Friday, February 05, 2016

Science Publishes Article Calling For Elimination Of Racial Categories In Genetics Research

In an important article titled "Taking race out of human genetics" published in Science magazine today, a team of researchers argues that "the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research—so disputed and so mired in confusion—is problematic at best and harmful at worst. It is time for biologists to find a better way."

I have often taught classes which include the idea(s) that the identity characteristics of sex, gender, race, sexual orientation are socially constructed. This does not mean that these categories are not real, but that these characteristics are not innate, fixed, "natural" properties of human beings; instead the idea is that how we perceive and interact with people according to these categories is contested, time-dependent and malleable.

It's exciting to see a paragraph like this in the world's most prestigious scientific journal:
One reason is that phylogenetic and population genetic methods do not support a priori classifications of race, as expected for an interbreeding species like Homo sapiens (11, 18). As a result, racial assumptions are not the biological guide-posts some believe them to be, as commonly defined racial groups are genetically heterogeneous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries (10, 11). For example, hemoglobinopathies can be misdiagnosed because of the identification of sickle-cell as a “Black” disease and thalassemia as a “Mediterranean” disease (10). Cystic fibrosis is underdiagnosed in populations of African ancestry, because it is thought of as a “White” disease (19). Popular misinterpretations of the use of race in genetics also continue to fuel racist beliefs, so much so that, in 2014, a group of leading human population geneticists publicly refuted claims about the genetic basis of social differences between races (20). Finally, the use of the race concept in genetics, an issue that has vexed natural and social scientists for more than a century, will not be obviated by new technologies. Although the low cost of next-generation sequencing has facilitated efforts to sequence hundreds of thousands of individuals, adding whole-genome sequences does not negate the fact that racial classifications do not make sense in terms of genetics.
Coincidentally enough, I actually m et one of the authors of this article (Professor Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania) when she visited my place of employment this week. On Tuesday February 2, she gave an impressive talk which summarized some of the key ideas in her latest book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. The audience was enthralled and Prof. Roberts answered questions matter-of-factly and informatively.

 Overall, it is exciting to see the idea that race is NOT a human biological feature getting more attention.

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