More About Science in Black and White…

In the nature versus nurture debate, pro-nature supporters historically have been biological determinists who propose that social patterns observed in different races* are substantially inborn. According to genetic determinists, innate social tendencies are a significant, if not paramount, cause of the overall “social underachievement” of various peoples of color, notably blacks. Biological determinists traditionally see nature as unchangeable, due to the supposedly unwavering mastery of DNA to program individuals for a wide array of social tendencies, including monogamy to parental investment and aggression to violent crime. The pro-nature idea that genes are responsible for inherited, fixed mental and behavioral characteristics, along with the genetic variation seen in different human populations, or racial groups, has made it a convenient rallying cry for white supremacists and white nationalists. Pro-nature views are not necessarily inherently racist. But research intent on identifying race-based differences in genes, brains, hormones, and other biological features is frequently used, even if subtly, to justify white superiority coupled with black and brown inferiority.

By contrast, pro-nurture champions ascribe racial and ethnic disparities in social outcomes primarily to physical and social environmental circumstances. They insist that the multifaceted environment best (and perhaps totally) accounts for the black/white gap in numerous life outcomes. The pro-environmental camp is generally associated with antiracist positions because it attributes social inequities across ethnic and racial lines to environment, experience, and several biological factors that do not involve DNA.

In Science In Black and White, Alondra Oubré challenges the contentious notion that ancestral differences in biological traits such as brain size, hormone levels, sexual development, and personality-linked genes are responsible for racial disparities in social achievement. In laypersons’ terms, she explores how the genes linked with social behavior are influenced by multiple factors, including several recently discovered biological phenomena: epigenetics (non-DNA inheritance of traits), gene expression (the degree to which a genetic propensity manifests), and plasticity (an individual’s ability to physically adapt to changes in his environment by altering his biological responses to a new environment). 

Both environmental and certain non-DNA-related biological processes, then, might provide a missing link in explaining racial and ethnic disparities in widely ranging social behaviors such as parenting, educational achievement, wealth, and law enforcement encounters. Nature still matters. But in contrast to the classic paradigm of genes interacting with environment, the biology intertwined with social behaviors and life outcomes in divergent populations is not aligned with genetic determinism.

In addition, cutting edge research on the interplay between socioeconomic status, schooling, and brain development is shedding light on why educational attainment varies across ethnic and economic groups. Science In Black and White highlights numerous studies that illustrate how environment and experience, whether empowering or adverse, can, for better or worse, momentously transform the physical, mental, emotional, and social well being and health of both individuals and populations. The complex and synergistic interplay between the environment and multiple non-DNA biological processes, rather than just genes, or just environment without biology, or even just gene-environment interactions, is crucial. This interplay underscores the role that biology seemingly does and does not play in shaping overall black/white and other interethnic discrepancies in numerous indicators of social achievement. Most importantly, it demonstrates the formidable impact of environmental forces on intergenerational inequities and inequalities across racial and ethnic groups.

* A note about “race”: Today, many scientists agree there are no separate human races, biologically speaking, even though the concept of race is widely accepted as a social construct. Race is a valid social category for classifying humans. But “genetic ancestry” may be a more suitable term than race when distinguishing between human populations, based on whether their genetic lineages originated in different continents or different geographical region. Even though “race” is not scientifically accurate when referring to the human species, this word has become so entrenched in our daily vocabulary that numerous science writers continue to use it. Technically, however, there is no irrefutable evidence for the existence of separate biological races or distinct racial groups within the human species. Humankind is, quite simply, a single species—a single race.

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