Biologists Need To Learn How To Talk About Race

Does race have any business in biology? The scientific community has struggled with this question for some centuries, and a recent letter to the journal Science titled “Taking race out of human genetics” offered up a resounding “No.” The letter, which was co-written by a lawyer, two evolutionary geneticists, and a public health expert, presented a call to biological scientists to stop grouping human beings by race. Designations such as black, white, and Asian, they argue, are culturally significant albeit imagined categories that have little relevance in studies of human biology and genetics. “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.”

Race is somewhat of a third rail in biological research, and for good reason – historically, science has been misappropriated to justify racism far more frequently than it has helped marginalized groups. Probably the best-known example was the 1932 to 1972 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which researchers intentionally withheld treatment from African American men in Alabama who were infected with syphilis in order to study the disease in humans. This event sparked a revolution in ethical research conduct in the United States, including the mandatory establishment of Institutional Review Boards to oversee all studies involving human subjects.

During roughly the same period, the ethical nightmare that was the 20th century eugenics movement brought about the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans considered “unfit” to reproduce. Victims were mostly poor women, convicted criminals, and people with mental disabilities. Women of color, notably Native Americans, were coerced into consenting to sterilization following childbirth in order to restrict population growth, and Mexican immigrants in California were sterilized without their knowledge as recently as 1975.

In retrospect, the most surprising aspect of the eugenics movement is how widespread its support was, and not just among white supremacists and social elitists. Though the practice is most infamous for its enthusiastic Nazi fan base, it also boasted approval from civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as Planned Parenthood founder and women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger, as a means towards improving humanity by effectively eliminating those at the bottom of the social structure. While not all proponents wanted to use eugenics for nefarious purposes, its popularity reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of how population genetics, human evolution, and biological inheritance factor into modern-day societies.

Today, scientists and policy makers overwhelmingly reject eugenic principles both on ethical grounds and due to a lack of evidence that they confer any benefit to society whatsoever. Social hierarchies form around socioeconomic inequality and racism, not inherent biological phenotypes that make one group superior to another. Dorothy Roberts, a legal scholar and professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the authors of the letter in Science, lamented in an interview with NPR the fact that genetics researchers continually fail to acknowledge this distinction. “As a social scientist, looking at biologists treating these groupings as if they were determined by innate genetic distinctions, I’m dumbfounded. There’s so much evidence that they’re invented social categories. How you can say this is a biological race is just absurd.”

The evidence Roberts referred to includes a vast body of research on population genetics that, in the past few decades, has thoroughly debunked centuries of deeply held beliefs in a biological division between culturally defined races. Still, studies routinely use racial categories as a way to approximate participants’ ancestry, despite the limited utility and scientific inaccuracy of these groupings.

In social and historical contexts, race is an undeniably important element of identity that represents shared culture, heritage, and experiences. But Roberts is correct in saying that any social definition of race is essentially irrelevant in the realm of biology – there’s significantly greater genetic variation within racial groups than there is between them. Traits we use to distinguish one race from another, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features, represent just a minuscule spot on the mosaic of human diversity. To complicate the matter, definitions of race and racial divisions fluctuate over time and between societies. Given what scientists now know about population genetics, to suggest that arbitrary physical features can define discrete biological categories is, to borrow Roberts’s word, absurd. What’s more, it validates the notion that innate differences between groups of people, rather than a culturally imposed social structure, are the reason for racial inequality.

Take, for example, widespread claims made in the early days of genetics research that racial inequality in society has a biological basis. In 1994, the controversial book The Bell Curve famously argued that socioeconomic differences are born from genetic and environmental influences on IQ. While the authors did not explicitly suggest that some races are inherently more intelligent than others, their work was widely cited by scientists and social scientists alike who wanted to prove just that. Even James Watson of Watson & Crick, the scientist duo famous for the discovery of DNA’s molecular structure (or, more accurately, stealing the discovery from badass pioneering female chemist Rosalind Franklin), has been spectacularly shunned into obscurity as biology’s racist old grandfather for declaring that black people naturally have lower intelligence. Racial IQ differences, if they exist, are more likely attributed to environmental factors, such as socioeconomic status and quality of education, or biases in intelligence tests themselves, than to genetics.

On the other hand, there are some instances in which racial categorization might be a useful tool in biology. Since the advent of genetic testing, it is becoming increasingly vital to recognize the impact people’s ancestry has on their health. Many Ashkenazi Jews, for instance, carry a heightened risk for breast cancer, and sickle cell trait appears far more frequently in West African populations than in anyone else. Even the socially constructed racial categories we use today are based broadly on what part of the world our ancestors came from, and could therefore convey important information about a person’s health and well being. If this knowledge can help patients get the care they need, and ultimately save lives, is it appropriate for doctors to racially profile patients in order to determine the best course of diagnosis and treatment?

The answer is complicated by the fact that health care providers are people, and they are therefore as likely as anyone else to let prejudice drive judgment. Indeed, doctors do rely on gross physical indicators all the time when assessing patients, and often with poor results. Overweight patients are repeatedly advised to lose weight even when suffering from non-weight related issues. And, as many assigned-female-at-birth Vassar students can attest, a visit to Baldwin with just about any ailment can prompt an inquiry into your possible pregnancy status. These awkward interactions between a doctor and patient are irritating at best, often flat out insulting, and at worst they lead to poor medical advice.

One can argue that there is some validity to this method of medical assessment, but when diagnoses are made based on these factors alone, doctors’ biases can lead them to overlook or simply dismiss important details. Confounding race with ethnicity, or ancestry, proves to have especially damaging consequences for patients. Black people with cystic fibrosis are frequently misdiagnosed even when they exhibit textbook symptoms, due to the widespread belief that this particular genetically inherited disease only affects white people. However, many African Americans are upwards of 25 percent European by descent, and therefore liable to carry the gene that confers cystic fibrosis. In spite of this fact, black patients face unnecessary and life-threatening obstacles when trying to obtain the proper medical care.

So it appears that race is a poor proxy for understanding a person’s genetic background and health risks. Moving forward, progress in genome sequencing promises to take the guesswork out of heredity. Genetic tests are not quite able to accurately determine risk for many complex conditions like cancer, but they may not be far off. Ramped up efforts to advance methods of personalized medical treatment, including President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, will help to elucidate the genetic risk factors behind a host of diseases. The goal is to understand people’s health profiles on an individual level rather than relying on vast and inaccurate generalizations about large and diverse populations.

To be sure, there are times when it is appropriate to use race in science, such as in studies concerning the effects of racism on health. Even as a cultural construct, race has very salient consequences for social interactions and the obstacles an individual faces in life, and these factors affect people’s psychological well being at least as much as genetics. What’s clear now is that biologists need to have a conversation about when it is appropriate to group research participants by race, and when this compromises the biological validity of a study. Doing so will make great strides towards improving the quality of research, and ultimately create a more accurate and complete understanding of human diversity.

1 Comment

  • Kevin Lee says:

    I think the emphasis for genetic research is the diversity of a study, not a focus on particular races or ethnicities. As this article stated, and as stated by Francis Collins of the NIH (Nature Genetics, 2004), the definition of race and ethnicity within genetics is extremely vague. There is too much variation in the human genome to put people into racial or ethnic categories, and therefore we shouldn’t emphasize a separation between groups due to disease. At the same time, the huge variation is the main reason why we need to acquire genomic samples from different populations. For example, if you are looking at a polygenic disease like Alzheimer’s Disease and you only acquire samples from people with European ancestry, you may develop a drug that is effective for people of European decent, but not effective for Hispanics, because the deleterious variations are focused on another gene for that particular population. Yet it is considered the same disease because the phenotypic expression is the same. The point is that before investing billions of dollars in developing a drug, you should make sure what you are targeting is applicable to the widest patient population possible. PMI is set to individualize healthcare, yes, but to do so, it needs to sample a wide variety of populations to acquire the data necessary to apply personalized medicine to a patient. Racial classifications, if used, should be to identify which social, cultural, and ethnic populations are represented in analyzing a dataset, not to identify inherent differences between groups of people.

    Disclaimer: Vassar alum working in the science field.

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