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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For genetics, use scientifically relevant descriptions, not outdated social ideas: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, Interesting) by janrinok on Saturday March 18 2023, @02:14PM (17 children)

    by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Saturday March 18 2023, @02:14PM (#1296881) Journal

    There have been several interesting or even insightful comments so far, but no one has managed to define 'race' - they have only managed to stick a label on it that they are happy with, but not a label that everyone agrees with.

    Most seem to be basing this on visual appearance - Indian, Chinese or whatever. So how about when a 'standard couple of mid-European appearance' give birth to a mongoloid baby? Is the baby a different race than its parents just because it looks different? What are the visual differences between Korean and Japanese - or do we just class them as Asian? And if so, how can we say that Chinese is a race - aren't they just Asian too? How about Kazakhs? I spent several years working in Kazakhstan but they didn't differentiate between themselves based on appearance - which could be anything from Western European to Mongolian or Chinese.

    If, as has happened in the UK many times, somebody who has mixed ethnicity parents (say one is Pakistani and the other is English) what is their race? And if they also have a spouse or partner of a different ethnicity and they have children, at what 'dilution' of the original ethnicity does the race change? Do they actually become a different race?

    It cannot depend on appearance. It is not the colour of their skin. It is not simply a matter of culture, religion or wherever you live. It is not the result of a simple DNA test. Perhaps it is, as TFS suggests, indefinable. So far they are all part of the human race as far as I can tell.

    And if someone wishes to disagree - give us a solid definition, not some hand-waving excuse for your own personal way of putting people into categories.

    Starting Score:    1  point
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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by PiMuNu on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:14PM (2 children)

    by PiMuNu (3823) on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:14PM (#1296888)

    You want to define something as an array of booleans when it is really an array of floats i.e. the question is wrong.

    In a clinical setting, it is clearly useful if one can say "people who look like this are more susceptible to X", or "people who come from this region are more susceptible to Y", or "people who identify as being from this culture are more susceptible to Z". It is highly naive to ignore that valuable diagnosis tool.

    I might add that not every ailment is related to genetics, as in TFA. Many are cultural.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by janrinok on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:39PM (1 child)

      by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:39PM (#1296891) Journal

      You want to define something as an array of booleans when it is really an array of floats

      So it is indefinable, as the headline to TFS states? There are too many variations to make defining a race a simple and straightforward matter. You suggest that it is the wrong question - so what is the right one?

      As humans we tend to simply go for the easiest option and choose appearance. That seems to be reasonable until we look at problems such as mongolism or vitiligo or inter-breeding between the different groups. Are they of a different race? I would argue that they are not, but I also try not to put people into arbitrary groupings. Stating a nationality is fine - it is clearly defined. Most other groupings are simply different to ourselves.

      • (Score: 2) by PiMuNu on Monday March 20 2023, @11:39AM

        by PiMuNu (3823) on Monday March 20 2023, @11:39AM (#1297151)

        > Stating a nationality is fine

        That does not pick up cultural and regional variations correctly. If my folks are from Europe but I live in Asia, I would expect to suffer from different diseases. Probably the easiest thing is to ask people to self-define "What do you consider to be your ethnic origin (score 1-5, followed by options)".

  • (Score: 2) by janrinok on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:22PM (8 children)

    by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:22PM (#1296890) Journal

    And if someone wishes to disagree - give us a solid definition

    You are entitled to 'Disagree', but what is your response to my request for a definition? (crickets....)

    TFS simply states that we should stop using the term race in science; there is nothing to say that we cannot keep using it in anyway we choose elsewhere. Your moderation of 'Disagree' simply makes my point - it cannot be defined based upon the ways that people actually use it to classify those who are different from ourselves.

    • (Score: 3, Touché) by EEMac on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:48PM (7 children)

      by EEMac (6423) on Saturday March 18 2023, @03:48PM (#1296892)

      "Define race. But don't use appearance, genetics, or culture. See? You can't define it!"

      • (Score: 4, Insightful) by janrinok on Saturday March 18 2023, @04:15PM (6 children)

        by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Saturday March 18 2023, @04:15PM (#1296896) Journal

        "Define race. But don't use appearance, genetics, or culture. See? You can't define it!"

        Which TFS acknowledges:

        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.

        Emphasis mine.

        I am merely supporting the assertion that it should have no place in science without clear definitions of what it means in a particular domain of scientific research because it means very different things to different people - as your response makes clear. People will continue to use/abuse it as they have often done.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @04:24PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @04:24PM (#1296898)

          You, sir, have a stunning ability to see and describe big-picture, and from an outside observer's viewpoint. Thank you for steering the car back into the lane.

        • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:19AM (3 children)

          by Reziac (2489) on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:19AM (#1296988) Homepage

          I would say rather that it =became= a "socially constructed designation" by =defining= it as "misleading and harmful" rather than acknowledging that it's a pretty good proxy for "population genetic differences".

          --
          And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
          • (Score: 2) by Azuma Hazuki on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:51AM (2 children)

            by Azuma Hazuki (5086) on Sunday March 19 2023, @02:51AM (#1296991) Journal

            Don't be disingenuous. The people who make a big deal of race and racial categories don't give half a flaming hot weasel turd about "population genetic differences."

            --
            I am "that girl" your mother warned you about...
            • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Sunday March 19 2023, @03:36AM (1 child)

              by Reziac (2489) on Sunday March 19 2023, @03:36AM (#1296999) Homepage

              Making a big deal of it does not equate to making a serious study thereof.

              --
              And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.
              • (Score: 2) by Azuma Hazuki on Tuesday March 21 2023, @04:31AM

                by Azuma Hazuki (5086) on Tuesday March 21 2023, @04:31AM (#1297342) Journal

                Which is exactly my point, crazy-face! The kind of people who go on at length about race (as opposed to things like haplogroups or ethnicity) are the ignorant haters.

                --
                I am "that girl" your mother warned you about...
        • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 19 2023, @04:19AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 19 2023, @04:19AM (#1297009)

          People say "race" because "phenotype" is too many syllables

  • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @04:42PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 18 2023, @04:42PM (#1296900)

    I don't have a definition, nor a desire to be downmodded. I'll say this: a couple of years ago, early in COVID pandemic, there was a discussion here generally about medicine. I quite literally and simply posted a link to an NIH article about how people of African descent have some different body chemistries and biologies, and in some specific cases need different treatments and medications. I first learned of this from the show "House (M.D.)", and it's 100% true. Well, I got down down down-modded, just for posting a link. WTF is with this site that gives idiots the power to downmod into invisibility an important post, just for linking to NIH data?

    Were we to give blacks the exact same medical treatment as whites, we will extend their disease and suffering, and kill some blacks. Is that the goal? Conform to whitey's biology or be killed?

    I think of myself as "human race", and no matter how you define "race", most of us have variations in our biology / body chemistry, and that's critically important for correct medical treatment.

    Incidentally, there are many cultures (races?) that practice an interesting form of "racism". For instance, it's all but forbidden for a Japanese to mate with non-Japanese.

    I've always observed mixed-"race" people to be more beautiful (that's not important, just mentioned it) and more intelligent, and often healthier. To the other extreme, look at the result of inbreeding (monarchs!). Sorry. Had to.

    • (Score: 2) by janrinok on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:33PM

      by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:33PM (#1296922) Journal

      I don't disagree with anything that you say.

      However, in any scientific research it is necessary to state what the term 'race' means in the context of that research. That is what TFS is stating - but here in this discussion many think it is something to do with their own history, or immigration, or different cultures where they live. That is not scientific research and is not what this discussion is about.

      The word 'race' itself has been distorted and abused so much that it has become a trigger for so many people who do not like their neighbours or are against those who are trying to improve their own lives. But that is a different discussion.

      PiMuNu summed it up very well here: https://soylentnews.org/comments.pl?noupdate=1&sid=54329&page=1&cid=1296888#commentwrap [soylentnews.org]. Yet he didn't have to use the word race (which means different things to different people) once. It is not that different people do not exist or should not be referred to, but that science should be clear about what it is saying rather than use a word that is ill-defined.

    • (Score: 1) by Runaway1956 on Sunday March 19 2023, @12:45AM

      by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Sunday March 19 2023, @12:45AM (#1296984) Homepage Journal

      Were we to give blacks the exact same medical treatment as whites, we will extend their disease and suffering, and kill some blacks.

      That is some interesting food for thought. Now, look back up the page at my post about mutations.

      In relatively recent years, AIDS erupted. And, went largely untreated in much of Africa. As a result, some, maybe a lot, of Africans are slowly becoming immune to the virus. Another mutation, underway!

      --
      Through a Glass, Darkly -George Patton
  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:30PM

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Saturday March 18 2023, @06:30PM (#1296921)

    Mongolism, or Downs Syndrome, is a genetic abnormality that can occur to human children of any genetic background.

    To me: race is a category beneath sub-species. The species starts to evolve, develops distinguishing characteristics, but can still interbreed with other races of the same species.

    It's a real thing, at the risk of blurring some sacred lines, human races are a less pronounced form of breeds like in Cats, dogs, horses, etc. But, in our population of 8+ billion people with easy access to global travel and fairly common instinctive affinity for exotic mating partners, we are quickly blurring the distinctions that evolved over the last 20,000 to 50,000 years of separate populations evolving in different environments.

    --
    🌻🌻 [google.com]
  • (Score: 3, Informative) by inertnet on Saturday March 18 2023, @10:34PM

    by inertnet (4071) on Saturday March 18 2023, @10:34PM (#1296968) Journal

    I think that what many people think of as racial differences, actually are mostly cultural differences. As I see it, people can not be held accountable for their DNA, they just got a mix of their parents, who in turn got a mix from theirs, and so on. That's just another way of saying that all people are to be considered equal, or a bit more detached: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". No matter where they're from or what their DNA happens to look like. Nobody gets to choose any of that in advance.

    On a personal level, I had to laugh about the comment about a person from maybe a century ago, who thought that people of different descend would get mongrels as children. I'm happy to report that I married someone from another race 25 years ago. And I'm very proud of our children, who are doing extremely well, even better than either of us did when we were growing up.