Are genetics researchers inadvertently perpetuating racial stereotypes?

A team of scientists are urging their colleagues to refrain from using racial differences as metrics in biological and medical studies.

For hundreds of years, racial differences were used as a justification for an array of discriminatory governance. Western imperialism and of course, slavery, make for prime examples.

Today, scientific racism is more or less an obsolete practice. Especially in light of the successful human genome sequencing of the early 2000s, race has become all the more scientifically and medically irrelevant. And yet, the use of race as a variable in genetic studies persists, which has been used to perpetuate stereotypes and in some cases has contributed to disparities in health care.

This is precisely why a group of scientists are now calling on their colleagues to refrain from using racial categories in the study of human genetics. Their public appeal was published Thursday afternoon in Science magazine.

“For more than a century, scientists have been arguing over whether race is a useful tool in the biological sciences,” author Michael Yudell, historian and public health ethicist, tells Science's Sarah Crespi. “In the wake of the Human Genome Project, the answer is not a whole lot.”

Penned alongside University of Pennsylvania's Dorothy Roberts and Sarah Tishkoff, and the American Museum of Natural History's Robert DeSalle, Dr. Yudell’s paper highlights the prevailing existence of race as a variable in scientific research even though we now know racial classifications are not legitimate biological guideposts.

The writers cite several reasons for why race remains a concern in the field of biology: One, because the species of humanity has been interbreeding for thousands of years, racial groups are not actually heterogeneous genetically and lack genetic boundaries. Scientists have found that the vast majority of differences between two human beings exist within their race group.

“For almost every gene we know, either everybody in the world has the same form of the gene, in which case all human beings are the same,” Richard Lewontin, an expert on human diversity, told PBS in 2003. “If there's variation, the frequencies of the different variants are the same relatively speaking, close to the same, in Africans, Asians, North Americans, Austro-Asians, and so on.”

In other words, there are only very few differences across what we categorize as race.

Second, the writers note the problematic use of race in medical treatment – sickle-cell is often thought of as a “black” disease and cystic fibrosis as a “white” disease – when in fact, there are geographical and socioeconomic factors that play into the diagnosis. In some cases, those perceptions have perpetuated racial disparities in health care.

“Popular misinterpretations of the use of race in genetics also continue to fuel racist beliefs,” they explain, “so much so that, in 2014, a group of leading human population geneticists publicly refuted claims about the genetic basis of social difference between races.”

Instead of racial categories, Yudell and his team concludes, scientists should use terms like ancestry and population in order to describe human groups. By instead describing factors such as culture, language, and socioeconomic status, they say that the public will have a better understanding of human diversity that doesn’t default to race.

Finally, the authors recommend the convention of experts within the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to research ways to transition away from the use of racial classification.

"We believe that genetics continues to operate in a paradox: The belief that race is 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 relation between ancestry and genetics," Yudell said in a statement.

"It is time that scientists find a way to resolve to improve the study of human diversity."

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