Race must have no part in human genetics research, professors and researchers argue in a letter published this week in Science. While certain social scientists and geneticists have made this plea since the human genome was sequenced in the 2000s, the actual results have been minimal. Language matters, the authors contend, and using the word “race” in a scientific context will continue to be detrimental to everyone.

The letter was penned by Michael Yudell, Dorothy Roberts, Rob DeSalle, and Sarah Tishkoff. Yudell is a professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, while DeSalle is the principal investigator at the the SICG Genomics Lab of the American Museum of Natural History. Roberts and Tishkoff are professors at the University of Pennsylvania; Roberts is a professor of law and sociology while Tishkoff teaches genetics and biology.

They write:

“Although inconsistent definition and use has been a chief problem with the race concept, it has historically been used as a taxonomic categorization based on common hereditary traits (such as skin color) to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. … “We believe 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.”

The sociologist W.E.B Du Bois was the first to argue that the concept of race was not a scientific category. At the start of the 20th century, Du Bois synthesized anthropological and scientific literature, concluding that race was socially constructed. A century later, biological scientists are stuck in a paradox where some still use as a proxy when discussing genetic diversity. The authors of the letter to Science believe that race is used as “a tool to elucidate human genetic diversity,” but that it’s a “poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relation between ancestry and genetics.” In other words, it’s haphazard science.

Race does not equal ancestry, nor is it biological. What it is, argues genetics professor Michael White in Pacific Standard, is a socially constructed category. “Human races are not natural genetic groups,” White writes. “Genes certainly reflect geography, but unlike geography, human genetic differences don’t fall along natural boundaries that might define races.”

The great danger here, when conflating race with genes, is the perpetuation of the idea that racial assumptions can serve as biological guides. Setting aside the greater, inherent racism here, this attitude can lead to misdiagnosis. For example, cystic fibrosis has continued to be under-diagnosed in populations of African ancestry because for years it has been considered to be a “white” disease.

In the letter, the team of academics calls on the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a panel of experts on how to best, as an academic community, move past the use of the word “race” in laboratory and clinical research. As it currently stands, the use of “race” in the hard sciences is only a proxy for ancestry or socioeconomic status. This is ethically dubious and scientifically facile. We can do better.


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