Anthropology Magazine

Unit 4 – Human Genetic Variation

Unit 4 – Human Genetic Variation


Scientific explanations for and appreciations of human genetic variation often remain at odds with social views on human diversity. In this unit, students will learn how biological anthropologists address genetic variation. They also can consider anthropologists’ ongoing struggle to address the discipline’s historical role in perpetuating scientific racism.

SAPIENS Articles:


Professor Talking Points:

  • Genes are proteins that make up our DNA and are responsible for many of the traits that we possess: for example, aspects of our physical appearance such as skin, eye, and hair color; physiological traits such as tolerance of lactose, sickle cell anemia, and color blindness; and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
  • Biological anthropologists study human genetic variation from an evolutionary standpoint.
  • They study the many traits that modern humans have as a result of genetic mutations and in response to environmental and social change.
  • The discipline of anthropology often played a central role in creating, sustaining, and spreading scientific racism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Scientific racism relies on pseudoscientific measures (initially, measurements of skulls and other body parts) to propagate the concept of the existence of distinct races and promote ideologies about the genetic and/or biological superiority and inferiority of socially constructed groups.

Academic Articles:

  • Auton, Adam, Gonçalo R. Abecasis, David M. Altshuler, et al. “A Global Reference for Human Genetic Variation.” Nature 526: 68–74.
  • Marks, Jonathan. 2012. “The Origins of Anthropological Genetics.” Current Anthropology 53 (S5): S161–S172.
  • Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. 2012. “’Your DNA Is Our History’: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology 53 (S5): S233–S245.

Student Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the 2017 SAPIENS piece by Michael Balter tell us about studying genetics and culture together?
  2. How can we prove that race is not genetically real?
  3. According to Marks (2012), what is the legacy of racism and eugenics in studies of genetics?
  4. List the merits of the 1000 Genomes Project (Auton, Adam, Gonçalo R. Abecasis, David M. Altshuler, et al. 2015). What does it tell us about shared genetic variations among different populations?


  • Direct students to the 1000 Genomes Project website and have them write a one-page summary of the project’s scientific and ethical merits, potential, and limitations.
  • Set up a class debate to explore the concept of “nature versus nurture.”

Additional Resources:


Unit by Eshe Lewis (2020)