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Evolution and race: Biologically, race is no longer an issue, scientific panel agrees

Robert Barker/University Photography
University of Maryland physicist Sylvester James Gates, left, speaks during the Darwin Days panel discussion on evolution and race in Goldwin Smith Hall's Lewis Auditorium Feb. 10. Also on the panel are Cornell Professors Will Provine, Kenneth Kennedy and Warren Allmon.

The concept of race is obsolete as far as biologists are concerned, a panel of scientists discussing evolution agreed in Goldwin Smith Hall's Lewis Auditorium, Feb. 10.

The panel discussion, part of a series of "Darwin Days" events marking the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth Feb. 12, provided perspectives on what race meant to Darwin and what it means to evolutionary biologists today.

Sylvester James Gates, the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, said that the most interesting thing about pioneering scientists such as Darwin is that "they are led on journeys of discovery, and they don't deny what comes out of that journey."

Darwin, he said, understood the implications of his observations of peoples around the globe: that all humans evolved from a common source.

"He recognized the unity of the human race," said Gates, who previously had delivered the second annual Beggs lecture Feb. 8 in Sage Chapel on science, faith and evolution. "Without Darwin, this story of our connections to each other is not possible."

He said: "All of our science tells us what our religions tell us: that we're all brothers and sisters."

Panelist Will Provine, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor and professor of history at Cornell, summarized the history of biologists' perceptions of race since Darwin, chronicling how scientists used now-discredited fields like phrenology to justify their views. Through the 1930s, he said, there was a scientific view that there were distinct races of humans, some of which were intellectually inferior to others.

"It's a discouraging story, one that didn't start to change until after the Nazi atrocities," Provine said.

Perhaps the largest paradigm shift occurred in the mid-1980s, when biologists used mitochondrial DNA to trace the most recent common ancestor of all humans back to 200,000 years ago. "They took what biologists thought was millions of years ago and brought it much closer," Provine said.

More recent studies show, he said, that this "most common recent ancestor" could have lived just a few thousand years ago, which means that humans are much more closely related than biologists previously thought.

"It's nice at long last to have biology be on the right side!" Provine said.

Panelist Kenneth Kennedy, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, agreed with Gates and Provine that "the traditional race concept is now defunct in science." He emphasized, however, that many of the same ideas about race that have been around for 200 years are still common in our society.

An audience member asked, "If the race concept doesn't have a biological basis, why is it continuing?"

The answer, the panelists agreed, is that traditional race theory is perpetuated by people who don't know it's false -- which is most people.

Warren Allmon, the panel's moderator, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell and director of the Paleontological Research Institution, stressed the need to better educate the public about evolution and race. "The implications of Darwinism don't matter a damn if people don't know about them," he said.

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.


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