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Is It Time for Biologists to Stop Thinking About Race?

While social scientists should continue to study the social meaning of race, the concept has no place in biology, scientists argue.
(Photo: alice-photo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: alice-photo/Shutterstock)

For hundreds of years, we've relied on the concept of race to categorize people and, more often than we'd like, discriminate against people. The idea is now so entrenched in our lives that we can't avoid dealing with its political and policy implications. But in biology and genetics, researchers argue in Science, it's an idea that long ago wore out its welcome.

"We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research— so disputed and so mired in confusion—is problematic at best and harmful at worst," Michael Yudell, Dorothy Roberts, Rob DeSalle, and Sarah Tishkoff write in the journal Science. "It is time for biologists to find a better way."

Of course, there's little doubt that race matters in America (and around the world)—that's not Yudell and his colleagues' point. Instead, they argue, it's crucial to understand race as a largely social construct without clear scientific meaning. In fact, that's the problem. As W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out a century ago, there is not "any adequate scientific warrant for the assumption that the Negro race is inferior ... in physical build or vitality, " and differences in health outcomes—the subject of Du Bois' comments—were really a matter of socioeconomic inequality. From the point of view of doctors, race was only useful as a proxy for socioeconomic status.

"The use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research is problematic at best and harmful at worst."

Today, researchers face a similar issue: The social and historical concepts of race are really just proxies for something else, Yudell and his team write. In biology, race is largely a proxy for ancestry, though they are not actually the same thing.

"Ancestry is ... a statement about an individual’s relationship to other individuals in their genealogical history," the researchers write. "Race, on the other hand, is a [trait-based] concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans, which connect an individual to a larger preconceived geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group." Indeed, ancestry has a lot to do with genetics, while race as it's commonly understood has little to no genetic basis.

That difference has important consequences for how researchers talk about their work, the team writes. "Scientific journals and professional societies should encourage use of terms like 'ancestry' or 'population' to describe human groupings in genetic studies and should require authors to clearly define how they are using such variables," they write. "Doing so would help avoid  confusing, inconsistent, and contradictory usage of such terms."

While race remains an important, if fraught, concept that social scientists should continue to study, the team writes, "[h]istorical racial categories that are treated as natural and infused with notions of superiority and inferiority have no place in biology."


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