Scientists Want To Remove Race From Biological Research: Here's Why

racial diversity
Researchers say race is a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans Photo Courtesy Flickr, George A. Spiva Center for the Arts

Race does not belong in the study of human genetics, says a prominent group of scientists in a new paper, published by Science.

The paper is a collaborative effort between Michael Yudell of Drexel School of Public Health, the University of Pennsylvania's Dorothy Roberts and Sarah Tishkoff, and Robert DeSalle from the American Museum of Natural History. Together they are encouraging the scientific community to remove the use of racial categories from genetic research.

“Racial classifications do not make sense in terms of genetics,” they wrote. “It is time for biologists to find a better way.”

By citing evidence from phylogenetics (evolutionary history) and population genetics, the scientists showed that commonly defined racial groups lack genetic boundaries that distinguish race as a reliable factor in modern biology and medicine.

They wrote, “Racial assumptions are not the biological guideposts some believe them to be.” This common misconception can be attributed to the popular belief that race and ancestry are the same, which they are not.

"Ancestry is a statement about an individual's relationship to other individuals in their genealogical history; thus, it is a very personal understanding of one's genomic heritage,” the paper reports. "Race, on the other hand, is a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans."

In other words, race is a social construct, not a biological construct. Previous research said as much, including a 2013 study that argued what we have come to consider as genetic traits among races are merely adaptive traits that reflect the underlying environmental factor to which they are adaptive, rather than genetic differentiation. For example, fair-skinned people are better adapted to live in mild climates.

Beyond potentially skewing biological research, the continued use of race categories in genetics-based studies fuels racist beliefs, the researchers argue. "Language matters, and the scientific language of race has a significant influence on how the public (which includes scientists) understands human diversity." Replacing race categories with terms like ‘ancestry’ or ‘population,’ the researchers argue, is the first step forward.

This does not mean race is purposeless, however; the co-authors agree that race has an important role in social and political studies – just not biological ones.

“Historical racial categories that are treated as natural and infused with notions of superiority and inferiority have no place in biology," the paper asserts.

Currently, the group of scientists is arguing for the United States National Academies of Sciences to convene a panel of experts in order to figure out new tools for researching human diversity without utilizing the concept of race.

"We believe that genetics continues to operate in a paradox: The belief that race is a tool to elucidate human genetic diversity and believing that race is a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relation between ancestry and genetics," Yudell said. "It is time that scientists find a way to resolve to improve the study of human diversity."

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