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  • Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century by Michael Yudell
  • Gregory Michael Dorr
Michael Yudell. Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. xvi + 286 pp. $40.00 (978-0-231-16874-8).

Scientists often use simplified models of dynamic systems to wrench understanding from nature’s confusing complexity. Often, this method has led to incredible insight. Other times, however, such as the use of “race” as a proxy for complex biological phenomena, simplification has created more problems, social and scientific, than it has resolved. In this concise synthesis, Michael Yudell traces the problematic history of the “race concept” in twentieth-century biology. Tangled by contradiction and hypocrisy, the intellectual history of race and science is difficult to lay straight. Yudell’s determined effort exposes the persistence of the race concept in science, demonstrating how race came to be seen, paradoxically, as “both a critical methodological tool for biologists to make sense of human genetic diversity and, at the same time, widely believed not to be a particularly accurate marker for measuring that diversity” (pp. 1–2). Although the book covers much familiar ground, it successfully challenges the triumphalist narrative of “objective” science defeating “bigoted” scientific racism. Yudell’s reexamination underscores the feedback relationship between scientific praxis and social context. Despite scientists’ protestations to the contrary, no science ever occurs in an “objective” ideological vacuum; and none can outrun the influence of its history, good and bad.

According to Yudell, the intellectual trajectory of the modern biological race concept “originated with eugenic theories of difference and was re-created and integrated into modern biological thought by population geneticists and evolutionary biologists … during the evolutionary synthesis in biology” (p. 6), remaining to dog science and society ever since. Predictably, Yudell introduces Charles Benedict Davenport, his eugenic sympathizers, and his environmentalist adversaries. Instead of focusing on the battles between antipodean extremists, however, Yudell examines the professional dynamics that created comity between the sides, ensuring the preservation of race in science.

Moderate scientists marginalized strident eugenic racists beginning in the 1920s. Recounting the little-known activities of two National Research Council [End Page 833] joint committees in the 1920s—one on “race characters,” the other on “racial problems”—Yudell explores biologists’ normalization of race, even as they stripped it of overt racism. While eugenics was never mentioned by name in these committees’ work, Yudell argues that “the research clearly followed a eugenic paradigm … suggesting that eugenic ideas were, in fact, barely indistinguishable from mainstream studies of race” (p. 66). Race remained central to biological science. Biological science, in turn, remained available to provide “rational” cover for racist ideologues.

This trend was sustained, in the 1930s and 1940s, as the evolutionary synthesis gained dominance in biology—even after the revelations of eugenics-inspired Nazi atrocities. No friend of racist eugenics, Theodosius Dobzhansky remained wedded to race as “an organic ‘process’ that can be identified as the frequency of a gene or genes in a segment of a population” (p. 123) that could help describe genetic variation in populations. Despite warnings from Ashley Montagu and others, Dobzhansky’s investment in race helped the concept survive the apparent consensus of the 1950 UNESCO “Statement on Race,” which held that “[f] or all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth” (p. 150). Subsequent internecine debate among life scientists led to an oft-overlooked second UNESCO statement that backpedalled on the renunciation of race as a biological phenomenon.

Ultimately, “the perpetuation of the race concept” among population geneticists “confirm[ed] the very contradiction and subtleties that are ever present in the relationship between scientific practice and the race concept” (p. 158). As Yudell demonstrates, the paradoxes and nuances of science’s fascination with race plagued the heated debates over sociobiology in the 1970s and 1980s, extending into the genomic age. Today, even after J. Craig Venter’s famous disavowal of race as without “genetic or scientific basis” during the unveiling of the draft genome, biological scientists continue to use self-identified race as “a useful proxy to best capture … genetic diversity—a proxy that is especially useful in clinical...


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