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Myriad perspectives on biological differences

| 31 March 2005


Leslea Hlusko (Wendy Edelstein photo)
Many of Leslea Hlusko’s previous students, she says, were taught in humanities classes that “there is no such thing as race.” That information doesn’t square with their own life experiences, notes Hlusko, an assistant professor of integrative biology, who says students have told her that when they look at people they can “kind of tell were they come from.”

Next fall, when she teaches Human Biological Variation (IB 35AC), Hlusko will employ a number of perspectives — historical, comparative, evolutionary, biomedical, and cultural — “to help students understand the factors that shape the biological diversity we see today. Ethnic and cultural variation is superimposed on biological variation,” continues Hlusko, “and it is useful for students to see that they are not necessarily linked.”

As someone who studies primate evolution, Hlusko views the information she packs into IB 35AC as “one of the best services I can offer to the community at large.” Misunderstandings about human differences, she explains, may contribute to stereotypes, misguided political and social policies, and “just bad interactions between people.”

Differences between humans, says Hlusko, in some cases “only run skin-deep. Variations in traits we can easily see, such as skin color, hair texture, and nose shape, may cluster together, but other features — lactose intolerance, fingerprint patterns, blood types — do not always correlate with them.” Hlusko designed the course to give students that perspective, “so that they can decide for themselves whether there are valid races or not.”

Hlusko notes that “there are no textbooks” for this sort of course. Her syllabus includes readings from anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species, articles about evolution, and excerpts from Jared Diamond’s best-selling book Guns, Germs, and Steel to round out a discussion on biology, politics, and economics.

The course will culminate in an examination of current events, with a look at the intersection of science and politics. Hlusko cites as an example last year’s California ballot initiative in which voters were asked to decide whether the state should collect information about its citizens’ racial or ethnic makeup.

“I don’t think we can let people graduate from college without some understanding of the implications of human biological variation on biomedical research, genetics, and evolution, and how they all tie together,” asserts Hlusko. After all, she notes, Berkeley students will “hopefully go on to become this country’s leaders. Even if the future graduates aren’t making policy decisions they will be making important choices in the voting booth.”