Has there ever been less cause for a question mark in the title of a symposium at Williams?

Sociologist Troy Duster, anthropologist Deborah Bolnick, and science writer Steve Olson will lead a symposium on the subject of race and genetics titled “Is There a Genetic Basis for Racial Distinction?” on Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Adams Memorial Theatre of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance.

No. Or, rather, the answer to this question is so trivially “Yes” that only the mendacious or the misinformed would argue otherwise.

The set of panelists is interesting in that Dunster and Bolnick would, I think, clearly answer Yes to the question. To be precise, with a just a cheek swab, you can tell the “race” of 90%+ of the people in the world. Genetic testing is that good, and getting better all the time. The news release quotes Olson as claiming:

Genetics research is now about to end our long misadventure with the idea of race. We now know that groups overlap genetically to such a degree that humanity cannot be divided into clear categories.

See here for an article by Olson, and associated commentary. There is, perhaps, a sense in which Olson is correct. My daughters, certainly, do not fall within a traditional racial category. There are racial clines in various parts of the world. But, big picture, genetic testing matches our commonsense notions of “race.” See here for an introduction to the technical literature.

Is this a good thing? Excellent question. I’d prefer a world in which no one ever asked my daughters to check their “race” on a form. Alas, Williams College is committed to precisely such a world, at least for the time being. With any luck, the issue of my daughters Asian race will be as irrelevant at Williams in 50 years as the fact of their German ethnicity would be today.

If I were a student, I would try to see Dunster at the faculty/staff event at 4:00 instead of the big lecture. You’re unlikely to be kicked out and the conversation is bound to be very interesting. Dunster is a serious scholar (and Eph, via an honorary degree).

Previous discussion at EphBlog here and here.

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