Should we get rid of race in genetics?

Xavier Symons
February 13, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

Racial categories have long been used in genetics to aid research on health and development. Yet recently academics have been discouraging the use of such taxonomies, arguing that they are pragmatically unhelpful and, at times, morally objectionable.

One of the strongest statements yet came in an article published in Science last week, entitled 'Taking race out of human genetics'. Michael Yudell of Drexel University and three of his colleagues sounded alarm bells about the continuing (and, on some measures, increasing) use of racial categories in genetic research:

"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. It is time for biologists to find a better way."

According to the authors, "there have been no systematic attempts to address [race-related issues in research] and the situation has worsened with the rise of large-scale genetic surveys that use race as a tool to stratify these data."

They called on the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a panel of experts " to recommend ways for research into human biological diversity to move past the use of race as a tool for classification in both laboratory and clinical research".

In an interview with NPR , Sarah Tishkoff and Dorothy Roberts - academics from the University of Pennsylvania and co-authors of the article - discussed the issues posed by continuing use of racial categories.

According to Roberts, a sociologist, "[race] leads researchers down the wrong path and leads to harmful results for patients. For example, black patients who have the symptoms of cystic fibrosis aren't diagnosed because doctors see it as a white disease."

Roberts also believes there are historical reasons for abandoning racial categories:

"There is a long history of justifying the subordination of different groups and social groupings based on myths about their biologic or genetic predispositions. It's not only that there's scientific evidence that humans aren't divided into discrete biological categories we'd call races. But there's also evidence of the harm these biological meanings of race have caused for centuries."