Towards a More Humane Genetics Education

The Issue

Racism is a serious problem in the United States. Research has shown that the biology curriculum can affect how students think about race. It can lead students to believe more strongly in three misconceptions(4-5, 7-8):

  1. People of the same racial group are genetically uniform.
  2. People of disparate races are categorically different.
  3. Biologically-influenced abilities cannot change.

Individuals often justify racism with these misconceptions by arguing that it is pointless to try and reduce social inequality, because race biologically determines ability(6).

Our Focus

How can such beliefs be (un)learned through biology education?

What We’ve Learned

Teaching about human difference is not socially neutral.

Insights from our research have begun to illustrate how biology education affects the development of racism, for better or worse. We’ve learned:

  • When biology education causes youth to perceive too much genetic variation between racial groups, it can increase prejudice.
  • Conversely, the way we teach biology can reduce racial prejudice by helping students understand that there is more genetic variation within racial groups than there is between them.

In sum, the humane genetics research project is beginning to suggest that genetics education can create humane or inhumane outcomes depending on how it addresses human difference. If this hypothesis is correct, then learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could prepare students to become informed participants in a society where human genetics is invoked as a rationale in sociopolitical debates concerning racial inequality.

At present, genetics education does very little to address how information about human genetic difference is distorted by racialist ideologues (The New York Times) . Instead, our scholarship suggests that genetics curricula could actually contribute to harmful racial ideologies (The Atlantic) . The kind of genetics education that we envision would promote human welfare by exposing the scientific flaws in biological justifications of racism and sexism. Our research and development explores how to bring that kind of education into existence.

For a deeper dive into our line of research, review our research statement  and published papers below, or click here  to watch a video of the presentation, Towards a More Humane Genetics Education.

Watch the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2019 briefing, Better Biology Instruction for a More Equitable Society, here  (the presentations begin at 9 minutes and 18 seconds).

Published -

  1. Donovan, B. M., Semmens, R., Keck, P., Brimhall, E., Busch, K. C., Weindling, M., Duncan, A., Stuhlsatz, M., Buck Bracey, Z., Bloom, M., Kowalski, S., Salazar, B. (2019) Towards a More Humane Genetics Education: Learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could reduce racial bias in adolescent and adult populations . Science Education.
  2. Donovan, B.M., Stuhlsatz, M., Edelson, D.C., Buck Bracey, Z.B. (2019) Gendered Genetics: How reading about the genetic basis of sex differences in biology textbooks could affect beliefs associated with science gender disparities . Science Education.
  3. Donovan, B.M. (2018). Looking backwards to move biology education toward its humanitarian potential: A review of Darwinism, Democracy, and Race . Science Education.
  4. Donovan, B. M. (2017) Learned inequality: Racial labels in the biology curriculum can affect the development of racial prejudice . Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 54(3), 379-411.
  5. Donovan, B. M. (2016). Framing the genetics curriculum to support social justice: An experimental exploration of how the biology curriculum influences students’ beliefs about the racial achievement gap . Science Education. 100(3), 586-616.
  6. Donovan, B. M. (2015a). Putting humanity back into the teaching of human biology . Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 52, 65-75.
  7. Donovan, B. M. (2015b). Reclaiming race as a topic of the United States biology curriculum . Science Education. 99(6) 1092-1117.
  8. Donovan, B. M. (2014). Playing with fire? The impact of the hidden curriculum in school genetics on essentialist conceptions of race . Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(4), 462–496.
  9. Donovan, B. M., Moreno Mateos, D., Osborne, J. F., & Bisaccio, D. J. (2014). Revising the Economic Imperative for US STEM Education . PLoS Biology, 12(1), e1001760.

Media Mentions -

Education Week Learning & the Brain Independent The Atlantic The ABC The ABC Media Daily Mail The Brown Daily Herald Boston Globe 
National Science Foundation logo

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. (1660985). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


For more information, please contact Brian Donovan.