Drift 25, Rm. 103 24 Jul 2019 Organized Session
Biology 16:00 - 18:00

For decades, it was widely assumed, even by some historians of science, that the notion of human races had lost any real scientific legitimacy sometime around the end of the Second World War, only to "return" at the beginning of the 21th Century in the wake of the Human Genome Project, as a byproduct of genomic research. Then, a new narrative recently emerged that stopped positing the sudden disappearance of race from the scientific lexicon around 1945, and highlighted instead the shift observed among scientists (apart from a handful of conservative or even plain racist ones) from a "fixist", reifying, physical-anthropological approach, grounded on the identification of "human types", to a more biologically informed exploration of population variability. The aim of this session is to move beyond such narratives by empirically comparing the uses of race as a scientific notion in different disciplinary and political contexts, during the second half of the 20th Century. We will especially explore how anthropologists, sero-anthropologists, and different types of geneticists, active in Europe and in Northern America, either referred to racial characteristics or, alternatively, attempted to circumnavigate an increasingly contested notion. Speakers will pay special attention to the way the scientists they studied either affronted the growing stigma associated with the notion of race, tried to ignore it, or enforced it.

Organized by Luc Bevlivet

Interracial Encounters in an Era of Identity Politics: The Study of Population Admixtures in Italy after the Second World War
16:00 - 16:30
Scientific interests in both the origins and the respective qualities of the different “races” (or “stocks”) that made up the Italian population predated the unification of the country, when they prompted heated political debates. However, the question gained further actuality in the interwar period, when the Fascist government launched a highly ambitious policy that aimed to reclaim vast amounts of marshlands located in different regions of Italy. As tens of thousands of peasants from the North East of Italy were moved around the country to drain swamps and cultivate the reclaimed land, anthropologists and biologists undertook to study both their adaptation to the new environment, and the product of their intermixing with “autochthonous stock”. Remarkably, the interests in the intermixing of Italian populations did not disappear with the fall of the Fascist regime. On the island of Sardinia, for example, a team of anthropologists and geneticists of local origin carried on studying the prevailing “human ecology” of the newly reclaimed lands, up into the 1970s. More surprisingly even, they built on their studies to take a stance in then ongoing political and cultural discussion on Sardinian identity and its future. The aim of this presentation is to explain how a racial style of thought that dated back to the late 19th C. was successfully adapted to the new context of Identity politics.
Many Shades of “Race”: Variations in the Concept of Race in French Sero-Anthropology between the 1940s and the 1970s
16:30 - 17:00
In this presentation, I will study the transformations of the concept of “race” in French sero-anthropology between the 1940s and 1970s, focusing in particular on the work of Jacques Ruffié and his collaborators, at the Centre d’hémotypologie of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). I will show that, far from being abandoned after World War 2, the concept was still widely used by scholars working at the crossroads of anthropology, blood-typing and genetics. It remained an object of numerous investigations undertaken, all over the world, by institutions such as the Centre d’hémotypologie, both to determine the blood signature of different racial groups, and to study their admixture and filiations. I will explore the many the continuities between these research programs and the concept of race as (re)defined by geneticists and blood typing experts in the 1920s and 1930s, while pointing at other, less obvious, affinities between “hemotypological research” and the older anthropological conception of race. Finally, I will analyze the evolution in the conceptualization of human variability by sero-anthropologists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and show that their growing interests in the internal diversity of human populations was not altogether deprived of ambiguities.
What “Race” Does: Pluralism in Post-WWII Population Genetics
17:00 - 17:30
It has been a matter of debate among historians of science whether “race” disappeared as a category in the biological sciences with the evolutionary synthesis and rise of population genetics. It has become commonplace among philosophers of science to refer to a “race debate” currently underway about the epistemological and ontological status of race as a biological category, especially in genomics. Embedded in these debates is the assumption that there is such a thing that race is, such that the debate might be resolved one way or another. However, if we consider the influential American population geneticists Dobzhansky, Cavalli-Sforza, and Lewontin, whose contributions during the decades following WWII laid theoretical foundations that are important for genomics today, we find a plurality of race concepts and a range of significances attached to the use of racial designations—not only among the three geneticists but within the writings of each. Given that there is not such a thing that race is, even for population geneticists, what matters is to pay close empirical attention to the disciplinary, historical, and political contexts in which scientists deploy race concepts and racial designations in order to discern not what race is, but what race does. 
Population Genetics, Genetic Variation, and the Monomorphism of the Human Species
17:30 - 18:00
This talk will relate discussions about human genetic variation (a key issue in the debates on human races) to the history of theoretical population genetics. In the first part of the presentation, I will analyse how two prominent statistical population geneticists, namely Newton Morton and Masatoshi Nei, used the concept of race in a series of studies that took place from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. I will argue that a proper understanding of these lines of work requires considering more general debates on population genetics theory, such as the classical-balance debate, and the debate on the neutral theory of molecular evolution. In the second part of the presentation, I will move away from the focus on variability and consider the issue of genetic monomorphism. Although the science of population genetics has been typically concerned with the study of genetic variability, not all genes present variation. An interesting outcome of molecular studies of human variation has been to show that the proportion of polymorphic loci may be minute, with current estimates suggesting that humans rank among the most monomorphic species. My purpose will be to reconstruct how geneticists came to view humans as genetically monomorphic, and to assess its implications from the viewpoint of population genetics theory.

French National Centre For Scientific Research (CNRS)
Associate Professor, Université de Paris
Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Canada
Université Paris Diderot - SPHERE
University of California Los Angeles


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