View Full Version : The Reality of Race: Studies Contradict Official View that "Race Doesnít Exist"

Friday, July 29th, 2005, 07:49 AM
Posted Jan. 31, 2005 - Special to World Science

Racial differences among people are real, new studies suggest, contradicting claims by some of the world’s leading scientists and scientific institutions that race doesn’t exist. These experts had said race is merely a “social construct,” or a creation of society’s collective imagination. But the new studies, some of which come from Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., suggest that the way people classify themselves by race reflects real and clear genetic differences among them. This indicates there is some truth behind the racial distinctions that seem obvious to most ordinary people, the researchers said.

But they added that it’s important to define race correctly, since dangerous misconceptions, such as the notion that some races are superior to others, persist and can serve to excuse racism. Moreover, previous studies have shown that racial differences between population groups are small, much smaller than variations within the groups themselves. The newer studies didn’t specifically dispute this observation, but simply found that the between-group differences are also clear.

What is true, researchers said in light of the new studies, is that people of different races have different ancestries. This means different genes, since genes are inherited from ancestors. “The public in general is much more honest” about race than many academics are, “because the general public knows it signifies something rather than nothing,” said Jon Entine, a journalist and author of a critically well-received book, “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It.”

The title attests to the subject’s controversial nature, and the inflamed passions often triggered by any suggestion that racial differences reflect meaningful biological differences. The emotions surrounding the debate arise from its origins in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, which led to widespread efforts to wipe out racism from society. Recognizing the evils that racial classification had created, from slavery to genocides, many tried to fight racism by playing down racial differences as much as possible.

Partly in order to further this goal of ending racial discrimination, some experts began to publicize the view that race didn’t exist at all. “Race is a social construct, not a scientific classification,” the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious medical journals, editorialized on May 3, 2001. “In medicine, there is only one race—the human race.’’ In support of this claim, many scientists cited findings from the Human Genome Project that humans are 99.9 percent genetically alike. These findings recently turned out to be possibly wrong (see exclusive World Science story of Sept. 8, 2004, “New findings undermine basis of ‘race isn’t real’ theory.”)

However, scientists, especially anthropologists, have continued to support the race-as-social-construct position. The American Anthropological Association’s official statement on race declares: “physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.” The group’s president-elect, Alan H. Goodman, was quoted in a Baltimore Sun article of last Oct. 10 as saying, “Race as an explanation for human biological variation is dead,” and comparing the race concept to a gun in the hands of racists.

The latest research to challenge the race-as-social-construct theory is a study of 3,636 people from across America and Taiwan, led by Neil Risch, then of the Stanford University School of Medicine and now at the University of California at San Francisco. It found that people’s self-identified race is a nearly perfect indicator of their genetic background, contradicting the race-as-social-construct view, Risch said.

The study’s authors said it was the largest study of its kind. The participants identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. For each participant, the researchers examined 326 DNA regions that tend to vary between people. These regions are not necessarily within functioning genes—some regions of the genome have no known use—but are simply genetic signposts that come in a variety of forms at the same place.

Without knowing how the participants had identified themselves, Risch and his team ran the results through a computer program that grouped individuals according to patterns of the 326 signposts. This analysis could have resulted in any number of different clusters, but only four clear groups turned up. And in each case the individuals within those clusters all fell within the same self-identified racial group. “This work comes on the heels of several contradictory studies about the genetic basis of race. Some found that race is a social construct with no genetic basis while others suggested that clear genetic differences exist between people of different races,” a press release from Stanford said.

“What makes the current study, published in the February issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, more conclusive is its size. The study is by far the largest, consisting of 3,636 people who all identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. Of these, only five individuals had DNA that matched an ethnic group different than the box they checked at the beginning of the study.” Although it was reported as the largest study to find genetic differences between races, Risch’s study is not the first. Previous studies have found that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more susceptible than average for Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal nervous system disorder, for instance. Black populations have been found to carry higher levels of a mutation that leads to sickle-cell anemia.

Risch’s study, however, is not only the largest study but also the first to find that these genetic differences are not isolated cases involving a handful of genes, but are spread throughout the genome. These differences should be of more than passing interest to the medical community, Risch added, because recognizing them can help tailor treatments and prevention programs to better serve specific ethnic groups. It can also help geneticists avoid skewed results in epedemiological studies, he wrote. For instance, failing to account for the gene-race relationship could make researchers think a particular difference between populations results from genes when in fact it stems from different cultural conditions. Several scientists who have supported the view of race as a social construct did not respond to requests for comment on the new studies, including officials from the American Anthropological Association and the author of the New England Journal editorial, Robert S. Schwartz.

However, some other scientists reacted without surprise to the new findings. “As an ordinary citizen educated in biology, it is self-evident that there are genetic differences between people who have been geographically segregated into mating populations, just as there are genetic differences for all species and subspecies,” wrote Michael Wigler, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in an email.

Source: http://www.world-science.net/exclusi...28_racefrm.htm

Saturday, July 30th, 2005, 02:41 AM
The Reality of Race

There's hardly any difference in the DNA of human races. That doesn't mean, argues sociologist Troy Duster, that genomics research can ignore the concept.

By Sally Lehrman

Race doesn't exist, the mantra went. The DNA inside people with different complexions and hair textures is 99.9 percent alike, so the notion of race had no meaning in science. At a National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) meeting five years ago, geneticists were all nodding in agreement. Then sociologist Troy Duster pulled a forensics paper out of his briefcase. It claimed that criminologists could find out whether a suspect was Caucasian, Afro-Caribbean or Asian Indian merely by analyzing three sections of DNA.

"It was chilling," recalls Francis S. Collins, director of the institute. He had not been aware of DNA sequences that could identify race, and it shocked him that the information can be used to investigate crimes. "It stopped the conversation in its tracks." In large part thanks to Duster, Collins and other geneticists have begun grappling with forensic, epidemiological and pharmacogenomic data that raise the question of race at the DNA level. The NHGRI now routinely includes experts from the social disciplines to assist in guiding research priorities and framing the results for the public. "The complexities of the DNA sequence require not just simplistic statements about similarities between groups but a full appreciation of history, anthropology, social science and politics," Collins has realized. "Duster is a person that rather regularly gets tapped on the shoulder and asked for help."

The urbane 66-year-old Duster, who splits his time between appointments at the University of California at Berkeley and New York University, examines how the public absorbs news about genetics into existing beliefs and how those perceptions also shape the use of genetic sequencing, DNA probes and other molecular techniques.

Those techniques have revealed that race is minor at the DNA level. The genetic differences between any two randomly selected individuals in one socially recognized population account for 85 percent of the variation one might find between people of separate populations. Put another way, the genetic difference between two individuals of the same race can be greater than those between individuals of different races--table sugar may look like salt, but it has more similarities with corn syrup.

But genetics cannot prove that race doesn't exist, Duster explains. No amount of logic will erase the concept or destroy the disparities that arise from it, because people use race to sort their social groupings and to define their social and economic interactions. Moreover, they do so in ways that have significant biological consequences. Duster recently helped to draft a 15-page statement for the American Sociological Association showing how race persists as a factor in disparities in health and other areas of life. "You cannot just get rid of the concept without doing tremendous damage to the epidemiologic research done so far," Duster says. African-Americans are three times as likely to die from heart disease, for example. "Blacks are redlined by banks, followed by department store security, pulled over by the police. This can produce hypertension," he points out. "It can give you a heart attack."

A new approach, gene clustering, avoids race by dividing according to medically important markers, such as genes for the enzymes necessary to metabolize drugs. But society will very likely re-create racial categories and rankings under the new terms, Duster predicts. And by failing to name the social context, this strategy gives base-pair differences undue emphasis at the expense of environmental influences. Race is a social reality, Duster observes, and he warns that science itself is a social institution susceptible to essentialist perceptions of race.

Raised in poverty during the Great Depression by a mother from an upper-class family, Duster, whose father died when he was nine, grew up navigating between Chicago's tough streets and its privileged intellectual and civic parlors. He witnessed firsthand the complexities of social categories and learned to "code-switch" from one to another, much as he capably moves among sociology, anthropology and genetics now.

Duster started out as a journalist but quit in moral indignation when chided for failing to interview a trapped subway motorman waiting for a leg amputation. He turned to sociology and joined Berkeley in 1967, quickly developing a reputation for thought-provoking work on drugs and social policy. In the 1970s Duster was a familiar voice in National Institutes of Health committees reviewing grants for research on mental health and drug abuse. While sitting on a panel for President Jimmy Carter's Commission on Mental Health, he began to hear researchers speculate that drug addiction and mental illness were linked to genetic susceptibilities.

Duster found the conversations alarming. His book, Backdoor to Eugenics, aimed to stimulate public debate by showing how genetic-screening policies tended to reinforce the power structures already within society. Since then, he has pressed geneticists and molecular biologists to consider the social meaning that emerges from what they perceive as unbiased fact.

At first they resisted. As a member of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Working Group advising the agencies on human genome research, Duster urged the NIH and the Department of Energy to challenge The Bell Curve, the 1994 best-seller that argued that race correlated with intelligence. Government officials held up a response for eight months, convinced that the nonexistence of race at the genome level spoke for itself.

Duster, along with fellow committee member Dorothy Nelkin of New York University, highlighted the ways in which cultural context influences the application of medical and behavioral genetics. Now Collins is relying on Duster and other collaborators, such as University of Wisconsin molecular biologist Pilar Ossorio, to help explain why race must be acknowledged even if it is biologically inconsequential. "It's a tightrope between trying to rescue the importance and meaning of research on race without giving it a false reality," Duster says.

Indeed, although he maintains that race is significant in genetics, Duster insists it is misleading to reinscribe race as a definitive system to group people who share geographic origins and thus some genes. For one, concepts of race vary geographically as well as historically. The ethnic status of South Asians, for example, has changed over the past century in the U.S. and more often serves to define a political and cultural "other" than something biological. In 1920 Oregon granted citizenship to Bhagat Singh Thind of India during a ban on Asian immigration.

But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, stating that even though Thind should be considered "Caucasian," he still wasn't "white." (Thind, who had joined the U.S. Army during World War I, managed to stay in the country, earn a Ph.D. and publish 15 books on metaphysics.) Researchers have also advocated assessing health risks within ethnic groups based on inherited variations in just one DNA base pair. But such single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) profiles can be deceptive, Duster warns. Ethnic differences in drug metabolism or response to tobacco exist, but they appear to be minimal and depend strongly on the environment.

The emphasis on DNA, he remarks, transforms health status into a biological inevitability, and it is tempting to use the same tools to profile criminality or intelligence at the genome level. Specific variations in DNA can be linked to ancestral geographic origins, but those differences only occasionally offer a medically important clue. They fail to define any essential characteristics of a whole group. Race, itself a fluid idea, is part of the environmental context of the genome, Duster suggests. "Race is a relationship," he says. "When you talk about race as a relationship, it prevents anyone from giving it false meaning."

Source: http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=0002A353-C027-1E1C-8B3B809EC588EEDF