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.

What are the important ideas to teach students?

A More Humane Genetics Education

Implications for Teaching

What genetic concepts can I teach biology students?
  • Scientists agree that race and racism are socially real, but race has little biological validity, becauese(3,4,8):
    • Individuals of the same racial group are genetically different(7,8).
    • U.S. racial groups are genetically alike because they share similar sets of differences(7,8).
    • Human genetic diseases are not race-specific (e.g. sickle cell anemia occurs in African, European, and Middle Eastern populations)(4-6).
    • Complex human traits are best explained by a multi-factorial model, not a Mendelian model(1-3).
What social science concepts can I teach biology students?
  • Genetic claims about racial difference historically have been used to rationalize genocide and discrimination(4,5).
  • Racial inequalities are not consequences of genetics. They are, in part, consequences of incorrect beliefs about genetics(6).
  • People tolerate and/or perpetuate social inequalities when they believe these inequalities are caused by genes(4,6).
How does this connect to NGSS?
  • Students' racial biases can potentially be reduced through NGSS-aligned curriculum and instruction(5):
    • Materials should be designed to engage students in data analysis, argumentation, and modeling to learn about the core idea of genetic diversity.
    • These scientific practices can help learners make sense of cross-cutting concepts (ex: cause and effect in genetics).
    • NGSS curriculum and instruction can reduce students' biases by changing how they perceive human genetic variation.

Biology education framed by this kind of curriculum and instruction(5) may reduce students' beliefs that...

  • People of the same racial group are genetically uniform.
  • People of disparate racial groups are categorically different.

What is the clinical significance of teaching these ideas?

It is difficult to predict the potential impact of implementing a more humane genetics education in all school settings because we have not yet studied our intervention using a nationally representative sample of schools. Nevertheless, we can make some predictions about the clinical significance of implementing a more humane genetics education using statistics from our recent field experiments in 8th-12th grade biology classrooms, such as the one below:

Donovan, B. M., Semmens, R., Keck, P., Brimhall, E., Busch, K. C., Weindling, M., …

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, 1–32. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1002/sce.21506

For example, using data from this most recent publication we can calculate the number needed to treat, which tells us how many people need to receive an intervention in order to prevent one additional case of a disease. The disease we are trying to prevent through our research is racism. Studies have found that racism is a public health problem because it is significantly associated with mortality in African Americans (e.g. read this study ). The racially biased beliefs we have attempted to prevent through our intervention research are the following:

  1. the belief that there is more genetic variation between races than there is within them.
  2. the belief that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally simply because of genetic differences between races.

Changing these beliefs through genetics education is important because previous studies have found that people use these beliefs to justify racially prejudiced policies.

To calculate the number needed to treat one merely takes the inverse of the absolute risk reduction (or 1/ARR). We found that our humane genetics intervention reduced the risk that students developed a racially biased perception of genetic variation by 16.2%, and this risk reduction was statistically significant (p < 0.05). Likewise, we found that our humane genetics intervention resulted in a 6.6%, statistically-significant, reduction in the risk of students believing that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally simply because of their genes. Our results therefore suggest that for every six students who learn from our intervention, we can prevent one additional student from developing the misperception that there is more genetic variation between races than there is within them. Furthermore, for every 15 students who learn from our intervention, our results suggest that we can prevent one additional student from agreeing that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally because of genetic differences between races. Altogether, if a biology classroom has 30 students, then our results suggest that implementing a more humane genetics education could prevent five students from developing the misperception that there is more genetic variation between races than within them and two of these students may also be prevented from believing that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally because of genes.

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

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 ABC  The ABC Media Daily Mail  The Brown Daily Herald  Boston Globe  

References -

  1. F. Stern, K. Kampourakis, Studies in Science Education. 53, 193–225 (2017).
  2. A. Jamieson, G. Radick, in The Philosophy of Biology, K. Kampourakis, Ed. (Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, 2013), vol. 1, pp. 577–595.
  3. M. J. Dougherty, The American Journal of Human Genetics. 85, 6–12 (2009).
  4. B. M. Donovan, Science Education. 99, 1092–1117 (2015).
  5. B. M. Donovan et al., Cognition and Instruction (under review).
  6. B. M. Donovan, Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 54, 379–411 (2017).
  7. N. A. Rosenberg, Human Biology. 83, 659–684 (2011).
  8. The American Journal of Human Genetics. 103, 636 (2018).

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.

Interested?

Are you a middle or high school biology teacher who would like to participate in an upcoming study?

Questions?

For more information, please contact Brian Donovan.