Learning about genetics in schools may be priming children to hold prejudiced views about different races, according to new research.
Scientists found that when racial language was removed from textbooks, teenagers were less likely to hold racist views about the intelligence of different groups.
Project leader Dr Brian Donovan said the time is ripe for an overhaul of biology education.
His starting point was two widely taught high school science education reference points when discussing genetic diseases – that sickle cell anaemia is common among Africans and cystic fibrosis among Europeans.
“Everyone learns that, and what I found is that when kids learn that they think ‘oh well each group has its own special disease. If each group has its own special disease then everyone in that group must be the same,” explained Dr Donovan.
“They start to develop the idea that racial groups are categorically different, which can drive prejudice.”
Dividing classrooms into two groups, he gave one textbook with references to race, for example explaining sickle cell anaemia was more prevalent in African Americans.
The other group was given textbooks with this language stripped away, simply saying sickle cell anaemia was prevalent in Americans.
Questionnaires and tests given afterwards showed children reading passages without references to race were less likely to attribute intelligence to skin colour or ethnicity.
Dr Donovan, who is based at BSCS Science Learning, a non profit organisation devoted to science learning, said his team do not want to censor biology education.
Instead, they want children to receive more information about the complexity of human genetics and the ideologies driving certain viewpoints.
While sickle cell anaemia is commonly associated with people of sub-Saharan African origin, the study found that the unfortunate side effect of teaching this to children is that they tend to generalise and view different races as uniform groups.