Subjectivities in the Science of Race

Categories: RaceScience

The scientific perception of race is an ever-evolving field of study that has changed drastically since prominent studies published in the 19th century. Tethered to the political, religious, and cultural beliefs of the time, the science of race has been a malleable concept, influenced by subjectivities and the dominant paradigms of each respective era. Due to the environment one is immersed in, people’s mindsets and beliefs are heavily influenced by their surroundings, which ultimately mold one’s perception of the world.

Consequently, the science of race becomes intertwined with people’s own biases, rendering it incapable of being viewed through a truly objective lens. Despite the best efforts of Morton, Gould, and the Human Genome Diversity Project to conduct objective studies of race, contemporary values and subjectivities remain intricately bound to their work, making a value-free science of race unattainable. In spite of the errors in using scientific values as a justification for prejudice, remaining subjective in the pursuit of knowledge creates greater cultural understandings and discussions, illuminating the importance of keeping values tied to the science of race.

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Samuel George Morton, a prevailing scientist of the 19th century, suffered from his own biases and assumptions when conducting his studies, exemplifying the difficulty in obtaining a value-free perception of race. Despite being reigned the “great data-gatherer and objectivist of American science,” (Gould, 83) Morton was heavily influenced by his biblical references and had subconscious prejudices when conducting his research, impacting his interpretation of the data he gathered and the statistical data itself.

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Morton was a leading American polygenist, meaning he believed human races to have different moments of creation (Lecture 5). However, his justification for the differing origins of races became tied up in biblical history. Morton believed that because there was only a 1,000 year period between the beaching of Noah’s Ark and the creation of the Egyptian tombs, humans must have been separate races from the beginning, rather than differentiating later on in time (Gould, 84). In additional, Morton cited the Egyptians’ depiction of blacks as servants in drawings as evidence of their inferior social status (Gould, 85). Rather than remaining objective in his analysis of polygenism, Morton instead relied on biblical stories and his analysis of another culture’s artwork as the basis of his argument.

In addition, despite Morton’s assertion of remaining objective during his experiments measuring cranial capacities among different races, he was unknowingly biased in his perception and analysis of the data he gathered. His attempts to remain value-free become marred by his ingrained belief that the white race was superior and would therefore boast greater cranial capacities and mental intelligence. This led him to select skulls to measure that would align with his prior beliefs, including the “major overrepresentation of an extreme group – the small-brained Inca Peruvians,” (Gould, 91) while simultaneously calculating a higher Caucasian mean by “consciously eliminating the small-brained Hindus from his sample” (Gould, 92). Other errors include not standardizing the ratio of sexes and stature between the different racial groups, both of which shifted his data in favorable ways for his predicted outcome. What becomes particularly interesting is that despite the great errors and falsities in how he conducted his studies, there is believed to be no conscious attempt on his part to produce fraudulent data (Gould, 86). Rather, his prior convictions surrounding the hierarchy of races played such a dominant role in his data collection that they led him to unknowingly omit or favor data that aligned with his beliefs.

Stephen Jay Gould, a popular American paleontologist and science historian during the 20th century, came to be a great critic of Morton and other key scientists of the 19th century, yet also faced his own prejudices when conducting his studies. As put forth in The Mismeasure of Man, Gould asserts that “white leaders of Western nations did not question the proprietary of racial ranking…all leading scientists followed social conventions” (Gould, 66). The notion that scientists failed to properly employ objectivity and instead resorted to reification and circular reasoning is central throughout his writing, heavily drawing on the errors in 19th century scientists’ data collection and analysis as evidence for this. What Gould fails to properly address is that he is analyzing research that was done in a previous century, yet critiquing it through the eyes of a 20th century scholar. Gould’s own bias lies in the fact that he is judging ideas from a prior era of science, without acknowledging the shifting paradigms present in all scientific beliefs. Beyond this, Gould falls into the trap of subjectivity by acknowledging that there are different races, which, in essence, are socially constructed. Despite Gould’s push for value-free science and his own perception that his work was conducted through the lens of objectivity, he still relies on accepted societal values and popular beliefs during the time of his work.

The Human Genome Diversity Project, a more recent example, highlights how subjectivities can be bound to science even when aiming to approach research from an anti-racist and inclusive lens. The project, first created in 1991, aimed to collect blood and tissue samples from genetically distinct indigenous groups before they were lost to the forces of globalization (Lecture 7). However, the project was met with great resistance by indigenous groups who believed the scientists were solely concerned with gathering DNA, and not the cultural history and values of the people. The World Council of Indigenous Peoples went so far as to call it a “Vampire Project” (Reardon, 358). There was great fear that the DNA results would take greater precedence over indigenous ties, in addition to the ambiguity over who has the right to define groups and social belonging. Even the project’s attempts at gaining group consent utilized Western legal concepts that were laden with their own assumptions and values (Reardon, 359). In the end, the value placed on DNA and biological factors weren’t inclusive of cultural and political determinants of group belonging, complicating the basis of who can claim membership to an indigenous identity.

When looking at the implications of embodying a value-free science of race, it becomes clear that being able to look at race in an unbiased nature that is free from prior judgements is unattainable. Science is inherently value-laden given that people study and research concepts they find intriguing and use their own perception of the world as one of their tools for dissecting data and making sense of it. Our beliefs and understandings are therefore malleable depending on our culture, community, and the scientific paradigm we live within, making us incapable of being entirely objective and value-free in our pursuit of knowledge. It is when people use science as a justification for racism and prejudice that a value-laden science of race is problematic. However, when looking at the broader scope of science, utilizing culture and history when conducting research can provide a positive impact. It allows for greater understandings and discussions between groups, creating meaningful conversations that further our scientific knowledge from a multicultural perspective. Therefore, when used properly, a value-laden and subjective analysis of the science of race can deepen our understandings of the world and provide a multidimensional viewpoint.

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Subjectivities in the Science of Race. (2021, Aug 17). Retrieved from

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