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The Genetics of Race and the Problem with Race-based Medicine

For as long as there have been human beings on Earth, there have been conflicts over territory, religion, property, natural resources, who one should love or marry, how to raise children, and innumerable other topics. But perhaps no issue has been as divisive as race. Mounting scientific evidence has shown that humans are fundamentally more similar than different from each other. Nonetheless, racism persists and scientific findings are ignored or misused to further racist agendas. In 2003, the Human Genome Project was completed, making it possible to examine human ancestry with genetics tools and understand what our DNA says about what it means to be human. Genetics researchers have tracked human migrations and believe that humans of all races originated in Africa, and that our DNA is literally only different from each other by 0.1%. That means that we share 99.9% of our DNA in common. Now that we know more about our DNA and its (quite minimal) role in race, we know that race cannot be biologically defined due to genetic variation among human individuals and populations. 

Human beings have about 20,000 genes in each cell of our bodies. If separate racial or ethnic groups actually existed on the genetic level, there would be hallmark genetic features characteristic of each group that are not seen in the others. However, it turns out that less than 10% of the alleles (different versions of genes, such as for brown, blue, or green eye color) studied have been specific to one geographic region. Even when region-specific alleles do appear, they only occur in about 1% of the population of that region, which is nowhere near enough to be a hallmark. So the take-home message is that there is actually no evidence that the groups we arbitrarily call "races" actually have distinct genetic identities that unify them.

Despite the scientific consensus that humanity is far more alike than unlike, and race is, at most, a social construct, our long and vile history of racism reminds us that throughout human history, a mere 0.1% of variation has been sufficient justification for committing all manner of discrimination and atrocity.

Janice Berliner, 2021

Race Versus Ancestry

The classification of people into different races is typically based on observable physical features, with skin color being the most prominent, and other relevant features including eye color and hair type. These physical differences may appear, on a superficial level, to be very dramatic. But again, they are determined by only a minute portion of the genome. Most differences that do exist between groups of people reflect variations in environments and external factors, not core biology. For example, the evolution of skin color in various regions of the world is based on levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and does not influence other traits such as mental abilities and behavior.

Similarly, while sickle cell disease is a serious medical problem, those who are carriers and unaffected (who have what is called sickle cell trait) are resistant to malaria. So populations that evolved in parts of the world where malaria is endemic have a higher carrier rate of sickle cell, because it gives carriers a survival advantage. There is nothing about being Black, per se, that makes a person more likely to have sickle cell trait; it is simply more common in those of sub-Saharan African descent because of the history of the higher rate of exposure to malaria.

According to the old concept of the five races (African, Asian, European, Native American, and Oceanian), variation between the races is large, and each race is a separate category. But in the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute. Human variations do have a connection to the geographical origins of our ancestors, and with enough information about a person's DNA, scientists can make a reasonable guess about their ancestry. However, unlike race, it focuses on understanding the way people's histories unfolded, not how they fit into one category or another. Racial classifications draw upon non-biological characteristics such as culture, language, history, religion, and socioeconomic status. In contrast, ancestry emphasizes the geographical origins of one's ancestors.

Direct-to-Consumer Ancestry Tests

Affordable at-home ancestry test kits are now widely available from companies like 23andMe and Ancestry DNA. For around $100, you can learn what percentage you are of any of the five race categories listed above. The incredible popularity of ancestry testing speaks to the exaggerated perception that we can use these tests to define our ancestral composition. They promise detailed information about our family history, perhaps allowing us to trace our families back much farther than genealogy efforts would generally permit. What's the catch? None of this means that we can use genetics to determine anything about race. Research actually indicates that while the concept of five races does, to an extent, describe the way human populations are distributed among the continents, that's basically where it ends. What these ancestry testing companies would have us believe about our differences is not rooted in science. Their tests may be continentally accurate, but they really cannot be trusted to tell you that you are, for example, 82% Italian, 9% English, 6% Polish, and 3% Belgian. It just cannot be done. There's too much admixture amongst groups even if we had been genetically distinct enough to begin with.

Race-based Medicine

Dorothy Roberts, JD, an acclaimed scholar of race, gender and the law, explains that race is a social category that was invented to support an unjust political hierarchy. She argues that the re-creation of race in biological terms uses technologies that incorporate false assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level. The medical profession argues that race serves as a helpful proxy for underlying clinical factors. In actuality, false assumptions about innate biological differences lead to medical exploitation, diverting attention and resources from the social determinants that cause appalling racial gaps in healthcare. Roberts argues that this genetic framework of race masks the continuing impact of racism, and she challenges us to affirm our common humanity by working to end the social inequalities that truly divide us. In other words, health inequities are caused by racism, not by genetic differences.

The Bottom Line

Despite the scientific consensus that humanity is far more alike than unlike, and race is, at most, a social construct, our long and vile history of racism reminds us that throughout human history, a mere 0.1% of variation has been sufficient justification for committing all manner of discrimination and atrocity. The advances in human genetics and the evidence of negligible differences between races should halt racist arguments, but sadly has been used to further racist and ethnocentric arguments. The belief in White superiority, and the need to preserve it, drives much of this, with genetics being the weapon of this new, supposedly "scientific" racism. Rejecting the validity of any biological concept of race does not erase the fact that it undeniably exists as a social and political concept. Ultimately, while there certainly are some biological differences between populations, these differences are few and superficial. The traits that we do share are far more profound.


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