polygenists he believed in the creation of five distinct races: Caucasian, Mongolian, American, Malay, and Ethiopian; however, he believed each race was its own species representative of certain continents (Fabian 83). While lauded for his contributions to science due to his methodology, there is trouble discerning discovery of fact with that of invention.  Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which influenced many American naturalists, accepted the use of size as a measurement of racial differences and conjectured the belief that people of African descent were inferior (Fabian 16).  Morton’s belief of racial distinctions having been created and did not evolve along with the social climate of his time, not only shaped his assumption that skull size was a signifier of intelligence, but probably colored it with his result being that Caucasian heads were the largest and thus the Caucasian race was superior to other races.  Debates regarding slavery at the time helped sell Morton’s book, Crania Americana, and provided attention to his work as his material was useful to the defenders of slavery, whether he intended that to be its use or not.  Skepticism currently follows his work as it is known that there was a great disparity in the amount of skulls he had of each race. He had a lot of Native American skulls, and the fact that the origin and story of each skull came from the people who donated or sold the skull(s) to Morton, as he himself was not able to travel much, and  left the authentication of each specimen to rely solely on the credentials of the collector (Fabian 40). Morton’s work became the basis for the term “scientific racism” as he methodologically “explored” ways to differentiate men through race (Fabian 2). Scientific racism is used to classify empirical data that has been recorded to provide credibility for the inferiority or superiority of one group of people when compared to another.

With widespread belief that science is the “ultimate authority” when it comes to physical reality there is a dependence on scientists to inquire and  acquire such knowledge about the external and objective world at large (Zack 2). However, this belief provides a validity to all figures of scientific authority regardless of their prejudice – resulting in the dispersal of works by scientists, such as Samuel George Morton, who may be influenced by popular social discourse.  Similarly there is often debate between scientific figures regarding certain topics such as race, gender, evolution, medicine, etc. causing differing opinions regarding the validity or truth behind certain topics, which can cause great dispute within the general public. For example, the scientific validity of “race” is often critiqued and its reception has greatly changed in recent years.  The official American Anthropological Association “Statement on Race” is :

Given what we know about the capacity of normal humans to achieve and function within any culture, we conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called “racial” groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.

This statement and other similar statements by other large organizations are causing  a widespread belief that “race” is not a real concept and thus should not be used. It is important to realize that the scientific community has not withdrawn their belief that there are distinct genetic markers that separate a group of people from others and have continued to make advancements that benefit from these differences.  Consequently, the shift in popular discourse has rejected the scientific communities’ position by rejecting race in order to stop racialization and the prejudices that accompany it.

While there is an understanding that modern-day prejudices regarding racial differences are not backed by science, there are important reasons to understand and study population-based typology in order to adeptly identify and treat the predisposition to certain diseases or disabilities by varying racial groups (Zack 100-101).   There is current discourse regarding the validity of the use of phenotypic markers of social race as a reliable diagnostic trait for the presence of genetic disease. There is no claim to identify the presence or absence of a certain gene in a group of the world’s population. Consequently, past researchers of population-associated diseases have limited certain diagnosis and treatments to certain racial groups hindering other racial groups and the basis of the research resulting in heavy criticism of any sort or racial typology in science.

Regardless of efforts by scientists and external forces trying to influence the social construction of race, there is a staggering amount of effects on society’s perception of humans that look different from them because of the presentation of some scientific work as valid rather than as the work of scientific racism.  As noted previously, there has been certain insights claimed by doctors in the susceptibility of certain groups of people within a population to certain diseases; however, current research rejects previous claims not only for their restrictive qualities, that of misdiagnosing or preferring to diagnose a certain racial group to certain diseases simply because of race rather than symptoms, but also due to certain assumptions.  The correlation between African Americans and their susceptibility to chronic-heart disease is an infamous claim that is currently being refuted by medical scientists. As stated by Dr. Adewale Troutman in the first episode, “In Sickness and In Health”, for the docuseries Unnatural Causes, “if you’re an African American, no matter what your social status, your socioeconomic status, your health outcomes are going to be worse than your white counterpart” (2008).  While the disposition to chronic illness was often affiliated with genetic heritability of certain diseases, current research supports the belief that this disposition is caused by race; however, rather than it being a biological correlation it is due to the connection to racial discrimination.  Members of certain races are subjected to daily racial discrimination, through outright prejudice or constant microaggressions, that affect the well-being of these individuals as “stressors”.  The results of these “stressors” are magnified by the ability of that individual to manage those stressors, an individual of a higher economic status would have the means to appropriately react to those stressors – in the instance that these stressors were due to economic, relationship, or personal problems.  A person of a certain race would not be able to “react” accordingly to their skin color or other racial features that are used as identifiers to make them victims of racial discrimination as there is no response that can be made for the phenotypic expression. Meaning that at any social and economic strata, they, African Americans in this example, would be more susceptible to chronic heart diseases.  The previous belief that this susceptibility was a biological disposition allowed for an avoidance of the social problem of racial discrimination through the assumption that nothing could be done to alleviate this problem within the African American community.

While there has been a tremendous amount of work to disprove the work of researchers and professionals that partook in scientific racism, the effects of the work done by prejudiced scientists or the manipulation of work done by unsuspecting scholars, such as Charles Darwin and his work being used in the field of Eugenics, in order to support racism, continues to be seen in the treatment of people of color by society.  The work of Charles Darwin was often manipulated to pursue the use of scientific knowledge as backing for the belief by some that they were racially superior in comparison to other races. The phrase “favoured races” was used by Darwin to explain the differences between races in the way in which they adapted to their environment. This phrase was then taken by white scholars, politicians, and common folk as a way to justify their racism and their system of slavery by connecting Darwin’s work to the justification that their race was made better God (Lander 12).  It is important to note that Darwin’s work on evolutionary biology made no such reference to God but was referencing the differing levels of development in different groups of people through natural selection.  He noted differences in races with a clinical eye in order to make scientific observations rather than allowing his or the beliefs of others to influence his work. When asked about the work of his contemporary: Samuel George Morton, Darwin believed him to be impressionable and believed him to not be “a safe man to quote from” (Lander 80).  While Charles Darwin may not have put much faith in the work of Morton, there was a great amount of people who did or fell prey to other work of scientific racism.

Color-based bias in the United States has even created a health care system in which people of color are “denied pain meds”, “handled brusquely” and are openly questioned by medical staff for their “ability to pay” (Stallings 2018).  A very recent, public claim was made by Serena Williams, a world-ranked black tennis player, in regards to deadly pregnancy complications from which she had a very hard time trying to convince her doctors that something was wrong with her before they finally took action and did find that she was correct.  Doctors found some deadly blood clots after her continuous insistence that she was experiencing something besides normal pregnancy pains (Anagnost-Repke 2018). William’s fame and wealth were not enough to fight the microaggressions that have a deep hold in the medical field, and her story proves anecdotal evidence for the work of Dr. Adewale Troutman, as noted previously from Unnatural Causes for his claim that “no matter what your social status, your socioeconomic status, your health outcomes are going to be worse than your white counterpart” (2008) – not only was Serena William’s health worse, but also her treatment.

Microaggressions stemming from past works of scientific racism can continued to be seen in many facets of life, not only in the medical field.  In media, “unfavorable media depictions can mean the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes: this can lead to outcomes ranging from unsympathetic policy positions to active or passive harming behaviors” (Mastro 2017).  The perpetuation of harmful stereotypes is carried-out not only through scripted series and movies, but also through the presentation of minorities in the news. The work of some of Morton’s contemporaries and colleagues: phrenologists, scholars who studied the brain and skull in order to attribute certain behaviors and personality characteristics to certain parts of the mind, provided work that became the backbone of scientific racism and continues to be seen in construction of these stereotypes.  Phrenology maps, diagrams of that set indications of mental abilities and behavior to specific areas of the head, dictated which races were more aggressive, impulsive, and animal-like, and which were more wise, calm, and creative (Fabian 16-17). These stereotypes produce responses from the white-majority that are more often than not harmful to the colored-minorities; examples are higher-incarceration rates, less chance of being promoted or hired, and higher mortality rates.

It is important to note the societal response to scientific knowledge in order to understand the power that scientists and scholars have on the general world.  Societies’ current essentialization of race has created unease in the general population with regards to advancements in genomics as there is a current misinterpretation of the knowledge that can be garnered by noting the differences in people.  Through our exploration of race, we were able to see that the social construct of race is greatly shaped by the scientific understanding of what “race” is, and thus makes it important for us to reflect on scientific studies, history, and the philosophy of race.

 

Sources:

“AAA Statement on Race.” AAA Statement on Race, American Anthropological Association, www.americananthro.org/ConnectWithAAA/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2583.

Anagnost-Repke, Angela. “Serena Williams’s Story About Her Childbirth Complications Could Save Another Mother’s Life.” POPSUGAR.family, Popsugar, 10 Feb. 2018, www.popsugar.com/moms/Serena-Williams-Pregnancy-Complications-44503125.

Fabian, Ann. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and Americas Unburied Dead. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

“In Sickness and In Health.” Unnatural Causes, PBS, 2008, www.unnaturalcauses.org/episode_descriptions.php.

Landers, James. Lincoln & Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion. Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Mastro, Dana. “Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Media Content and Effects.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication.  September 26, 2017. Oxford University Press,. Date of access 5 Dec. 2018, http://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-122.

Miele, Frank, and Vincent Sarich. Race: The Reality of Human Differences. Westview Press, 2004.

“Race.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/race#medicalDictionary. (Entry 1 of 1) 2.

“Race.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/race. (Entry 3 of 3) 3c.

Stallings, Erika. “This Is How the American Healthcare System Is Failing Black Women.” Oprah Magazine, Oprah Magazine, 1 Aug. 2018, www.oprahmag.com/life/health/a23100351/racial-bias-in-healthcare-black-women/.

Zack, Naomi. Philosophy of Science and Race. Routledge, 2002.