Science in the Soul, Humanities in the Heart

Emily Sirota ‘20

Humanities Correspondent

Between which of the three billion base pairs of our DNA can we locate the concept of “race”? The following is about the necessity of keeping science in the humanities and humanity in the sciences.

Last Thursday in the Hance Auditorium in Chambers, Professor Garry Bertholf of the English and Africana Studies departments shared his latest research in a lecture entitled The Biopolitics of Race and the Post-Genomic Turn to Caste. 

We learned that in 2005 the FDA released BiDil, the first race-specific drug known to treat heart failure in black patients. Bertholf showed his audience how drug companies often fixate on race-specific treatments, and thereby “incorporate assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level” in order to “reinforce existing medical stereotypes.” 

In his lecture Bertholf draws original connections on race-based biotechnology as a biopolitical strategy. We learned how “the federal government has legitimated the use of race as a marker for biological difference.” 

Bertholf explained that in approving BiDil as a drug for only black patients, the FDA also presumed that so-called “race”-based biotechnologies worked only for specific races. (BiDil’s clinical trial only involved self-identified black patients; no self-identified white patients were involved.) Meanwhile, most FDA-approved drugs available today have been approved based solely on race-specific clinical trials in white patients. The FDA has tacitly assumed the universality of “whiteness” which, in this context, comes to be seen as an index for what it means, at least biologically, to be “human.”

BiDil is one of many instances of racialized science throughout history. Bertholf mentioned Stephen J. Gould’s work Mismeasure of Man, which outlines a history of horrifying studies once classified as accurate and influential science—after all, what is science but a series of revolutions? 

White polygenistic scientists in the 1800s once claimed that persons of color existed as alternate forms of life. One such scientist, Dr. Samuel Morton, turned to the study of skulls, a practice known as craniometry, to classify races based on the average size of their brains. Bertholf pointed out this theme in pop culture today—tactics of craniometry and phrenology appear prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained. 

Bertholf reminds us of the time doctors examined patients’ lungs using a spirometer device equipped with a “race-correction button” for people of color. In his research Bertholf asks, “What exactly is coded in that button?” 

“Those who know me,” said Bertholf, “know that I am a stickler for etymology.” He pointed out that at first race “appears obvious” and “in need of no special knowledge to analyze.” The idea of race as a biomedical construct is controversial. “Race,” said Bertholf, “shapes our idea of what it means to be human.” 

This is a story of a racialized language used to divide humanness at the genetic and linguistic levels. Bertholf prompted us to consider basic definitions of terms such as “race” and “biotechnology.” What is “race” if, biologically, we are not all that different? 

Bertholf cited American anthropologist Jonathan Marks, whose What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee concludes that genetic data undermines race. Marks explains how biological difference is measured in the proportion of differences in loci, or positions of genes on the chromosome: by these criteria, it turns out that humans are not that different from each other. 

Bertholf next asked us to consider what it means to be black. The Human Genome Project proved that the most genetic diversity was inside of the African continent—there are more genetic similarities between people in a single African country and people in non-African country than there are between two people from different African countries. Is “race” then contingent on “African descent?” Is race defined by differences in skin color?

Some definitions, as Bertholf points out, become a way of paraphrasing much larger and more complex ideas. Bertholf proposed three ways in which biologized race masks the problem of pathologized blackness and medical discrimination. He calls these the language(s) of “unintelligibility,” “particularity” and “ambiguity”; these grammars coalesce into a single, aestheticised language employed to “stupify consumers.” 

“Science is fundamental in shaping racial and social theories just as racial theories shape science,” said Bertholf. The problem lies not in your genome, skull size, or lung capacity, but rather in health inequality and one’s socioeconomic status. Biology research heavily outnumbers research on the social determinants of health. Bertholf’s current project incorporates work on health disparities and economic inequality in the United States, India, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Dr. Kevin Smith of the Biology Department attended Bertholf’s lecture. In his course on Biodiversity and Conservation, Smith reminded his own students,“Do not believe the ideal goal that science is objective and bias-free. Just because it is an ideal does not mean it is true. Pretending that our ideals are truth is where we often get into trouble.” 

Aspiring doctors in the audience, such as Jesus Ibarra ‘20 asked what we can do about these apparently intractable issues. Uyen Nguyen ‘20 asked, “Are there any ways that we can incorporate humanities in science? It’s important that our future doctors and scientists recognize the subjectivity of their discipline and the realities of race.” Questions like these highlight the importance of interdisciplinary work, a key focus of Bertholf’s lecture.

We hear a cry for interdisciplinary action —that we possess science in our souls, but embrace the humanities in our hearts. Bertholf encourages us to take courses which highlight outsider perspectives. We might consider his own African American literature course, which voices those expunged from the literary canon and highlights literary voices that respond to historical debates about race science. Consider courses such as Dr. David Wessner’s intro BIO 111, where students read the story of Henrietta Lacks and learn biology alongside an often overlooked sociocultural perspective. Consider Dr. Mark Sample’s Gender and Technology Digital Studies course, where students grapple with the threats of “toxic tech” and biased algorithms from POC, feminist, and queer perspectives.

Ask yourself: what perspectives are included in your course syllabi? “In the humanities,” Bertholf claimed, “we may not know all of the answers, but we ask the right kinds of questions.” 

Emily Sirota ‘20 is a Biology major from Mamaroneck, NY. She can be reached for comment at emsirota@davidson.edu.

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