The Science of Sex and Race: Theories of Biological Differentiation, 1776 to the Present

HPSC-X108 — Spring 2022

Sander Gliboff
Wylie Hall 015
Days and Times
Monday/Wednesday 10:20A-11:10A
Course Description

This course surveys the history of diversity in the U. S from the point of view of history of science, asking how biologists (also biological anthropologists and medical authorities) understood and debated the differences between the sexes and the races, from the late eighteenth century to the present. A central question in many of these debates was how (or whether) unity could be found amid the diversity: Was there a common origin in heredity, embryology, or evolution, from which all humans diverged to varying degrees? And if so, what caused the divergence—environment, culture, nutrition, disease, natural selection? Or contrarily, were the sexes and races fixed and incommensurable categories?

As we look at the historical ideas and debates, we will consider the interplay between science and culture, in other words, how scientific theorizing often reflects cultural assumptions about sex and race, but can also influence and change them. Attention will be given to minority, feminist, and other dissenting viewpoints in addition to the better-known theoreticians. Comparisons of historical cases to present-day problems will also be drawn.

Topics will include the monogeneist-polygenist debate; Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and race formation; theories of sex determination; eugenics and racial ideology; the discovery of the sex hormones and some of their first medical uses; Alfred Kinsey’s studies of the diversity of human sexual behaviors; and current issues such as race-based medical treatments or transgender participation in sports.