ISMB Special Event

Ancestry, Genetics and Race: Dealing with the Legacy of Scientific Racism

This event took place on Wednesday 16 June 2021. 

Speakers: Mark Thomas & Adam Rutherford, GEE, UCL

Host: Charmian Dawson, ISMB, UCL BAME Attainment Project

The invention of racial taxonomies in the 18th century was coincident with the birth of the biological sciences, and for the next two centuries scientific racism was co-opted and martialled to justify European expansion, and the subjugation and enslavement of people in newly established colonies. Our scientific forebears developed and reinforced the idea that racial categories were strongly associated with physical, behavioural and moral traits, and were hierarchical in nature. Prominent thinkers asserted that different races had distinct evolutionary origins. Ultimately the field of human genetics unequivocally demonstrated that these racial categories are not biologically meaningful or useful ways of describing the similarities and differences between people and populations. The trajectory of this scientific history is worth knowing and indeed celebrating. However, echoes of scientific racism persist in various branches of science, and more widely in society. Without an awareness of this history, and of our current understanding of the structuring of genetic variation in populations, neither science nor social equality are well served.


Introduction by Charmian Dawson about UCL’s efforts on decreasing the BAME Awarding Gap.
Mark and Adam will deliver a short talk, discussing their research and the developing understanding of genetic variation among human populations, and how this relates to racial categories. The talks will be followed by a discussion and Q&A session.

Adam Rutherford is an Honorary Fellow in the Division of Biosciences, UCL. He received his PhD from the UCL Institute of Child Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital and is a science writer and broadcaster. Adam has published books including How To Argue With a Racist and is the presenter of BBC’s Inside Science programme. 

Mark Thomas is Professor of Evolutionary Genetics in UCL’s Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment. Mark is notable for his forays into the fields of human demographic and evolutionary history inference, molecular phylogenetics of extinct species using ancient DNA, cultural evolutionary modelling, and molecular biology.