With the advent of genomic studies, it's become ever more clear that humanity's genetic history is one of churn. Populations migrated, intermingled, and fragmented wherever they went, leaving us with a tangled genetic legacy that we often struggle to understand. The environment—in the form of disease, diet, and technology—also played a critical role in shaping populations.
But this understanding is frequently at odds with the popular understanding, which often views genetics as a determinative factor and, far too often, interprets genetics in terms of race. Worse still, even though race cannot be defined or quantified scientifically, popular thinking creeps back into scientific thought, shaping the sort of research we do and how we interpret the results.
Those are some of the conclusions of a new report produced by the National Academies of Science. Done at the request of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the report calls for scientists and the agencies that fund them to stop thinking of genetics in terms of race, and instead to focus on things that can be determined scientifically.
The report is long overdue. Genetics data has revealed that the popular understanding of race, developed during a time when white supremacy was widely accepted, simply doesn't make any sense. In the popular view, for instance, "Black" represents a single, homogenous group. But genomic data makes clear that populations in Sub-Saharan Africa are the most genetically diverse on Earth.
And, like everywhere else, populations in this region haven't stayed static. While some groups remained isolated from each other, the vast Bantu expansion touched most of the continent. Along the coast of East Africa, the history of interchange with Mideastern traders can be detected in many groups. There's also a tendency to treat African Americans as being equivalent to African, when the former population carries the legacy of genetic mixing with European populations—often not by choice.
Similar things are true for every population we have looked at, no matter where on the globe they reside. Treating any of these populations as a monolithic, uniform group—as a race, in other words—makes no scientific sense.
Yet in countless ways, scientists have done just that. In some cases, the reasons for this have been well-meaning ones, as with the priority to diversify the populations involved in medical studies. In other cases, scientists have carelessly allowed social views of race to influence research that could otherwise have had a solid empirical foundation. Finally, true believers in racial essentialism have always twisted scientific results to support their views.
The NIH, as the largest funder of biomedical research on the planet, has been forced to navigate our growing understanding of genetics while trying to diversify both the researchers it funds and the participants who volunteer to be part of these studies. NIH thus commissioned the National Academies to generate this report, presumably in the hope it would provide evidence-based guidelines on how to manage the sometimes competing pressures.
The resulting report makes clear why racial thinking needs to go. A summary of the mismatch between race and science offers welcome clarity on the problem:
In humans, race is a socially constructed designation, a misleading and harmful surrogate for population genetic differences, and has a long history of being incorrectly identified as the major genetic reason for phenotypic differences between groups. Rather, human genetic variation is the result of many forces—historical, social, biological—and no single variable fully represents this complexity. The structure of genetic variation results from repeated human population mixing and movements across time, yet the misconception that human beings can be naturally divided into biologically distinguishable races has been extremely resilient and has become embedded in scientific research, medical practice and technologies, and formal education.
The results of racial thinking are problematic in a variety of ways. Historically, we've treated race as conveying some essential properties, and thinking of populations in terms of race tends to evoke that essentialist perspective—even though it's clear that any population has a complicated mixture of genetic, social, and environmental exposures. Essentialist thinking also tends to undermine recognition of the important role played by those environmental and social factors in shaping the population.
The report also notes that science's racial baggage leads to sloppy thinking. Scientists will often write in broad racial terms when they're working with far more specific populations, and they'll mention racial groups even when it's not clear that the information is even relevant to their results. These tendencies have grown increasingly untenable as we've gotten far better at directly measuring the things that race was meant to be a proxy for, such as genetic distance between individuals.