Race is real, studies
Posted Jan. 28, 2005
Special to World Science
Racial differences among people are real, new studies suggest, in findings that contradict the claims of some of the world’s leading experts and scientific institutions. These experts have declared race a “social construct,” or a figment of society’s collective imagination.
The new studies, some of which come from Stanford University, suggest that the way people classify themselves by race reflects real and clear genetic differences among them. This indicates there is some truth behind the racial distinctions that seem obvious to most ordinary people, the researchers said.
But they added that it’s important to define race correctly, since dangerous misconceptions, such as the notion that some races are superior to others, persist and can serve to excuse racism. What is true, they say, is that people of different races often have different ancestries—which means different genes, since genes are inherited from ancestors.
“The public in general is much more honest” about race than many academics are, “because the general public knows it signifies something rather than nothing,” said Jon
Entine, a journalist and author of a critically well-received book, “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It.”
The book’s title attests to the subject’s controversial nature, and the inflamed passions often triggered by any suggestion that racial differences reflect meaningful biological differences.
The emotions surrounding the debate arise from its origins in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, which led to widespread efforts to wipe out racism from society. Recognizing the evils that racial classification had created, from slavery to genocides, many tried to fight racism by playing down racial differences as much as possible.
As these new attitudes spread, some experts began to say race didn’t exist at all. “Race is a social construct, not a scientific classification,” wrote the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious medical journals, in a May 3, 2001 editorial. “In medicine, there is only one race—the human race.’’
In support of the claim that racial differences don’t exist, many scientists cited findings from the Human Genome Project that humans are 99.9 percent genetically alike—findings that turned out to be possibly wrong (see exclusive World Science story of Sept. 8, 2004, “New findings undermine basis of ‘race isn’t real’ theory.”)
However, scientists, especially anthropologists, have continued to support the race-as-social-construct position.
The American Anthropological Association’s official statement on race declares: “physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.” The group’s president-elect, Alan H. Goodman, was quoted in a Baltimore Sun article of last Oct. 10 as saying, “Race as an explanation for human biological variation is dead,” and comparing the race concept to a gun in the hands of racists.
The latest research to challenge the race-as-social-construct theory is a study of 3,636 people from across America and Taiwan, led by Neil Risch of the Stanford University School of Medicine. It found that “people’s self-identified race/ethnicity is a nearly perfect indicator of their genetic background,” Risch said, according to a press release from the university. This contradicts the notion that race is a social construct, Risch added in an email.
The study’s authors said it was the largest study of its kind. The participants identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. For each participant, the researchers examined 326 DNA regions that tend to vary between people. These regions are not necessarily within functioning genes—some regions of the genome have no known use—but are simply genetic signposts that come in a variety of forms at the same place.
Without knowing how the participants had identified themselves, Risch and his team ran the results through a computer program that grouped individuals according to patterns of the 326 signposts. This analysis could have resulted in any number of different clusters, but only four clear groups turned up. And in each case the individuals within those clusters all fell within the same self-identified racial group.
“This work comes on the heels of several contradictory studies about the genetic basis of race. Some found that race is a social construct with no genetic basis while others suggested that clear genetic differences exist between people of different races,” the press release said.
“What makes the current study, published in the February issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, more conclusive is its size. The study is by far the largest, consisting of 3,636 people who all identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. Of these, only five individuals had DNA that matched an ethnic group different than the box they checked at the beginning of the study.”
Although it was reported as the largest study to find genetic differences between races, Risch’s study is not the first. Previous studies have found that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more susceptible than average for
Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal nervous system disorder, for instance. Black populations have been found to carry higher levels of a mutation that leads to sickle-cell anemia.
Risch’s study, however, is not only the largest study but also the first to find that these genetic differences are not isolated cases involving a handful of genes, but are spread throughout the genome.
These differences should be of more than passing interest to the medical community, Risch added, because recognizing them can help tailor treatments and prevention programs to better serve specific ethnic groups. It can also help geneticists avoid a major problem: failing to for account for differences among populations can throw off the results of studies in which researchers look for a link between a mutation and a disease.