Open Access

When biology goes underground: genes and the spectre of race1

Genomics, Society and Policy20084:23

DOI: 10.1186/1746-5354-4-1-23

Published: 15 April 2008


This paper examines the changing meanings of the concept of 'biology', and of its opposition to 'culture', through an analysis of the ways in which anthropologists have sought to refute the idea that humanity is divided into distinct races. Efforts to redefine all extant humans as belonging to a single sub-species, or to replace 'race' with 'culture', only serve to perpetuate raciological thinking. This kind of thinking had its origins in the moral evaluation of physical difference, the construction of hierarchy and essentialist typology. In its 1996 'Statement on Race', the American Association of Physical Anthropologists ruled out any connection between the biological and cultural characteristics of human beings. Yet the statement is internally inconsistent in the meanings it attributes to both biology and culture. These shifts in meaning correspond to phases in the history of anthropology, identified here as the Enlightenment phase (culture as a process of civilisation drawing on universal biopsychological capacities), the Consensual phase (culture as diverse traditions inscribed upon a common biological substrate) and the Interactionist phase (behaviour as the product of an interaction between culturally and genetically transmitted information in a given environment). The paper seeks an alternative, relational approach that focuses on the dynamics of developmental systems. Only through such an approach, it is argued, can we wrest biology away from the combination of geneticism and essentialism that continues to perpetuate the logic of raciology even in the course of its vehement denial.