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 name tags.)

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 suggest alternatives.
(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 group.
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 and race.
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 lives?
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 down)
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 box.
S: Do you know how people take up tools and use them -- what makes this happen?
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 Pedago.)
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 all?
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 flip chart)
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 breeds."
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 differ.
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 facts?
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?
Studio: Yes.
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: OK.
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 individuals.
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 biology class.
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 engaged.
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 we say?
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 a farce"?