Is There a Place for Race in Biology?Progress Educational Trust
John Zachary Young Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, Anatomy Building, Bloomsbury Campus, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT
5th April 2011
An evening debate organised by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) in partnership with University College London's Genetics Institute, and supported by the Wellcome Trust. This event marked the launch of the PET project Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From? (which continued with the succeeding events Will Pharmacogenetics Lead to Colour-Coded Medicine? and Genetic Medalling).
The relationship between genes, race, ethnicity and identity is one of the most contested and controversial fields of academic inquiry. Historically, it was believed that people were divisible into racial types as a result of human biological variation. In the twentieth century, figures such as Richard Lewontin argued persuasively that this was not the case, and that race was in fact a socially constructed phenomenon.
Unsurprisingly, debate about the meaning of race has been refuelled by recent genetic advances and genome-wide association studies, and persists in both the popular and the scientific press. Whereas race has traditionally been defined either by skin colour and facial features or by geography, it is now becoming possible to search for the meaning of race at the molecular level. For example, it has been claimed that Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry can be traced back three centuries, to one woman.
There has also been a recent surge of interest in the proposition that 'mixed race is better'. In its most popular form, this proposition depends upon a highly questionable application of the biological concept of 'hybrid vigour' to humans. More subtle versions of this idea examine the psychological factors that might lead us to perceive people of mixed race as attractive.
This public event will see experts with contrasting perspectives debate what, if anything, the word 'race' can offer us. Are there contexts, in biology or more broadly, in which the term is legitimate and useful? Or should we be seeking to put it behind us?
In the PET tradition, following introductory presentations the bulk of the debate's running time will be devoted to soliciting questions and comments from the audience.
At registration: Progress Educational Trust display stand
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