Race And Biology: A Case Study Of Curriculum
Development At A Bioquest Workshop
Peter Taylor, June 99, as a result of interaction with Steve Fifield, Raquell
Holmes, and Joel Hagen.
(GivItAGo [="we should try it and see how it goes" in Australian English]
stands center stage behind a lectern; Sceptico sits in a chair to the side
watching; Jokero sits at the back of the audience. All have their names on big
GivItAGo: Today's topic is the teaching of race to biology students.
Sceptico (stands up): Time Out. What are you doing -- standing behind a
podium and lecturing? This is BioQuest -- the audience should be involved in
Posing the problem, Problem-solving, and Persuading others
of the value of their approach.
(GivItAGo listens thoughtfully and during the following exchange continues to
ponder the problem.)
Jokero (pops up and calls out from the back): Oh, that's what the 3Ps are -- I
thought it was Perform to Provoke.
Sceptico: That's only two Ps.
Jokero: Are you sure?
Sceptico: Yes, I'm sure.
Jokero: Oh well, I never had classes on numbers. That's content. My
teachers were only interested in process. (sits down)
GivItAGo (moving in front of the lectern): OK, let's give this a try. We have
prepared a script and we want to perform it. But, after we've run through it
once, let's start again and allow the audience to question what we say and
(Sceptico indicates sceptical assent [think of Clinton's pursed lips, but
without the smirk] and sits down.)
G: Today we're going to explore the teaching of race to biology students.
S: Why teach about race? -- don't you aspire to a race blind society?
G: I do want a prejudice-free society, but we're not nearly there yet. Race
is still very important in US society, whether or not people think it should
be. Turning a blind eye to it is not going to make discrimination go away.
S: OK, but still I don't think you should teach race in a biology
class. It sends the message that race is based in the facts of biology. Look
at the history of biology being used to justify exploitation of one social
group by another, and often to justify the extermination of the subordinant
G: Good point, Sceptico. Let's put "facts about biology" and "race and
historical case studies" on the list of things we should teach about biology
S: History in a biology class!?
J: (pops up) Didn't someone famous once say: "Nothing in biology makes sense
except in the light of history"? (sits down)
G: I'm not sure how it will work, but let's give it a go. (Walks over to flip
chart and writes down "factual lessons" and "historical case studies.")
S: Are you proposing that there are facts that stand for themselves?
G: Good point. Let's add "conceptual lessons." (does so)
S: I don't think the distinction factual vs. conceptual is very helpful for
thinking about how to teach this material.
G: You might be right, but here's my thinking --
1. Race is such an important issue in shaping culture, psychology, economics
in the United States. So we have to address it whenever it can help to do so.
2. Reciprocally, there are many cultural, psychological, economic, and other
facets to how people's understanding and actions with respect to race are
shaped. And the facets differ from person to person. So let's think of the
task of addressing race as one of helping students assemble a tool box from
which they can draw when faced with race.
3. In our biology curriculum, we can help students assemble tools that relate
to the facets of race where biology is involved, or, at least, is invoked.
(Changes "lessons" to "tools" on flip chart.)
S: This sounds OK, but it seems a bit laissez faire. Wouldn't it be better to
work out a coherent analysis of race in our society -- even better, a program
for students to develop their ability to address racism in their work and
G: You might be right, but can we switch roles for a moment. Do you really
think you're going to be able to do that in a biology course?
S: Good point.
G: Moreover, do you really think we'd be able to convey that full blown social
analysis or curriulum on race to biology teachers?
S: You might be able to present that, but that wouldn't mean these
teachers would take it up and use it.
J: (popping up) No need to worry about Presenting an analysis -- that's the
One P Program -- old hat! Remember the 2Ps: "Perform to Provoke!" (sits
G: Sceptico, you said something right on just now. The goal should be for
students to take things away and use them. Thus the image of tools for a tool
S: Do you know how people take up tools and use them -- what makes this
G: No, I don't know. But let's work out some tools first and then it'll be
easier to think about that.
S: OK. Why don't you start with factual tools, given that I'm sceptical this
category can be usefully separated from that of conceptual tools.
G: OK. Imagine I'm a teacher (puts on Pedago name tag). And I have students
who know little about biology... (Studio comes on stage and addresses
Studio: People differ in skin color and that has a biological basis, why not
other characteristics, such as intelligence?
G: Biologists have studied many enzymes that come in different forms, that is,
you might have a different from from me and the difference would be coded in
our genes. And biologist Richard Lewontin says they found that 85% of the
variation among humans occurs among people within their own group, such as
races, leaving only a fraction of variation among races.
S: (interrupts) Is that the exact fact he cites?
G: No -- I plan to track down the info and to get good illustrations.
Studio: What does it mean 85% of the variation is within groups?
G: (Draws on fresh page of flip chart a scatter of dots and Xs) Imagine these
points are the individuals in the human species and their position represents
their differences. (Makes two greatly overlapping circles around them, and
marks the center of each circle). The circles are two groups and the centers
are the average of each group. The difference between the centers, the
averages, is swamped by the scatter around the centers for each group.
S: (interrupts) This sounds very conceptual. What's more you'll need to go
more slowly to get my students comfortable with these ideas.
G: OK. Another way of thinking about this is to say, if I gave you a point
and you didn't know what shape it was, would you be able to assign it correctly
to the dots or the Xs? With much more variation within the group compared to
between it, you'd be wrong a lot of the time.
Studio: But what if we looked at lots of enzymes at the same time -- wouldn't
we be able to improve our rate of correct assignments.
G: That's a very good question. Lewontin doesn't talk about this. Let's add
that to the list of factual tools students might ask for. I suspect the answer
is "no," because of the amount of interbreeding there has been between people
whose ancestors came from different continents.
Studio: How much interbreeding has there been? What's the average
fraction of European genetic ancestry in African-Americans?
G: You should also ask: What's the average African genetic ancestry in people
who don't identify themselves as African-Americans or as hyphen-Americans at
Studio: OK. What's the average African genetic ancestry in people who don't
identify themselves as African-Americans or as hyphen-Americans at all?
G: And what's the range of these fractions among different people? -- I'll
have to get answers to these questions and add them to our factual tool kit.
Studio: But once you do I have a new question for you -- If the overall
picture is of genetic overlap among races, does that rule out there being
specific genes that differ more distinctly? If there weren't, how could we
tell races apart at all.
G: No, it doesn't rule it out. Sickle cell genotypes are much more common in
African-Americans. How common? -- Let's add that to our list, and also try to
find out what other genes that's the case for. (does so) But there's no reason
to link these kinds of genes with something socially significant such as
intelligence or behavior more generally.
Studio: Why not? Dog breeds differ in appearance and also in behavior.
G: The example of dogs often gets brought up by students, so here's another
place where more facts would be valuable. How does genetic variation within
dog breeds compare with variation among the averages for the breeds? (adds to
S: Why don't you proceed as if you had that information and the answer is more
or less the same as Lewontin gave for humans.
G: OK. Try this, Studio: "Biologists have found that 75% of the variation
among dogs occurs within breeds, leaving only a fraction of variation among
Studio: That only shows that the genetic facts you're giving us aren't an
adequate way of looking at the biology of dog breeds -- we all know how breeds
G: And if the genetic facts don't seal the argument for dog breeds, why should
they for human races. Hmmm. Sceptico, can I try another version of the
S: Go ahead.
G: Try this instead, Studio: "Unlike humans, dog breeds can be distinguished
genetically. But they can all interbreed, and will if allowed."
Studio: Indeed. I think this is what has happened with humans. So races
overlap more than they did in the past -- racial categories are not as
meaningful as they used to be. But, couldn't there remain an average
difference among races that corresponds to genetic differences?
G: You mean so that difference in test scores among races wasn't simply a
result of how races are brought up, educated, and treated in this society?
G: Here's where we need some conceptual lessons about what it means to
partition variation into different sources -- genetic and non-genetic. And
about what among group differences do and do not mean for any individual.
After all, on average men are taller than women, but there are some women
taller than a majority of men. Focusing on the average difference contributes,
unfortunately, to the cultural norm about men being taller than their female
partners. This norm reduces the range of potential partners for tall women.
Studio: Tall heterosexual women.
G: And if the issue is not height, but average test score differences, it's
even more important not to use average differences to stereotype the range of
S: But that is done a lot in our educational system. Undertanding why this
happens is another reason why I'm sceptical of teaching race in a
G: But this is where historical case studies come in. Let's look at the
recurring attempts to make race a biological issue and see how biology was
debunked that was earlier accepted as established knowledge. Then ask students
to consider that the same could be true for current science.
S: That seems too much for my non-bio-major students.
G: Au contraire -- I suggest it'll make it easier for them to get
S: I doubt that you have convincing evidence to back that assertion up.
Studio: Enough from you two. It's time to hear from the "students," that is
the teachers in your audience. Didn't you say, you were going to go through
the dialog a second time to allow the audience to call time and question what
G: So I did. Let's give that a go.
S: Do you really think that'll work with these students?.
J: Didn't someone famous once say: "The first time a tragedy, the second time