My genetics class is going ‘woke’!

I’ve been teaching the students all this basic transmission genetics all semester, and while it’s important and fundamental, it can have a bad effect on people’s brains. I cringe when I hear people talking about human traits using simple Mendelian terms like “dominant” and “recessive” because, while it works for many things, for others it misleads and is overly simplistic. I want my students to come away from the class knowing that genetics is complex and subtle and everything is polygenic and epistasis matters, and that’s hard to do when they’re trying to figure out the basics of doing a fly cross.

It’s also a problem because instilling only the basics of Mendel is a good way to make Nazis — it’s easy to distort simple concepts they barely understand into props for your biases. I’d like to forestall that. Also, I’m in Minnesota, and Minnesota has a smug white people problem.

“The racism you see in Minnesota is the type of racism where people say there is no racism. The only race is the human race,” Myers [not me, no relation] said. “How can we say the only race is the human race when all the people with dark skin are people with higher unemployment rates, dying from COVID, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be beaten by police and murdered? How does that happen when there’s no race?”

So I’m going to wake up all the smart students in my class. My strategy involves handing them a digital folder full of articles from science journals as well as newspapers, telling them to pick one, and present it to the class (I’m sure not going to just lecture on these things — I want students to think about them.) They’re getting the folder today, have to pick an article by Wednesday, and are going to prepare a ten minute summary and review for two weeks from today. It’s going to be fun, right?

Here’s a list of just the titles they have to choose from:

A framework for enhancing ethical genomic research with Indigenous communities (2018)
A review of the Hispanic paradox: time to spill the beans? (2014)
Addressing Racism in Human Genetics and Genomics Education (2022)
Can We Cure Genetic Diseases Without Slipping Into Eugenics? (2015)
Eugenics and scientific racism, (2023)
Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA (2011)
Genetic Evaluation for Hereditary Cancer Syndromes Among African Americans: A Critical Review (2022)
How to fight racism using science (2020).
Implications of biogeography of human populations for ‘race’ and medicine(2004)
National Academies calls for transforming use of racial and ethnic labels in genetics research (2023)
Population genetics, history, and health patterns in Native Americans (2004).
Race and Genetics: Somber History, Troubled Present (2020)
The apportionment of human diversity, (1972)
Using Population Descriptors in Genetics and Genomics Research (2023)
Women’s Brains, Gould (1980)

It’s an eclectic mix of sources, since I’m trying to capture a range of interests and abilities.

By the way, I do warn them that Lewontin’s “The apportionment of human diversity” is an important classic paper, but not for the faint of heart — it’ll be a challenge for even the most advanced students in the class. Some students love a challenge, though.


  1. says

    Many people find it difficult or impossible to grasp simultaneously the idea that race is not a valid biological construct but it is a social construction and a social reality. I’m not sure what your long-lost cousin Myers is trying to say — if he’s framing it properly, of course, he is correct. The question is the causal attribution he intends. Maybe you can clarify?

  2. imback says

    Now you made me at least look up “The apportionment of human diversity.” I found a copy here:
    I may take a stab at reading the whole thing, but I did go and read the last two paragraphs:

    It is clear that our perception of relatively large differences between human races and subgroups, as compared to the variation within these groups, is indeed a biased perception and that, based on randonly chosen genetic differences, human races and populations are remarkably similar to each other, with the largest part by far of human variation being accounted for by the differences
    between individuals.

    Human racial classifcation is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.

  3. says

    You’ve already got it: there’s no genetic basis for race, but there are geographical variations (like the color of your skin) that are abused as a basis for discrimination and oppression. His point is that we have these glaring differences in economic success of different groups, and white Minnesotans tend to retreat to their happy place and claim the differences aren’t there.

  4. Sphinx of Black Quartz says

    PZ, every time you write about the way you teach, I wish my own instructors in biology had been more like you.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    I think Gould’s “Mismeasure of Men” (If I recall the title correctly) could be a good introduction for non-students.

    BTW his book about the fallacies of creationists never got a Swedish translation, presumably because creationism is a non-issue (runs away before I get beaten up for being too smug).

    OT -We have a Xenophobe party who insists their issue is culture, not race. I note they are not alarmed about the white Ukrainan refugees.

  6. says

    Growing up in a small town in Oregon, there was an assumption back then that racism wasn’t an issue, because those towns were almost all entirely white. “How can we be racist? They’re not here.”
    I was fortunate to have a teacher in high school that forced us to examine that premise. He also clued us in to Oregon’s sad history of racism. Much harder to be smug after that.
    What’s really sad is knowing now, over 50 years later, how many school districts would fire that teacher over those lessons.
    I have very little hope for the future.

  7. says

    Growing up in a small town in Oregon, there was an assumption back then that racism wasn’t an issue, because those towns were almost all entirely white. “How can we be racist? They’re not here.”
    I was fortunate to have a teacher in high school that forced us to examine that premise. He also clued us in to Oregon’s sad history of racism. Much harder to be smug after that.
    What’s really sad is knowing now, over 50 years later, how many school districts would fire that teacher over those lessons.
    I have very little hope for the future.

  8. wzrd1 says

    Well, the unrelated Myers did make one modest error. There are two races, which are quite distinct and unique, the human race and the rat race. Not fond of either race, especially given that humans invented the rat race. Recently adding a novel factor, the rat race on a wheel.

    Well, if you don’t want to wander the weeds with Mendel, you could always jump into computational genomics and really lose ’em! ;)
    Put down the wet trout…

    Seriously though, looks like an interesting choice of reading and for a change, not a submission from some fluff on the products of an AI.
    Anton Petrov had recently put out a fluff piece on the wondrous results he got from a chatbot “search”, seeking information on a specific type of black hole for a video and his journey I can call complex dentistry in extracting a correct result from the confidence expressing and wrong AI. Suffice it to say, it was a highly complex extraction that he billed as a success – despite getting three wrong answers in a row.
    But, proving that it’s hard to teach an AI how to reason and think critically. Humans are even harder to teach, so hats off to our intrepid host!

  9. antigone10 says


    I once, in Grand Forks, ND, had a fellow classmate ask that very same question in class. I asked him “WHY aren’t there any black people here?” And then went to briefly* describe the history of North Dakota, the Native Americans, the white settlers and the Homestead Act who got to settle and why, sundown towns, and social barriers to moving that persist talking about multiple recent examples in a variety of cities.

    It didn’t solve this person’s racism. He had many, many other very racist things to say in that class for the rest of the semester, and while I don’t know I suspect he probably is still racist. But he never made the “absence of BIPOC is an absence of racism” argument again.

    *Actually, about 10 minutes. I’m honestly incredibly surprised the teacher let me lecture so long in her classroom. Seriously, most professors would have cut me off after about two. Especially since I was so very mad!

  10. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Looks like a great syllabus, PZ! It probably won’t fix the other part of the ignorance that the other M[e]yers was talking about, the social construction component, but it can at least get them thinking about the biology of it (while also helping to make them think about biology in terms of spectra rather than clear boundaries).

    @9: They probably both didn’t mind that you were basically literally doing their work for them (as all of that stuff is background that would probably be relevant in some capacity) and didn’t want to shut you up because someone else had made a comment. Hopefully you were able to make the point somewhere throughout the semester that, despite his lack of interaction with BIPOC, he had plenty of opinions about them, and maybe that fact is why there can be racist thought in isolated communities…

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Wzrd1 @ 8
    Yes, black holes without an active accretion disc.
    Anton Petrov is a nice guy, but his speciality is astronomy. Myself I am very skeptical about all things AI, recalling the optimistic expectations we had back in the 1980s.

    And we were supposed to be on Mars by now, footprints and all. I hate the future we are in. Can we at least have working cryogenics, so I can catch up with the future?

  12. birgerjohansson says

    In north Sweden the shortage of black people and jews has forced us to use the default settings of being anti-Rom, but not very strongly. We do not have many immigrants hereabouts so that is not a bit thing either.

    The xenophobe party has its origin in South Sweden. They regrettably grew a lot after the influx of refugees in the South.

  13. says


    The question is the causal attribution he intends.

    What, you think he’s saying that the tendency to be beaten and murdered by police is genetic?

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Recognizing it’s a purely semantic issue, I have a tentative hypothesis about human “races”: since all human ancestors originated in sub-Saharan Africa, speaking of a “Black” race is biologically utter nonsense. It may, however, in some contexts work to use the r-word for the geographically semi-distinct subsubset populations of the subsets which emigrated from the mother continent several centocenturies ago.

    For a rough analogy: the basic dog stock is just dogs, but “breed” only applies to poodles, shelties, shar-peis, et endless cetera.

    But really the r-word only fits in terms of sociological perception, and even then needs multiple caveats.

  15. mcfrank0 says

    OK. I admit it.

    I saw “epistasis” and thought “epitax
    Is?”. What does a nosebleed have to do with genetics?

  16. flange says

    There is no “race.”
    “Race” was invented by white people so they could dominate, kill, subjugate, enslave, and exploit dark sinned peoples and their lands with impunity.
    I think.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    The meaning of race has changed with time. A century ago it could be used as mostly synonymous with nation.
    After WWII we got the caucasian, asian and african races. Today we are finally beginning to get rid of this vague term.

    Unless you are David Duke or a politician who is trying to do a George Wallace.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    flange @ # 19: “Race” was invented by white people so they could dominate, kill, subjugate, …

    birgerjohansson @ # 20: The meaning of race has changed with time.

    Indeed. Tonight I read:

    In his Works and Days, Hesiodos [~700 BCE] says that the deities have created five races of human beings in succession. First, there was the race of gold, then the race of silver, then the race of bronze, and then, fourth, came the race of heroes, … [then regular humans]

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    Too late tonight to start digging for sources, but I’ve also read sundry correspondences from the US Civil War era in which, e.g., “Yankees” were deemed a “race”.

    At least one member of the House of Hapsburg considered his family a “race”.

    Etymologically, “race” takes us back to “roots” – and those to “radicals” and “radishes”, etc. Darwin wrote of “races” of pigeons and cabbages. Perhaps (IANABiologist) a loose variant of “clade” would apply in the, uhh, non-racist usages of “race”…