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For genetics, use scientifically relevant descriptions, not outdated social ideas: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

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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @12:19PM (15 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @12:19PM (#1296857)

    They're not saying race doesn't exist, they're saying you can't define it. There's no genetic markers or other ways to say "this person is hispanic." There's no "black gene." Genetic mutations are not discrete so there's no consistent dividing line between them. Some mutations you might see predominantly in one region also show in other regions. Genetically everything is blurred together. This has nothing to do with heritage. All this is saying is you can't speak intelligently about race so stop relying on ill defined and unscientific artificial boundaries to group people in scientific papers.

    You are missing the whole point which is, yes, races actually are hard to identify. Racism comes directly from looking at someone and saying "he's Korean, he's Jewish, he's not like me." If instead of using your eyes and you looked at their DNA, you couldn't confidently group them, so the National Academies is saying stop pretending you can or know how to.

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  • (Score: 2, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @12:57PM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @12:57PM (#1296861)
    The fact that you can look at someone and have a good idea of their "race" invalidates your point.
    • (Score: 3, Funny) by mcgrew on Saturday March 18 2023, @02:17PM (1 child)

      by mcgrew (701) <> on Saturday March 18 2023, @02:17PM (#1296884) Homepage Journal

      Some people, yes. Others? No. Take Kamala Harris, she sure looks White to me, but she's not.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @05:42PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @05:42PM (#1296909)

        She doesn't look "white" to me. Well, not pure Caucasian. Maybe Hispanic, and some of them look very Asian to me. They probably have much Asian heritage because IIRC Asians came to South American very long ago. My solution: stop worrying or even thinking about "race" and get on with life.

    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:21PM

      by Immerman (3985) on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:21PM (#1297046)

      In casual conversation, perhaps.

      In rigorous scientific research though it's just a false division that's going to lead to false conclusions. There's a reason we distinguish between genetoypes (what your genes are) and phenotypes (how those genes get expressed in an individual)

      You try to divide a sample population into groups "by eye", or even by self-identification, and the genetic diversity within a group is going to dwarf the diversity between groups. Since only a few superficial traits like skin tone and facial features can be seen, and they can easily be inherited with few other traits from the source population. Like the kid born to black parents who can pass as white because he happened to inherit the recessive light-skin genes from two ancestors a couple generations back. If he embraces the social benefits of his mis-identification his kids might never know they're actually mostly-black. Not to mention a great many traits from Group B can be simulated by blending genes from Group A and Group C to get features that look very similar, even though the genetic basis is completely different.

      If you're testing anything other than the effect of skin color or facial characteristics, then dividing your sample population by race is going to result in so much more noise than signal that your study will be worse than useless - drawing false conclusions that obscure rather than illuminate.

  • (Score: 3, Troll) by Runaway1956 on Saturday March 18 2023, @01:29PM (1 child)

    by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Saturday March 18 2023, @01:29PM (#1296870) Journal

    They're not saying race doesn't exist,

    "so stop using it in science" translates to "pretend there are no races".

    I can't say that the term "race" is applicable here, but I know for a fact that some Native Americans, especially Apache, have metabolisms that are quite different from most of us. Take an Apache to any general practitioner for a DOT physical. Unless that GP has experience with Apache, he'll deny the Apache his physical card, based on pulse. At rest, his heart rate is far below that of any of us Euro or African descended Americans.

    There are many things that distinguish groups of people. If we are to stop talking about race, then all those differences just go away, into the land of mystical unexplainable things - metaphysics.

    To reiterate - we need to talk more intelligently about race.

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    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:43PM

      by Immerman (3985) on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:43PM (#1297048)

      I think it's more we need to talk about ancestry and genetic traits rather than race. And if we don't have that information (and almost nobody does), then don't try to pretend we do.

      Because any individual human is a big ole mixed up ball of traits from all over the world, and trying to classify us by race amounts to trying to divide a rainbow into individual colors: You're forever trying to classify different shades of orange as either red or yellow, and different shades of teal as either blue or green. The differences in the colors of a rainbow are real - but the boxes we draw around them are entirely of our own creation, and far more reflective of our own biases than the reality we're misclassifying.

      And when you're talking about something as multidimensional as genetics, where even the same "primary colors" can be arrived at in dozens of completely unrelated ways? Drawing arbitrary boxes is far more likely to hide the important details than reveal them.

      And for common classifications like "black" that encompass a *huge* amount of diversity - if your study doesn't have at least a dozen different types of "black", then "white" or "asian" aren't different enough to deserve classifications of their own either.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:17PM (4 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:17PM (#1296915)

    The races have been blending since the 1500s when global travel got cranked up.

    If you go back 600 years or more, you will find large distinct populations that "didn't blend" much, or at all, with the global melting pot for tens to hundreds of generations. Those races had real differences that could be studied, classified, etc.

    Today? Probably better to talk about specific genetic markers, which may be associated exclusively with one or a few of "the older races" but could show up just about anywhere today. Only a small minority of today's population is "purely" from one old race back 10 generations (1000+ ancestors) or more.

    🌻🌻 []
    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Immerman on Sunday March 19 2023, @03:01PM (3 children)

      by Immerman (3985) on Sunday March 19 2023, @03:01PM (#1297051)

      They've been blending a LOT longer than that. Most peasants might have never traveled more than a few miles from the place they were born, but tinkers, traders, armies, and explorers have always roamed extensively. And like sailors, pretty much all for them had a well-deserved reputation for promiscuity. And while any given genetic thread might not make much difference to a population, millions of of threads across centuries of mingling and blur the edges into indistinguishably.

      And before there were peasants we were nomadic hunter-gatherers whose populations wandered and mingled across the breadth of continents and back again over the course of generations. The Americas

      The different colors of the rainbow are real, but the named boxes we try to cram them into are completely arbitrary. Which is all that "races" are.

      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Sunday March 19 2023, @03:11PM (2 children)

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Sunday March 19 2023, @03:11PM (#1297054)

        >all that "races" are.

        For 10-20 generations of no mixing, yes.

        When a population successfully isolated for hundreds of generations, it will develop distinctive traits.

        🌻🌻 []
        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Tuesday March 21 2023, @04:02PM (1 child)

          by Immerman (3985) on Tuesday March 21 2023, @04:02PM (#1297411)

          They will, though a few hundred years is not much to actually evolve and distribute significant new traits across all but the tiniest of populations. More likely you'll get situations like the blue people of Kentucky, where outside traits they brought with them rose to prominence, and thus doesn't actually provide genetic separation.

          Regardless though there's what, a small handful of such societies still in existence, totaling thousands of individuals? And we don't actually know that for sure - they might occasionally accept outsiders we know nothing about. Or have occasionally sent out explorers/exiles who mingled with the rest of the world. Without doing a population-level genetic analysis of such isolationists it's pure speculation.

          The Americas were mostly cut off for a long time by vast stretches of unbroken ocean and ice, but even those barriers were crossed occasionally, and it's been centuries since that was true - good luck finding a 100% "purebred" native.

          For everyone else... we're all part of the global mixing pot. Embrace your spot on the multidimensional rainbow with pride - just don't imagine that any borders you draw on it are any more real than the borders we draw on maps. They have been redrawn countless times, and will be again, until such time as we collectively decide that drawing and defending such imaginary lines is a waste of effort.

          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Tuesday March 21 2023, @06:01PM

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Tuesday March 21 2023, @06:01PM (#1297432)

            >blue people of Kentucky

            All four of my Grandparents are from Tennessee, Central and East... We're a bit blue (which is really just a lack of melanin and prominent venous flow in the skin) ourselves.

            >a few hundred years is not much

            No, it's not, but a surprising amount of variation can develop in a few hundred generations, particularly in "challenged" populations that don't let everyone procreate. There's much study of the European Jews developing some traits within just a handful of generations when life was particularly hard for them - skills like money lending were key to successful offspring.

            >a small handful of such societies still in existence, totaling thousands of individuals?

            The uncontacted of the Amazon come to mind, and there's that island off India. But, yes, mostly we're all susceptible to that alluring foreigner who just stepped off the airplane.

            >good luck finding a 100% "purebred" native.

            Hey, I've got 1/64 Cherokee and 1/128 Oklahoma Plains in me, not that we actually wrote those heathen names into the family tree of our Christian bible, but the blank spots in the tree line up with other stories pretty conclusively. Along those "blank spots" lines, there were a significant number of Jews in Europe who simply stopped self-identifying as Jewish around about 1940... understandably. History is harder to track when people intentionally erase it.

            Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, I'd wager there were significant populations there which hadn't mixed with outsiders for 10+ generations, basically since the previous conquerers swept through. Did Ghengis Khan make it to Tibet?

            >any borders you draw on it are any more real than the borders we draw on maps.

            Hey, Georgie W declared a "New World Order" - those lines are permanent now, for Freedom French Fries' sake!

            Cultural practices still keep mixing to a minimum in significant parts of the world, nothing like the few remaining pure islands, but even if you've got one or two interlopers in your past 10 generations, you're still going to primarily have the traits of your clan. There's probably some (meaningless) threshold for how much mixing can happen in a population before it becomes non-distinct from the population it is mixing with - that's all going to depend on which genes have been shared and whether or not they tend to be conserved in the environment the clan is living in. If, for instance, the Eskimos were still a distinct population, but were somehow occasionally visited by Brazilian Beach tribes - with a few resulting offspring - I could see those Beach genes fading rather quickly in the Eskimo lifestyle. Maybe the "exotic look" would confer some advantages in physical attraction, but lacking insulating bodyfat would not be good for living long enough to have children of your own.

            🌻🌻 []
  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by darkfeline on Saturday March 18 2023, @08:00PM (3 children)

    by darkfeline (1030) on Saturday March 18 2023, @08:00PM (#1296938) Homepage

    Since we can't be 100% accurate about almost anything, let's just toss the baby into the river and not use language at all. Throw out all medical and scientific knowledge.

    > If instead of using your eyes and you looked at their DNA, you couldn't confidently group them

    Absolute dogshit, apparently they have never heard of genetic testing services.

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    • (Score: 2) by janrinok on Sunday March 19 2023, @08:35AM (1 child)

      by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Sunday March 19 2023, @08:35AM (#1297024) Journal

      So when your DNA test show that your parents came from 2 different 'races', which race are you? What about if you marry another, different, race and have children? What is their race? Do they make another, completely new, 'race'? At what point does the original race of one's ancestors have no relevance whatsoever? If your ancestors have always bred inter-racially at what point do you have no discernable race left?

      Are Koreans (north and south) all of the same race, or do they differ from each other - or should they all be termed as 'Asians'?. What are the racial differences between Koreans and Chinese? Can they be divided clearly by a DNA assessment alone? Are there any overlapping or borderline cases? Who decides what race they are and who determines which ones are good people and which are not?

      Nobody, not even TFA, has suggested that we throw any knowledge away. Simply that when we use the term 'race' we define what we mean by it in that particular instance. It means very different things to different people and is too vague a term to be used in science. There are more accurate ways of describing what we mean, particularly in science, that clearly explain anything that is known. As you point out, DNA markers are more accurate than the term 'race'.

      I think the title was chosen quite carefully: "We Can’t Define “Race,” So Stop Using It in Science". It does not suggest that the term should be stricken from any language, but its use has become so distorted and abused that it has very little to offer science.

      I am not interested in knowing who people are or where they live. My interest starts and stops at our servers.
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 20 2023, @05:37AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 20 2023, @05:37AM (#1297117)

        by dna then I belong the the race which largely stopped culturally backed raping and killing of others

        what a shame other races are still at it

    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Tuesday March 21 2023, @04:11PM

      by Immerman (3985) on Tuesday March 21 2023, @04:11PM (#1297416)

      If we're talking dogshit, start with the idea that genetic testing can tell race. That part is a marketting gimmick, nothing more. Precisely because race has no scientific meaning.

      As t a test, submit your sample to a handful of independent testers. - you'll get back different racial mixes for each one. Heck, for the less reputable you can submit your sample to the same one repeatedly under different names and get back different results.

      Even the most reputable will tend to give you back very different answers for every member of your family

      Genetic testing is good for finding out what genetic traits you have - but "race" is not a genetic trait, it's arbitrary lines drawn around phenotypes and cultures that have been intermixing since before we began recording history.