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Course Information

Instructor Info:Alan Goodman
Office Extension x5372
TA Info:Kanchan Jha
Tania Chow
Term: 2013F
Meeting Info: Tuesday Thursday
12:30 PM - 01:50 PM Cole Science Center 333
12:30 PM - 01:50 PM Cole Science Center 333

This course focuses on the science of human genetic and biological variation. How does variation come about in evolution?  Which variations have adaptive and functional significance and which are "just differences"?  What is the evolutionary explanation, distribution, and significance of human variation in, for example, sickle cell anemia, skin color and sports performance?  How are individuals grouped, how are differences studied, and to what purpose? How did the idea of "natural" races arise and how and why, despite key scientific flaws, does it persist?

This semester we will focus on the idea of race as a genetic construct versus a variously lived, social reality (how we are raced and racism) and, in particular, how race is used historically and today in biomedical research to explain health differences among races.  The main paper for this course will explore a health condition (or other pertinent variation) that differs by race and compare genetic and socio-political explanations.

Course Objectives:

COURSE GOALS Recent studies show that one individual is nearly genetically identical to the next (we are genetically 99.9% similar), yet other studies purport to show that individuals (and even so called races) respond differently to the same drugs. How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction? How "significant" is human genetic variation? In what ways is race real or not real? Studying human biological diversity is important and fascinating -- it tells us much about our commonalties and our differences, and who we are. Studying human variation has also had great socio-politically importance. Throughout history, politicians and powerful institutions have used biological differences to explain social ills such as poverty and persistent racial inequalities in health and wealth.

Thus, the theories, explanations and data on human variation that are brought to the public through science are important. Politicians have looked to scientists to affirm the "naturalness" of the social order. The study of human variation, therefore, has implications for patterns of health and health care and how we look at the person sitting across from us. Improper study of human variations has been a main source for the continued justification of prejudice and unequal access to power.

The main goals of this course are to: (1) introduce students to the scientific study of human variability, (2) foster an appreciation for how these studies are done (the importance of hypothesis and social influences on research, fact versus interpretation...), and lastly, diversity itself. We will focus on the historical development of the race concept (a major scientific paradigm), its fundamental invalidity (as biology), and its inability to explain social problems. We will also explore the use of race in as an explanation for traits such as athletic performance, and intelligence and especially explore the science behind persistent racial differences in health.

Specific course goals include:

• To become familiar with the role and limits of genetic and developmental processes in the genesis of physical, psychological and behavioral characteristics.

• To begin to understand variation as a function of the dialectical interaction between environment, adaptation, and chance.

• To better understand and use quantitative data.

• To better understand some of the power of biological and scinetific knowledge.

• To develop skills which encourage independent and interdisciplinary research and thinking.

Evaluation Criteria:


Attendance and Participation.

In order to meet the goals of the course, you need to come to class on time and prepared to listen and discuss topics and readings. While completing the readings for each class, I recommend keeping a journal of questions and ideas raised by the readings and what you found interesting. Lack of attendance and participation may result in your being drop from the course.

Writing and Research.

You will almost surely learn the most from your research and writing. Failure to turn in assignments by the due dates (see syllabus) may result in your being dropped from the course. The main assignment is a critical review of a set of studies linking race and health (or possible some other aspect of human variation that interests you).  You will build this assignments in parts from a review of a single primary article to a complete critical paper and presentation. See syllabus for due dates. 

Honesty and Academic Integrity.  There is nothing more important than doing your own work.  Ask for help and give credit properly.  If you do not do your own work you lose the chance to grow and you risk your education.  See the excellent college policy on academic integrity and plagarism.  

Additional Info:


The text for this classs is Race: Are We So Different?  by Goodman, Moses, and Jones (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).  All other  readings are available on line.

Websites and Resources. 

A number of resources are web resources are very helpful, including  the website for Race: The Power of an Illusion ( and the American Anthropological Association's Race Education Project (