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The contradictory place of race in biology

27 June 2011
By Professor Catherine Nash
Professor of Human Geography, Queen Mary, University of London
Appeared in BioNews 613
Over the last decade there has been an intense debate among social scientists, ethicists and, to an extent, scientists themselves over the degree to which new studies of human genetic variation, and their application in the development of drugs targeted at ethnic or racial groups, constitutes a revival of old racial categories. The Progress Educational Trust (PET) debate 'Is There a Place for Race in Biology' as part of the 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does it Matter Where your Genes Come From?' project, took up this issue and demonstrated effectively that the contemporary place of race in biology, or more specifically, studies of human genetic diversity, is a contradictory one.

This makes the focus of the PET project all the more important but it also makes it quite difficult to tease out the implications of new accounts of human genetic variation. As the presentations and discussion in the PET debate and wider scientific and popular accounts suggest, it is clearly not the case that we are seeing a return to an old account of races as biologically distinct groups. But it is also clearly not the case that, on the other hand, contemporary genetic studies simply undermine ideas of race. This is because of the range of perspectives among scientists themselves on how to describe patterns of variation and because of the contradictory implications of how they approach the relationship between genetic difference and categories such as race and ethnicity.

Human population genetics today takes place in a very different context than the racial science of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. It is largely framed by an often explicitly anti-racist message about human genetic similarity, shared ancient origins, and the misfit between patterns of genetic variation and conventional categories of race. Human genetic diversity is very limited, we are told. What diversity does exist is to be celebrated. Even those geneticists who are more inclined than others to use a language of race to describe patterns of variation do so without invoking the ideas of racial inferiority and superiority that accompanied the racial categorisations of racial science. As many population geneticists themselves argue, it looks like the study of human genetic diversity is anti-racist in intention and effects.

But science cannot simply be turned to for evidence to undermine ideas of race. Despite the emphasis on accounts of the high degree of genetic similarity among humans, human population genetics is the study of genetic differences between people. Investigations of human difference, diversity or variation are unavoidably bound up with the issue of how people are socially categorised, whether these categories of difference are described as racial or ethnic groups.

The use of the term 'race' to describe geographical patterns of genetic variation is particularly sensitive given the racist practices that have drawn justification from, or been perpetuated through, scientific accounts of race. But the problem of associating genetic or biological differences with social and cultural groups is not just a matter of the presence or absence of an explicit language of race in science. The use of the term 'ethnicity' or the apparently more neutral term 'population' - that is often used in human population genetics - can be as problematic as 'race' and these terms are often used interchangeably.

Furthermore, some elements of racial categorisations, especially shared ancestry and origins, are traditionally part of ideas of ethnic or national identity too. So the problem of implying that racially defined groups are genetically distinctive also extends to ideas of ethnicity and nationality too. The idea that ethnic or national groups can be genetically identified is also deeply divisive in terms of how belonging, relatedness and difference are understood within and between nation-states and ethnic groups. Ideas of differences of blood, genes or biology between racial, ethnic or national groups are too potent to be lightly invoked. This is not to deny that there are patterns of variation that differ geographically. The problem is in suggesting that race, ethnicity or national identity can be read from a person's genome and that these categories have a genetic basis.

The question of the place of race in biology could therefore be productively reformulated as the question of the ways in which ideas of biological difference are linked to social categories of difference, including but not limited to race in human population genetics. This would help get at what needs to be critically addressed about the science of human genetic variation.

Studies of genetic difference between people are not studies of differences between individuals, but between different sorts of human groups. Genetic samples gathered in studies of human genetic variation obviously come from individuals, but those individuals are often taken to stand for larger human groups at different scales, from continental categories like African or European to specific regional or local ethnic groups.

On the other hand, studies of genetic variation are often organised by taking samples from people whose ethnic distinctiveness is thought to suggest their genetic distinctiveness. Thus though many geneticists argue that patterns of genetic variation do not conform to social or cultural boundaries between human groups and point out that no human groups have genetic variants that only found and found uniformly within a group, organising studies by taking ethnic groups as units of genetic analysis suggests that ethnic categories are, indeed, genetic categories.

Geneticists may insist that ethnic groups are not genetically distinctive groups but study the pattern of genetic variation of these groups in comparison to others in order to see if the genetic evidence supports their myths or histories of migration or origin. This is a mixed message but one often dominated by the suggestion that these groups are effectively biologically distinctive units.

These practices of labelling samples in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin, and sampling culturally defined groups, reflect a very practical issue that is an inescapably political one too. Human genetic variation is a matter of gradients, subtle differences in frequencies over space, without clear breaks between 'populations'. This is a well-established fact of human population genetics. But how can that variation be described without recourse to labels of some kind, labels for individual samples, and labels for 'populations'?

So despite scientific accounts of the continuum of human genetic variation, ideas of a discernable patchwork of genetically distinct human groups returns when geneticists use ethnicity, national origin or race to describe variation. And this is reinforced in the commercial development of tests that suggest that an ancestral ethnic or racial origin can be discerned from the analysis of an individual’s genetic material.

And finally, when geneticists and genetic ancestry testing companies encourage us to celebrate our connectedness to those who share ancient ancestry they are not encouraging us to consider humanity's entangled genealogy but the sharing of specific lineages. The corollary of this celebration of genetic similarity and shared ancestry, is the idea that there is no natural basis of empathy or understanding between those who are genetically dissimilar.

This is not old-style race, but suggests a biological basis to degrees of affection and antagonism between so called racial, national or ethnic groups. It produces a version of humanity naturally sorted into biologically close and distant relatives - a divisive model of difference under the banner of anti-racist science.
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