An Unholy Alliance: Historical, Counterfactual, and Scientific Reflections on the Relations between Race and Genetics

AHA Session 295
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
Snait Gissis, Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel Aviv University

Session Abstract

What role has genetics played in the formulation and reinforcement of racial beliefs? In the past two decades, with the progress of genetic research, this question has attracted considerable scholarly and public attention. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists and STS scholars have explored the subtle relationship that developed between genetics and racism both in early twentieth century eugenic thought as well as in various areas of modern genomic research. The influence of racism and genetics on each other may be taken as representative for larger questions in Modern History: for example, how do social categories, cultural perceptions and scientific thinking shape each other? Or, what role have the medical and biological sciences been playing in the construction of group identities? As racism seems to be much more entrenched in modern societies than what we would have liked to believe, questions on the past and current biological underpinning of racial thought are indeed pressing – and troubling.

Acknowledging that racial thinking and genetics have always been synergistically tied, we wish to offer fresh insights into this theme by joining different disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the issue. First, Amir Teicher, a historian of Nazi racism and eugenics, will explore the links between racial categorizations and early twentieth century concepts of heredity. Second, Maurizio Meloni, a social theorist and STS scholar, will attempt to answer the counter-factual question – how would the biological understanding of race unfold without the tools supplied to it by genetics? He will do this with an eye to present changes in biology driven by contemporary notions of plasticity and non-fixedness of genetic functioning. Then, Emma Kowal, a cultural and historical anthropologist with medical training, will analyze, historically and scientifically, the current attempts to re-establish race based on novel genetic methods and reflect on their implications. Finally, Snait Gissis, a historian of the biological and social sciences, will position our analysis in the wider context of the historical relations between social and biological categories. Taken together, our principal aim is to obtain a better picture of the delicate and convoluted interlinks between racism and genetics as they developed in Western science from 1900 to the present. We invite historians with interest in biology, genetics or the interaction between science and society to join our discussion.

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