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Finding said to show “race isn’t real” scrapped

Sept. 3, 2007
Special to World Science  

A re­nowned sci­ent­ist has backed off a find­ing that he, joined by oth­ers, long touted as ev­i­dence for what they called a prov­en fact: that ra­cial dif­fer­ences among peo­ple are im­ag­i­nary.

That idea—en­trenched to­day in ac­a­dem­ia, and of­ten used to cast­i­gate schol­ars who study race—has drawn much of its sci­en­tif­ic back­ing from a find­ing that all peo­ple are 99.9 per­cent ge­net­ic­ally alike.

Craig Venter


But ge­net­icist Craig Ven­ter, head of a re­search team that re­ported that fig­ure in 2001, backed off it in an an­nounce­ment this week. He said hu­man varia­t­ion now turns out to be over sev­en times great­er than was thought, though he’s not chang­ing his po­si­tion on race.

Some oth­er sci­ent­ists have dis­put­ed the ear­li­er fi­gure for years as un­der­est­i­mat­ing hu­man va­ri­ation. Ven­ter, in­stead, has cit­ed the num­ber as key ev­i­dence that race is im­ag­i­nary. He once de­clared that “no se­ri­ous schol­ar” doubts that, though again, some re­cent stud­ies have con­tra­dicted it.

Ge­net­i­cist Ar­mand Ma­rie Leroi of Im­pe­ri­al Col­lege Lon­don wrote re­cently that a rec­og­ni­tion of race could in the fu­ture help so­ci­e­ty pro­tect en­dan­gered rac­es. The more com­mon past prac­tice was for so­cie­ties to op­press other races, which is large­ly what led some to try to ban­ish any rec­og­ni­tion of race al­to­geth­er.

Thus, views like Leroi’s have been largely marginal­ized. The race-is­n’t-real doc­trine pre­vails, typ­ic­ally por­trayed by back­ers as set­tled fact that only racists or their dupes could ques­tion. It “can be some­thing close to pro­fes­sion­al sui­cide” for re­search­ers to even sug­gest race ex­ists, psy­chi­a­trist Sa­lly Sa­tel wrote in the Dec. 2001-Jan. 2002 is­sue of the mag­a­zine Pol­i­cy Re­view.

Ven­ter did­n’t orig­i­nate the no­tion that race is­n’t real. But his sup­port of it has car­ried great weight be­cause he is some­thing of a star, thanks to his key role in the high-profile Hu­man Ge­nome Proj­ect, com­plet­ed in 2003.

In a tele­con­fer­ence on Mon­day, Ven­ter and col­leagues an­nounced their re­vised as­sess­ment of hu­man di­vers­ity, based on a study of Ven­ter’s own DNA. It was the first “diploid” ge­nome pub­lished to date, said Ven­ter and mem­bers of his re­search team at the J. Craig Ven­ter In­sti­tute in Rock­ville, Md. This means it was the first list­ing of the se­quence of let­ters of ge­net­ic code from both of a per­son’s chro­mo­some sets, the genes in­her­it­ed from the moth­er and the fa­ther.

The find­ings re­veal “hu­man-to-hu­man varia­t­ion is more than sev­en-fold great­er than ear­li­er es­ti­mates, prov­ing that we are in fact very un­ique in­di­vid­u­als at the ge­net­ic lev­el,” Ven­ter said. The 99.9 fi­gure might need to be lowered to about 99, he added. The find­ings are to ap­pear in the Oc­to­ber is­sue of the on­line re­search jour­nal PLoS Bi­ol­o­gy. Ven­ter added that the cost of se­quenc­ing an in­di­vid­ual per­son’s ge­nome is rap­idly drop­ping, and that a dec­ade from now, “thou­sands or tens of thou­sands” will have their DNA code writ­ten out.

He said the new find­ings were a pleas­ant sur­prise, as they show we’re not all “clones” as the pre­vious re­sults sug­gested.

The orig­i­nal es­ti­mate show­ing near-zero vari­abil­ity in the ge­nome, a prod­uct of the Hu­man Ge­nome Proj­ect, was a re­sult of the dif­fer­ent tech­nol­o­gy used for that work, said a col­league of Ven­ter’s, Ste­phen Scherer of the Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren in To­ron­to.

The tech­nique orig­i­nally used, Scherer said, could read the se­quence of let­ters of a ge­net­ic code. But it could­n’t de­tect repe­ti­tions of some parts of the code, which al­so oc­cur. Dif­fer­ences in the num­ber of these repe­ti­tions, called copy num­ber vari­ants, have since turned out to ac­count for much of the varia­t­ion in a species’ DNA. Anoth­er type of varia­t­ion re­cently found to be im­por­tant is called insertion-deletion vari­ants, snip­pets of code that are ei­ther ex­tra or mis­sing in some ge­nomes com­pared to oth­ers.

Some re­search­ers said that now that Ven­ter has dropped the 99.9 per­cent claim, he should al­so ad­mit race might exist. De­nial of that “ob­vi­ous” fact is “an ex­treme man­i­festa­t­ion of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” wrote Rich­ard Lynn, a psy­chol­o­gist who has pro­posed links be­tween race and in­tel­li­gence, in an email. Lynn, of the Un­ivers­ity of Ul­ster in  Ire­land, added that he thinks Ven­ter has un­fairly ma­ligned sci­ent­ists who be­lieve race ex­ists.

Ven­ter stuck to his guns. Race-isn’t-real pro­po­nents have other arg­u­ments be­side the 99.9 per­cent­age, though these are de­bated also. Ven­ter re­marked that even though vari­abil­ity is much great­er than once thought, hu­man popula­t­ions and traits blend to­geth­er every­where. That means each per­son could ar­bi­trarily di­vide hu­man­ity in­to a dif­fer­ent group of rac­es, if he so chose. Thus “race is a so­cial con­cept, not a sci­en­tif­ic one,” Ven­ter said, re­peat­ing a com­mon dic­tum.

Neil Risch of the University of California at San Francisco—who has led re­search chal­leng­ing that view—said he doesn’t feel ma­ligned by Venter’s state­ments on race and re­search­ers of it. But the data behind those claims really gave little new in­sight into po­pu­la­tion dif­fer­ences, and “I have always felt it is best to avoid en­tang­ling ge­ne­tics with po­li­tics,” Risch wrote in an e­mail.


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A renowned scientist has backed off a finding that he, joined by others, long touted as evidence for what they called a proven fact: that racial differences among people are imaginary. That view—entrenched today in academia, and often used to belittle scholars who study race—has drawn much of its scientific backing from a finding that all people are 99.9 percent genetically alike. But geneticist Craig Venter, head of a research team that reported that figure in 2001, backed off it in an announcement this week. He said human variation turns out to be seven times greater than was thought, though he’s not changing his position on race. Venter didn’t mention that some other scientists have disputed the earlier estimate for years. He, instead, has cited it as key evidence that race is imaginary. He once declared that “no serious scholar” disputes that, though again, some recent studies have contradicted it. Geneticist Armand Marie Leroi of Imperial College London wrote recently that a recognition of race could in the future help society protect endangered races—rather than oppress other races, the usual past practice. Such abuses are largely what led people to try to banish any recognition of race altogether. But views like Leroi’s have been largely marginalized. The race-isn’t-real view prevails, typically portrayed by backers as settled fact that only racists or their dupes could question. It “can be something close to professional suicide” for researchers to even suggest race exists, psychiatrist Sally Satel wrote in the Dec. 2001-Jan. 2002, issue of the magazine Policy Review. Venter didn’t originate the notion that race isn’t real. But his support of it has carried great weight because he is something of a star, thanks to his role as a key player in the high-profile Human Genome Project, completed in 2003. In a teleconference on Monday, Venter and colleagues announced their revised assessment of human diversity, based, ironically, was based on a study of Venter’s own DNA. It was the first “diploid” genome published to date, according to Venter and members of his research team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. This means it was the first listing of the sequence of letters of genetic code from both of a person’s chromosomes, the genes inherited from the mother and the father. The findings reveal “human-to-human variation is more than seven-fold greater than earlier estimates, proving that we are in fact very unique individuals at the genetic level,” Venter said. The findings are to appear in the October issue of the research journal PloS Biology. Venter added that the cost of sequencing an individual person’s genome is rapidly dropping, and a decade from now, “thousands or tens of thousands” will have been sequenced. He said the new findings were a pleasant surprise, as they show we’re not all “clones” after all. The original estimate showing near-zero variability in the genome, a product of the Human Genome Project, was a result of the different technology used for that work, said a colleague of Venter’s, Stephen Scherer of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The technique originally used, Scherer said, could read the sequence of letters of a genetic code. But it couldn’t detect large-scale repetitions of some parts of the code which also occur. Differences in the number of these repetitions, called copy number variants, have since turned out to account for much of the variation in a species’ DNA. Another type of variation recently found to be important is called insertion-deletion variants, snippets of genetic code that are either extra or missing in some genomes compared to others. Some researchers said that now that Venter has dropped the 99.9 percent claim, he should also admit that race might be real. Race is an “obvious” fact, and refusal to acknowledge it “an extreme manifestation of political correctness,” said Richard Lynn, a psychologist at the University of Ulster in the U.K. who has proposed links between race and intelligence. He added that Venter should stop maligning scientists who think race exists. Venter stuck to his guns. Even though variability is much greater than once thought, human populations and traits blend together everywhere, he argued. That means each person could arbitrarily divide humanity into a different group of races, if they chose. “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” he said, reciting an oft-repeated dictum. Geneticist Michael Wigler of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, who called the 99.9 figure “nonsense” three years ago, said this week that none of Venter’s past or current statements upset him, because he never took them seriously. It’s just “scientific chit-chat,” he wrote in an email.