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Do we think it matters where our genes come from?

9 January 2012
Appeared in BioNews 639

The Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s 2011 project Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?, supported by the Wellcome Trust, sought to debate race and ancestry in the context of genetics and to explore the connection (or lack of connection) between genetics and the concept of 'race'. At three public debates organised by PET, audiences were asked which questions they wanted to see put to the wider public, in order that the issues raised by the project could be further explored. Questions were then selected from these audience suggestions, and were incorporated into a poll that was conducted on the BioNews website in September and October 2011.

The poll elicited 637 responses and taken together they cast interesting light on how the concept of race is understood today. Despite the term 'race' still being common currency, people clearly have divergent interpretations of its meaning, if indeed they believe it to be legitimate or useful term to begin with. There's no doubt that the term 'race' has contentious historical and political connotations, a point that was reinforced by panel speakers and audience members alike during the debates. It seemed fitting, therefore, to open the poll with the question 'In your opinion, should we abandon the word "race"?'.

Of those who responded to this question, 38 percent said that the word 'race' should be abandoned, while a majority - 62 percent - said that the word 'race' should not be abandoned. Those who wanted to scrap the word were asked 'What term, if any, do you think we should use instead of "race"?', and were given four possible options (which were not mutually exclusive) to choose from: 'Ancestry', 'Ethnicity', 'Nationality' and 'Parental nationality'.

Just over half (51 percent) of these respondents preferred 'Ancestry' while 46 percent said we should use the term 'Ethnicity' instead. 21 percent thought 'Nationality' was an acceptable substitute while 8 percent went with 'Parental nationality'.

The next question we asked poll respondents was 'In your opinion, is it possible to change your race?' Of the questions suggested to us by attendees at our public debates, we particularly liked this one, as it confronts head on the issue of whether and how one's race (however this term is understood) is an intrinsic and fixed part of oneself. Of those who responded to this question, a majority - 86 percent - said that it was not possible to change your race. However, 14 percent said that it was possible to change your race, demonstrating that for at least some people, race is a malleable attribute.

One of the developments that inspired the Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity project was a recent surge of interest in the proposition that 'mixed race is better', and the (questionable) invocation of the biological concept of heterosis or 'hybrid vigour' to support this proposition. A number of the questions suggested to us by attendees at our debates addressed this theme, and so we combined several of these questions and asked poll respondents 'In your opinion, does being mixed race improve a person's...' followed by the options 'Looks?', 'Intelligence?', 'Health?' and 'None of the above'.

Of those who responded to this set of questions, 37 percent thought that being mixed race led to some sort of improvement, with 24 percent believing in improved looks, 18 percent believing in improved health, and 9 percent believing in improved intelligence (these different options were not mutually exclusive). What was more striking, however, was that a clear majority - 63 percent - did not believe that being mixed race led to any such improvement. This would appear to suggest that despite the strong contemporary interest in mixed race identity (the BBC recently broadcast an entire 'Mixed Race Britain' season, while BioNews writer Dr Aarathi Prasad presented the Channel 4 programme 'Is It Better to Be Mixed Race?'), a degree of scepticism surrounds more extravagant claims for the advantages of being mixed race.

The following question in the poll was inspired by the discipline of pharmacogenetics, which concerns how genetic variation relates to the effectiveness of drugs; and was also inspired by the fact that in the absence of universal genetic screening, physicians may find themselves having to use racial characteristics to make judgments about the likelihood of a patient having a certain genetic makeup. We asked 'Would you be offended if a medical professional asked to know your race before treating you?'. Of those who responded to this question, 27 percent said that they would be offended, but almost three-quarters - 73 percent - said that that they would not be offended.

This points to the ambivalent relationship that exists between modern biomedicine and the concept of race. On the one hand, the historical proposition that people are divisible into racial types as a result of human biological variation was largely rejected over the course of the twentieth century. This was partly due to political advances towards racial equality, but was also due to advances within biology, which supported the idea that race is a social and not a biological construct. At the same time, however, developments in our understanding of the genetic differences between individuals continue to be used, reported and appropriated in ways that draw upon or even reinforce the terminology of race.

One area where this is particularly apparent is the biology and medicine of sport, which was the focus of the final questions we asked as part of our poll. Responses to these questions will be discussed in a forthcoming article on BioNews, where they will be considered in relation to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

12 May 2014 - by Matthew Thomas 
Is it possible to trace your DNA back through time, up to a millennium ago, to find a single home from which your ancestors came?...
6 May 2014 - by Matthew Thomas 
Geneticists claim to have developed a way of finding where in the world a person's DNA originated...
30 July 2012 - by Sandy Starr 
Last year, the Progress Educational Trust (PET) conducted a poll as part of its Wellcome Trust supported project 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?' At three public events held under this project's auspices, attendees were asked to suggest questions for PET to put to the public, and the resulting online poll elicited 637 responses...
8 May 2012 - by Sarah Norcross and Sandy Starr 
The conference 'Genomics in Society: Facts, Fictions and Cultures' marked the 10th anniversary of the Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics Network, and also the passing of nearly ten years since the completion of the Human Genome Project...
26 March 2012 - by James Brooks 
Newspapers overcook mediocre science all the time. You know this, I know this. All the same, a story in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago deserves special mention for its utterly uncritical reporting...
21 November 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
The study of genetic diversity between ethnic groups can help explain the ways in which race influences our biology and susceptibility to disease. But what do we mean by 'race', exactly? These issues are considered in the collection of essays 'What's the use of race? Modern governance and the biology of difference', edited by Dr Ian Whitmarsh and Dr David Jones...
24 October 2011 - by Anoushka Shepherd 
In this three-part documentary, George Alagiah recounts the largely untold story of mixed race Britain and the many love stories that overcame extreme social hardship to create it...
17 October 2011 - by Professor Steven Marsh 
Each year around 2,800 people in the UK have a stem cell transplant, without which they would have shortly faced death, usually from a blood cancer or another blood disorder. The race of a patient is a real factor in how likely they are to match with a donor....
17 October 2011 - by Nishat Hyder 
'One of the very few universal laws of history is this: whenever and wherever people of different races have been brought together they have always mixed. For most of human history the power of sex managed to undermine the power of race'...
26 September 2011 - by Sarah Norcross 
Throughout 2011 the charity that publishes BioNews, the Progress Educational Trust, has been running a Wellcome Trust supported project entitled 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?'. The project is now concluding with an online poll which we'd like to encourage all BioNews readers to complete...
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