What Scientists Mean When They Say 'Race' Is Not Genetic

A new paper explains why it can be dangerous to think otherwise.
Race is a social construct, researchers say.
Race is a social construct, researchers say.
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If a team of scientists in Philadelphia and New York have their way, using race to categorize groups of people in biological and genetic research will be forever discontinued.

The concept of race in such research is "problematic at best and harmful at worst," the researchers argued in a new paper published in the journal Science on Friday.

However, they also said that social scientists should continue to study race as a social construct to better understand the impact of racism on health.

So what does all this mean? HuffPost Science recently posed that question and others to the paper's co-author, Michael Yudell, who is associate professor and chair of community health and prevention at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Why is it problematic to view race as a biological concept?

For more than a century, natural and social scientists have been arguing about whether race is a useful classificatory tool in the biological sciences -- can it elucidate the relationship between humans and their evolutionary history, between humans and their health. In the wake of the U.S. Human Genome Project, the answer seemed to be a pretty resounding "no."

In 2004, for example, Francis Collins, then head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and now director of the National Institutes of Health, called race a “flawed” and “weak” concept and argued that science needed to move beyond race. Yet, as our paper highlights, the use of race persist in genetics, despite voices like Collins, like Craig Venter -- leaders in the field of genomics -- who have called on the field to move beyond it.

We believe it is time to revisit this century-long debate and bring biologists, social scientists and scholars from the humanities together in a constructive way to find better ways to study the ever-important subject of human diversity.

The race concept should be removed from genetics research for the following reasons: Genetic methods do not support the classification of humans into discrete races, [and] racial assumptions are not good biological guideposts. Races are not genetically homogenous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries. And because of this, using race as a proxy to make clinical predictions is about probability.

Of course, medicine can be about best guesses, but are we serving patients well if medical decisions are made because a patient identifies as part of a certain racial group or are identified as belonging to a specific race? What if, for example, the probability is that if you are white you are 90 percent likely to have a beneficial or at least non-harmful reaction to a particular drug? That sounds pretty good, but what if you are that 1 in 10 that is likely to have a harmful reaction? That doesn’t sound so good, and that is the problem with most race-based predictions. They are best guesses for an individual.

We also believe that a variable so mired in historical and contemporary controversy has no place in modern genetics. Race has both scientific and social meanings that are impossible to tease apart, and we worry that using such a concept in modern genetics does not serve the field well.

“We hope that our paper spurs scientists to rethink the use of race in human genetic research.”

- Michael Yudell, researcher in the fields of ethics, genomics and public health

Based on your research, what is race?

Genetics has long struggled with the definition of race. In the first decades of the 20th century, race was defined by discrete types, the belief that one member of a race was thought to share the same physical and social traits with other members of that race. In these early ideas about race, races generally mapped onto continental populations. Beginning in the 1930s, with the rise of modern population genetics and evolutionary biology, race was reimagined in the context of evolutionary biology and population genetics. Instead of racial groups being fixed between continents, the race concept was a way to understand the frequency of individual genes in different human populations.

In this way, race was a methodological tool that biologists could utilize to study human genetic diversity that did not reflect an underlying hierarchy between human populations. This was simply about gene frequencies between groups. And it is this understanding of race that is still largely the way modern science understands the term.

But the scientist who helped rethink race in the 1930s and 1940s -- the great evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russia-trained scientist who spent most of his career at Columbia University -- would later in his career voice concern that the use of the race concept in biology had "floundered in confusion and misunderstanding."

Rosa Parks, known as as the "mother of the civil rights movement," arriving at circuit court to be arraigned in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956.
Rosa Parks, known as as the "mother of the civil rights movement," arriving at circuit court to be arraigned in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956.

In the 1950s, Dobzhansky was moved by factors, both internal and external to science, to call into question the utility of racial classifications. The rise of the civil rights movement, the appropriation of biological conceptions of race to counter civil rights advances, and his own disputes with colleagues over the imprecise and sometimes inappropriate use of the term race led him to call on biologists to develop better methods for investigating human genetic diversity.

The problem today is that modern genetics is stuck in a paradox that reflects Dobzhansky’s own struggle with the race concept: both believing race to be a tool to elucidate human genetic diversity, and believing that race is a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics. This paradox is rooted in the nature of the field. Like Dobzhansky, we and many others in genetics, anthropology and the social sciences have called on scientists to devise better methods to improve the study of human genetic diversity. The field is still trying to respond to Dobzhansky, and we hope that our paper spurs scientists to rethink the use of race in human genetic research.

Race also, of course, has social meanings. And by suggesting that race is not a useful tool for classifying humans, we do not mean to say that somehow race is not real. Race is, of course, real. We live in a country and a world where skin color has long been used as a way to systematize discrimination and brutality.

But that is not what we are arguing in this paper. We are arguing simply that race is not a useful tool to study human genetic diversity and that there is potential harm in doing so. We acknowledge in the paper that using race as a political or social category to study racism and its biological effects, although fraught with challenges, remains necessary.

For example, we need to continue to study how structural inequities and discrimination produce health disparities between groups. Your race can impact your health, but your genetics is not a good window into how race affects your health. This line of thinking goes all the way back to the sociologist and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was the first to synthesize data from anthropology and the social sciences to conclude, for example, that race-based disparities stem from social, not biological, inequalities.

How would you explain some of the differences that we see between various groups and the prevalence of certain genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia in the African-American community?

That’s a great example. Sickle cell is not an African-American or African disease, although it occurs in higher frequency in these populations. But this is not a racial difference; it is a matter of ancestry, geography and evolution. Sickle-cell occurs in higher frequency in populations from regions of the world where malaria is or once was common, as sickle cell is a disease that is an evolutionary adaptation to exposure to malaria.

The sickle-cell trait is believed to be protective against malaria. Thus, sickle-cell disease is at its highest frequency in West Africans and people of West African descent. But this trait is not common in other regions of Africa, where malaria is not as prevalent. Therefore, it is not an "African" disease. Sickle cell also appears in other regions of the globe, in other human populations, including populations in the Mediterranean Basin, the Arabian Peninsula, and on the Indian subcontinent, where these populations also saw this adaptation to resist malaria.

How is race currently used in genetics research?

Race is used widely in human biological research and clinical practice to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. In the laboratory, race can be used to investigate disease-causing genes within and between populations, and, more generally to classify groups in studies of human populations. Race is also used clinically to inform decisions about a patient’s risk for certain diseases and to help predict how one might metabolize drugs.

Some scientists have argued that relevant genetic information can be seen at the racial level; that race is the best proxy we have for examining human genetic diversity. Other scientists have concluded race is neither a relevant nor accurate way to understand or map human genetic diversity. Finally, others have argued that race-based predictions in clinical settings, because of the heterogeneous nature of racial groups, are of questionable use. So, despite a widespread use of race in scientific and clinical research, race is the most controversial tool for making sense of human diversity that scientists have at their disposal.

We would prefer the field of genetics use concepts like ancestry instead of race in human studies. It is important to distinguish ancestry from race. Ancestry is a process-based concept that helps us understand the admixing events that lead to one’s existence. Ancestry is also a statement about an individual's relationship to other individuals in their genealogical history. Thus, it is a very personal understanding of one's genomic heritage.

Race, on the other hand, is a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about a hierarchical organization of humans, connecting an individual to a larger, preconceived, geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group.

“Your race can impact your health, but your genetics is not a good window into how race affects your health.”

- Michael Yudell, researcher in the fields of ethics, genomics and public health

With that being said, are some of the biological concepts of race used in genetics research examples of scientific racism?

Unlike earlier disagreements concerning race and biology, today’s discussions generally lack clear ideological and political antipodes of “racist” and “non-racist.” Most discussions today about race among scientists concern examination of differences between groups with the goal of understanding human evolutionary history, and the relationship between our genes and our health with the goal of determining the best course of medical treatments. However, this doesn’t mean that the race concept in biology can’t be used to support racism.

An example of this is the concern many had in the wake of Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance, which made claims about the genetic basis of social differences between races. Wade’s book forced a large group of leading genetics to publicly refute the idea that genetics supported such ideas. Other examples include outrageous and incorrect claims about the relationship between race, genetics and intelligence.

What will it require to take race out of human genetics?

Well, we make two proposals in our paper. The first is that we call upon journals to encourage the use of alternative variables to study human genetic diversity and to rationalize their use. Journals should require scientists publishing in their pages to clearly define how they are using such variables in order to allow scientists to understand and interpret data across studies and would help avoid confusing, inconsistent and contradictory usage of such terms. This has been tried before, but only in piecemeal fashion, making sustained change unfeasible.

We also recognize that the use of terms changes nothing if the underlying racial thinking remains the same. But we believe that language matters and that the scientific language of race has a considerable influence on how the public understands human diversity.

Second, we are calling upon the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene an interdisciplinary panel of experts to help the field improve the study of human genetic diversity.

As an honest broker in science policy, the Academies can play a constructive role in bringing together natural scientists, social scientists and scholars from the humanities to find ways to study human genetic diversity that do not recapitulate the confusion and potential harm that comes with using the race concept.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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