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For genetics, use scientifically relevant descriptions, not outdated social ideas: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

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  • (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.

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      • (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.

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