July 31, 2008

Genome Biology on race

The concept of race is something that's often held against biology and evolutionary biology in particular. Genuine concerns based on the use of science (or pseudoscience) in the past to promote racism are mixed with misinterpretations of evolutionary theory to produce a divide between the public and scientific conceptions of race. Deluded creationists and opponents of evolution in particular like to play up and expand this divide by claiming that modern evolutionary theory negates the idea that all humans have equal worth; promoting the ridiculous misconception that evolution reduces us to simple pawns in the "survival of the fittest" and therefore justifies racism, discrimination and genocide.

It's welcome then that multidisciplinary group of scientists from Stanford University has put together an open letter in the latest issue of Genome Biology posing 10 statements that very clearly lay down what's what when discussing race in terms of biology, evolution, genetics, medical research and science in general. It's really worth reading all of it, but there are some points worth highlighting:

We believe that there is no scientific basis for any claim that the pattern of human genetic variation supports hierarchically organized categories of race and ethnicity.

We recognize that individuals of two different geographically defined human populations are more likely to differ at any given site in the genome than are two individuals of the same geographically defined population.

We recognize that racial and ethnic categories are created and maintained within sociopolitical contexts and have shifted in meaning over time.

We caution against making the naive leap to a genetic explanation for group differences in complex traits, especially for human behavioral traits such as IQ scores, tendency towards violence, and degree of athleticism.

If we only could get this through to some thick skulls out there, we'd all be better off.

Lee, S., Mountain, J., Koenig, B., Altman, R., Brown, M., Camarillo, A., Cavalli-Sforza, L., Cho, M., Eberhardt, J., Feldman, M., Ford, R., Greely, H., King, R., Markus, H., Satz, D., Snipp, M., Steele, C., Underhill, P. (2008). The ethics of characterizing difference: guiding principles on using racial categories in human genetics. Genome Biology, 9(7), 404. DOI: 10.1186/gb-2008-9-7-404

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