Posted on April 5, 2024

Anthropologists Take Up Arms Against ‘Race Science’

Michael Price, Science, March 29, 2024

Calling someone a Neanderthal was once an insult, meaning you thought of them as a knuckle-dragging brute. “[Neanderthals] have always been used as a mirror for thinking about ourselves … projecting things we don’t like about ourselves onto another group of humans,” said Fernando Villanea, a population geneticist at the University of Colorado Boulder, last week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Biological Anthropologists (AABA) here.

As scientists have learned more about Neanderthals’ cultural sophistication and abilities, though, their public image has gotten a glow-up. For some people, their status was elevated still further by the widely publicized discovery in 2007 that some Neanderthals carried genes suggesting they had red hair and light skin. These ancient inhabitants of Europe and Asia became coded as white, and on social media some people began to claim Neanderthal ancestry as a mark of racial superiority.

Such misuse of science spurred researchers to organize an AABA symposium devoted to combating race science, or the idea that genes and other biological variation can be used to sort humans into races—some superior to others.

Villanea and other symposium speakers urged attendees to engage head-on with potential racist misuse of their data, and to proactively make their work’s conclusions unambiguous. “In the rotten harvest yielded by race science, research has real-world consequences,” said Charles Roseman, an integrative biologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who helped organize the symposium.


Yet those are nuances in a picture of human variation—which is both what biological anthropologists study and what racists seize on. That’s why trying to present anthropological work “impartially,” letting the data speak for itself, leaves the door open to co-option, said Robin Nelson, a biological anthropologist at Arizona State University. Researchers need to explicitly condemn racist interpretations of their work, whether on social media or in scientific papers, she says. {snip}

Rebecca Sear, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is targeting problematic papers. She’s been on a quest to convince journals to retract articles based on widely discredited data from Ulster University psychologist and self-described “scientific racist” Richard Lynn, who died last year. In 2002, Lynn and colleagues published a “national IQ data set” based on IQ tests given in 81 nations, then extrapolated those scores for an additional 104. {snip}

Sear contacted the editors or publishers of 12 journals about 14 papers that used Lynn’s data set. Most editors declined to take any action; others added a note of caution to the manuscript but did not retract it. {snip}