Slash Boxes

SoylentNews is people

posted by janrinok on Saturday March 18 2023, @10:12AM   Printer-friendly

For genetics, use scientifically relevant descriptions, not outdated social ideas:

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.

Original Submission

This discussion was created by janrinok (52) for logged-in users only, but now has been archived. No new comments can be posted.
Display Options Threshold/Breakthrough Mark All as Read Mark All as Unread
The Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. We are not responsible for them in any way.
  • (Score: 2) by looorg on Saturday March 18 2023, @11:53AM (3 children)

    by looorg (578) on Saturday March 18 2023, @11:53AM (#1296855)

    Not in all science from what I can tell. It seems to be in genetics where it's apparently not a very interesting definition or concept. I guess for the rest of science it's still alive and kicking cause they are not really all that bothered by genetic data or combinations of whatever when they talk about race. They are clearly not talking about the same things.

    But to say that they can't come up with a viable definition sounds really bad. It is usually not the hard part of any research project or paper. You can pretty much put down whatever you like as long as you state that this is what is your definition of it (whatever it might be) is and then that is what you mean when you use the term.

    So for them talk about human races or the human race isn't very interesting. That is fine. But it's hard to not think that they are really dancing around the issue here or making it a lot harder for themselves if they think they are going to find some kind of universal definition that is applicable on everything with total accuracy. There will, almost, always be things that fall outside the curve or norm or group. So good luck with that forever project. Never going to complete. An eternal dark hole for grant money. Or it will be so watered down or utterly abstract that it will be even more useless then "race".

    Perhaps it would be better if they just saw human race as some kind of Venn diagram -- we are all human (biggest circle), and then you start to split them into the obvious large observable groups of differences such as sex, skin colour, dominant hand, hair colour or whatever you need or want. It's won't be pretty, but there it is.

    Or for most people, that are not geneticists, just keep using phenotype or whatever you like, the thing that you observe. The blindingly obvious difference between people. No need to go down on genetics levels and check whatever combination they have -- it's the black dude over there! the bad mofo!

    So if the national academy of science can't define race does that mean that there is no more racism anymore? After all if you can't define it then it's not really a thing. Probably not. So race is still alive and kicking as a concept and it's not going anyway no matter how much some, or all, of the geneticists would like it to.

    Starting Score:    1  point
    Karma-Bonus Modifier   +1  

    Total Score:   2  
  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:20PM (2 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:20PM (#1296917)

    Social "science" is much more concerned with how people self identify and how others classify them.

    In social studies, race is very much still relevant to attitudes and behaviors.

    🌻🌻 []
    • (Score: 2) by looorg on Sunday March 19 2023, @05:12PM (1 child)

      by looorg (578) on Sunday March 19 2023, @05:12PM (#1297058)

      That is or can be part of it. Normally they are more interested in grouping people so they can draw conclusions or generalize information. They are weirdly enough often not very interested in individuals as actual persons but instead part of a collective or a group. So whatever their DNA makeup or whatever geneticists are interested in doesn't really concern them. So I would think, based on the article, that this is more about genetics and not the rest of the various scientific fields. I can understand how it doesn't make sense for them to use the term but to claim that it makes no sense or have no place in science and should stop being used is really an overreach on their part.