In an event in Lipton Lecture Hall on Feb. 18, Thomas B. Walton Jr. Memorial Professor Emeritus of Biology Dick Goldsby gave a lecture titled “The Nature and Biology of Race” in which he discussed the the nature, origin and social ramifications of race. He argued that race is largely socially constructed but includes more of a genetic component than many believe. The talk was sponsored by Being Human in STEM, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the departments of biology, sociology, anthropology and Black studies.
The lecture comes in the wake of the release of “Thinking Race: Social Myths and Biological Realities,” a book Goldsby co-authored with Dean of Faculty and Professor of Anthropology Emerita Mary Catherine Bateson in 2019. The book sheds light on how biology in addition to social constructs can be used to improperly bolster racist attitudes.
Before beginning the lecture, Goldsby noted the dedication of the book to James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner worked during the Civil Rights Movement registering African Americans to vote, for which they were killed. Their deaths are also known as the Freedom Summer murders. “One black and two white. These men were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi on the night of June 21, 1964. They were killed for their efforts for equality. We wanted to remember them with this book,” he said.
To begin the lecture, Goldsby joked that “because it is Amherst College, I should start by defining my terms.” Race, he said, is a “breeding population delineated by culture with characteristic frequencies of certain genes … the cultural component is dominant and always includes social construction.” He noted that “Human races lack the homogeneity of domestic breeds.”
“It’s also a social construct created by the culture in which these races exist,” he added.
He then stated his argument for the lecture: “Human races are certainly not all biology, but as I will argue tonight, they are certainly not all social construct,” Goldsby said. He clarified his position by referring to different races — or breeds — of dogs. Dachshunds, he said, all look “ridiculous in the same ways.”
“You have enormous universality when you look at races arranged in animal breeds … they only allow certain breedings,” he said.
Biology does not encompass the whole foundation behind race, Goldsby continued. Goldsby drew on a Stanford Medical School study published in 2005 which concluded that “people’s self-identified race [or] ethnicity is a nearly perfect indicator of their genetic background.”
“The data shows that if you look at what [the computer program analyzing the subject’s DNA sequences] indicates, and what [the study participants] thought their race is, the correspondence was almost embarrassingly good. 99.8 percent,” Goldsby said. “It’s hard to look at that data and claim race is entirely a social construct.”
After defining conceptions of race, Goldsby continued his talk by giving an overview of the history of the human race and the importance of DNA sequences in understanding migration patterns. The oldest human skull was found in Africa about 300,000 years ago, he said, noting that DNA sequencing has offered evidence for this discovery.
From sequencing parts of the human genome, scientists were able to determine the physical differences between the species of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern day humans, Homo Sapiens. “Neanderthals had thicker ribs, broader shoulders and wider pelvic dimensions, and Denisovans had skulls that were a little wider,” he said.
“Humans tend to be venturesome … some crossed over into what we know as the Middle East, then Asia, Europe, Oceania and, about 14,000 years ago, North, then South America,” he said.
Due to physical barriers like mountain ranges, rivers and oceans, populations became separated and formed new breeding populations. “There were people who were distinguished by their local cultures and distinguished, too, to some extent, by their particular genomes,” he said.
From the differentiating of these groups, conflict arose. “Had there been more people around to argue about race, some people would have accused these populations of being racist,” Goldsby continued.
Taking the example of arguments made by some Japanese people who claim to be genetically superior to Koreans, Goldsby highlighted that the argument is “ironic” when paralleled with scientists’ discoveries that the Japanese population came from Koreans who migrated to the island. “When you look at DNA patterns … It looks like a population in modern day Korea came across about 5,000 years ago and populated modern day Japan. The Japanese are, genetically speaking, about 80 percent Korean,” he said.
Japanese racism toward Koreans, he said, “is based on less than DNA.” Goldsby mentioned that racial prejudice of this type is not unique.
Goldsby continued his lecture by describing the link between the practice of drug production, medical treatment and race. “Different races have different susceptibilities to different drugs,” Goldsby said. “There can be a lot of conflict about race and medicine. Some of it is justified based on some terrible experiments that have been done,” he said. Golsby cited the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted on Black males between 1932 and 1972, which attempted to understand the disease progression of syphilis before a cure was found in the 1940s. The trial is a case study of medical ethics violations, especially because after an effective cure, penicillin, was found, subjects were given placebos and prevented from receiving the antibiotic. Of the original 399 men enrolled in the study, 28 died from syphilis.
In recent years, however, there has been a “hullabaloo” surrounding race and medicine. In a clinical trial between 1980 and 1985, scientists initially found no positive effect of the drug BiDil, which lowers the risk of medical complications subjects with heart failure. But following a “fine look” at the data, it stood out that Black subjects were uniquely positively affected by the drug, Goldsby said. “We don’t go on the basis of hunches when we talk about therapies — we go on the basis of results.” After a second clinical trial of Black patients, there was a 43 percent reduction in mortality. Those results, Goldsby said, “were truly meaningful. It would save lives.”
But though the drug worked, the common thinking at the time was “that drugs should be prescribed based on the underlying pathophysiology, not on the basis of race.” Following the clinical trial conclusions, there was a “sincere and strong movement to prevent the prescription of the drug, Goldsby said.
In a perfect world, he added, all drugs would be prescribed based on pathophysiology and each person’s unique genome.
Golsby went on to note that different races are more susceptible to certain diseases. Sickle cell anemia is found at higher frequencies in Black populations, while Tay-Sachs disease is more common in Ashkenazi Jews.
“Tay Sachs disease and other diseases among Ashkenazis provide a lesson of what one should do to cope with diseases of this sort,” Goldsby said. “Some years ago, among the Ashkenazi there was a movement to … determine the risks of genetic diseases … and provide counseling to limit the risks of the diseases,” he said. The key to defending a population against genetic diseases, Goldsby said, is “knowing what your risks are.” Because of the data and counseling, there are now more cases of Tay-Sachs per capita outside the Ashkenazi population than within, Goldsby noted.
“What have we done as Black [people] to determine the risks we face as a population and to determine how to mitigate the risks we face?,” Goldsby asked the audience.
Relative to the challenges faced by the Black community in the past, Goldsby argued, it would be easier for the community to support a movement like this. “We have done so much to support each other,” he said. “I have been arrested for sitting in … It is far less dramatic to begin a movement to determine the risks we face from sickle cell disease.”
Goldsby moved on to speak about how society understands how race affects IQ and ability. “I know no one has ever thought there is a relationship between race and ability,” Goldsby said, referring to the popular eugenics movement in the early 20th century, but “just because we have a bit of extra time, and it’s a dull topic, I thought I might cover it,” he said.
“Are some races better at behaviors than others? Of course,” he continued. On the whiteboard in the lecture hall, he listed the different behaviors: linguistic, logical and mathematical, musical, kinesthetic, spatial and interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviors.
Drawing on the example of basketball, he remarked that taller populations find it easier to play the sport which depends so much on the height of the players. “They put the hoop ten feet up. Some populations have individuals that are taller than others. That’s an advantage,” he said.
Goldsby then pivoted to the question of IQ. “The question isn’t whether or not [the 15 point difference in IQ between white and Black populations] is there, but [rather] ‘what does it mean?’ and ‘how did it get there?’”
There is also a 15 point difference in IQ between Ashkenazi Jews and white people, he added. But you won’t find the general public talking about it “because there isn’t a profound achievement gap, pound for pound, between those different populations,” he said. “Great things have been achieved by both populations.”
He then turned to how the achievement gap between races can be closed. “For those of us who are Black,” he said, “We won’t win this battle by writing books about it, having seminars or by debating back and forth. I’m old enough to remember when people said [Black people] didn’t have the intelligence to play baseball.” That has since changed, he argued, because the world saw succesful Black baseball players, and the achievement gap closed.
“There are a lot of ways of being smart,” he added. “IQ tests will test logical mathematical smartness, linguistic smartness, spatial smartness,” he said.
“But show me an IQ test that says Charlie Parker can do the type of things he did on a saxophone,” he said. “That’s musical intelligence.”
In the Q&A session following the lecture, Claire Hawthorne ’21 asked, “When have people of color done enough? There are those of us who have already succeeded.”
“Some say that it has already happened,” Goldsby responded. “I used to watch TV and say, ‘Hey! A Black person on television!’ If we look at literature, Black authors … are nothing at all rare,” he said.
There is progress to be made, Goldsby added. Going to scientific meetings and not seeing anyone who looks like him is one thing he wants to change. “I want the gap to close in some specific areas … we need more of us like Carl Sagan and more Neil DeGrasse Tyson.”
After the lecture, Hawthorne expressed that Goldsby’s argument seemed to dampen the importance of past civil rights movements.
“I find [Goldsby’s claim that racism and hostile attitudes towards different populations can only be remedied by closing the achievement gap] deeply troubling,” she wrote in an email interview. “I’m troubled because this argument seems to make the work done by my predecessors in STEM, like Professor Goldsby himself, insignificant.”
“In its simplicity, this idea of underrepresented [people of color] excellence being able to end racism also seems to inadvertently place the blame for the achievement gap on [people of color] instead of the structures in this country that threaten people’s ability to achieve success when they must instead focus on surviving,” she added.
Emma Boden ’20, who attended the lecture, worried that different therapy applications for races could be abused by pharmaceutical companies.
“I could see drug companies not being bothered by the fact that a drug only works for white people while having the reverse reaction if a drug only worked for a [person of color],” she said. “I just don’t have faith in the drug companies not to abuse this.”
Hawthorne also conveyed concern that pharmaceutical companies may not think of the implications of their studies. “I think this topic points to the interesting question about the limits of scientific research, which is something I try to stay cognizant of as a burgeoning scientist; when should exploration in a field end because of its social implications,” she asked.
“I’m sure all the scientists followed their respective methodologies to a ‘T’,” Hawthorne said. “But I wonder if any of them thought about the implications of such work; this work can be completely skewed to favor an argument that is harmful to communities who hold identities that are not privileged in society.”
Feb. 29 Correction: A previous edition of this article quoted Goldsby as defining race as a “breeding population with a characteristic frequency of inherited traits … It’s also a social construct created by the culture in which these races exist.”
He defines race as a “breeding population delineated by culture with characteristic frequencies of certain genes … the cultural component is dominant and always includes social construction,” and “Human races lack the homogeneity of domestic breeds.”
Additionally, his argument was rewritten from “race is less of a social construct and more biology than many people believe” to “race is largely socially constructed but includes more of a genetic component than many believe” to clarify his position on the topic.