Posted by: COSI | January 25, 2012

Race & Science-How Bad Science Can Persist

The opening of our exhibition this Saturday, RACE: Are We So Different? has reminded me of my own special up-close opportunity associated with the science underlying our new exhibition. I was able in the last 10 years to personally engage with the leading scientists behind the recent definitive change in the science behind the concept of race.

RACE: Are We So Different? is engaging, powerful and stimulates thoughtful and informed conversations. The exhibition engages you with the science associated with the concept of race at its onset. Past science has been used to justify the societal use of the concept of race. However, the mapping of the human genome has refuted that. Amazingly the Human Genome project was just relatively recently completed to set the stage for a definitive understanding of our human genetic nature (the first draft human DNA map was announced in 2000). So unfortunately I still hear some people still accepting the “bad science” that there is a scientific basis for race.

Dr. Craig Venter

Dr. Craig Venter

The Human Genome project was transformed from a singular, federal scientific initiative into an exciting and at times controversial competition between private and government led teams, racing to eventually a shared completion of mapping the entire human genome. On the one side was the brash Dr. Craig Venter using a dramatically new approach and private funds, on the other side was Dr. Francis Collins working within the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

I have had the privilege of talking to both of these scientific leaders since then about race and our human DNA. Dr. Venter had been at the University of Buffalo in the early years of his career and we hosted him when I was CEO at the Buffalo Museum of Science. I asked him outright about the issue in front of a large audience of high school teens and adults we had assembled–in part because I was still hearing people claim that as humans we can be differentiated genetically by race, and I thought I knew better. I still remember Dr. Venter’s emphatic answer “no” to the question.

Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins

Coming to COSI I had the chance to sit over dinner with Dr. Collins (now head of the National Institutes of Health) and ended up in a similar conversation with another definitive answer of “no”. We are different genetically from one another, but our similarities far outweigh our differences and there is no correlation between the construct we use in America called “race” and human genes.

Race truly is a social construct, but a powerful one that has had impactful negative effects.

COSI is expanding our role as a hub and instigator of public dialogue on science based discussions. We look forward to the public engagement with the topic of race as we put the science on this to rest with the exhibition RACE: Are We So Different?

We hope the exhibition, the programs, speakers, and partners associated with it encourage dialogue on how we draw strength from our community’s growing diversity as we make ourselves a strong city of the future.

And I’ll hold my own confidently in any contrary discussions of the science with the conversations I was fortunate enough to have with each of the two leaders whose teams raced to map and start the understanding of our full human genome.


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