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Perceptions of 'Race' the Topic of Sidore Lecture at Keene State

KEENE, N.H. 9/20/03 - “No interesting biological or medical question is answered by assigning a racial identity to a person,” contends evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, the Alexander Agassiz Research Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

Lewontin, one of the world’s eminent authorities on human diversity, will be this semester’s Sidore Lecturer at Keene State College. The presentation, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 16, in the Mabel Brown Room of the Student Center. The talk is the forerunner of the College’s third biennial World Affairs Symposium on “Race in the 21st Century,” which will be held Oct. 30-Nov. 1.

Lewontin argues that the notion of “race” in describing human diversity is misleading, because, biologically, the main differences between “races” are skin, eye, and hair color. Therefore, he said in an interview with PBS, “we should stop talking about major races because to talk about major races gave the impression that there were big differences between these groups in things that mattered - people’s characters, their intelligence, their behavior.” However, Lewontin said, research into genetic differences suggests there is nothing useful to be gained by talking about race.

A reason why people persist in using “race” to describe differences between groups, Lewontin said in the interview, is because race and racial categorizations serve important social functions. “Namely,” he said, “they justify the inequalities that exist in a society which is said to be based on equality.”

Lewontin, who is well known for his role in the development of molecular population genetics, will speak about “Race: Perceptions and Reality.” He will address how, when considering “race,” people must distinguish between race as a social phenomenon and race as a biological category.

According to Lewontin, there is no biological basis on which to demarcate human races in any sensible way. “Of all human genetic variation,” he claimed, “whether one considers proteins or DNA, it turns out that 85 percent lies within any local group,” such as within Swedes or Japanese. An additional five to seven percent, he explained, is between local groups within “races”: for example, between Swedes and Italians. Finally, Lewontin said, only the remaining seven to ten percent of human genetic variation lies between the major classical “races,” such as Europeans and Asians.

Lewontin has written many celebrated books on evolution and human variation books including Human Diversity, Not in Our Genes and, most recently, The Triple Helix. His 1972 article on “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” in which he argues that genetic variation is greater within races than between them, is considered a landmark paper in human genetics. Lewontin is also well known for his critiques of claims, such as human genes holding the key to solving all medical problems, which were used by scientists to gain public support and funding for the Human Genome Project.

Lewontin received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1951 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1954. After professorships at North Carolina State University, the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago (where he served as chairman of the Program in Evolutionary Biology from 1968 to 1973), Lewontin moved to Harvard University in 1973.

The Sidore Memorial Foundation and the Sidore Lecture Series have been established to support campus presentations by speakers on emerging ideas and to enhance faculty efforts to challenge students and the wider community to participate in dialogue around original and sometimes controversial issues facing society.

For more information, contact Paul Vincent, associate professor of Holocaust studies, at 603-358-2722.

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