What Does DNA Tell Us About Race?

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DNA molecule photo credit: Getty

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Today is National DNA Day, a day to commemorate the publication of James Watson and Francis Crick’s famous paper (that included the work of Rosalind Franklin) in 1953 describing the structure of DNA. As we reflect back on the incredible scientific progress that has been made since this paper, one of the most striking developments is how the study of our own genomes has changed our understanding of human variation

The American Association of Physical Anthropologists, an organization of scientists dedicated to the study of the biological variation, adaptation, and evolution of humans and our close relatives, has just released a position statement on race and racism. It provides a nice insight into what has been learned about patterns of genetic and phenotypic variation in human populations since the publication of Watson and Crick’s paper 66 years ago.

Professor Robin Nelson (Santa Clara University), who was involved in writing the statement, commented,  “The AAPA has a responsibility to provide scientifically accurate information to the public about race and racism. This statement reflects our commitment to engaging in these sometimes difficult conversations.”

Race is not a biologically meaningful category

As the statement discusses, one of the most important insights from studies of human DNA across the world has been that the concept of “race” is not a useful or accurate term to describe patterns of biological variation that exist. Biological variation—whether it be genetic or in our physical traits—may be used socially and politically for categorizing people (e.g. “white”, “black”, “Hispanic”) but does not actually align with “pure” or discrete groups. The authors of the statement note:

“The groupings of people that exist in our species are socially-defined, dynamic, and continually evolving — amalgamations of socially- and biologically-interacting individuals with constantly-shifting boundaries, reflecting the myriad ways that individuals, families, and other clusters of people create ties, move, trade, mate, reproduce, and shift their social identities and affiliations through time. Race does not capture these histories or the patterns of human biological variation that have emerged as a result. Nor does it provide a clear picture of genetic ancestry.”

So while people think they’re using biology to classify people into races, the traits that we typically consider are arbitrary and socially informed and the patterns in those traits don’t map onto racial groups the way people think they do.

Tina Lasisi, a Ph.D. student at Penn State University who helped write the statement, sums it up this way “We aren’t denying that patterns of genetic variation exist, in fact that’s precisely what most of us study. We are however saying that race is not a useful framework for discussing or investigating human biological variation and continuing to use it stalls science more than it advances it.”

Professor Ewan Birney, Director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute, who was not involved with writing this statement, commented to me that “It is sadly all too easy to think race is somehow the everyday manifestation of human genetics but the truth is far more complex and interesting. Our collective genetic history is messier, richer and more complex than concepts of race; race itself is more a cultural phenomenon and less genetics than most people realize.”

Race is real

Another important point that this statement raised is that “while human racial groups are not biological categories, ‘race’ as a social reality — as a way of structuring societies and experiencing the world — is very real. Dr. Adam Rutherford, another geneticist and author who was not involved in writing this statement, agrees with this point.

“It isn’t good enough to say that race doesn’t exist, tempting though that might be. Race certainly does exist, because we perceive it and racism exists because we enact it. What is unequivocal is that the colloquial and traditional descriptions of race that are commonly used in the West are not accurately reflected by underlying genetics. Much of this disconnect is derived from the historical roots of the pseudoscience of race, founded in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, by writers and thinkers, most of whom did not visit the continents or the people they were attempting to categorize. These clumsy, erroneous and judgmental taxonomies stuck and echo into the present.”

Ancestry testing and race

As I have already discussed in the first post of my series on direct to consumer genetic testing, most people’s understanding of what our genomes can tell us is often influenced by the claims of commercial ancestry companies to “tell you who you are.” And while many of these companies are holding special sales on their tests to commemorate DNA Day, it’s worth noting the AAPA’s caution that these oversimplified claims can reinforce concepts of race as discrete genetic categories:

“Genetic ancestry tests can identify clusters of individuals based on patterns of genetic similarity and difference, but the particular clusters we infer depend on the individuals included in the analysis. Genetic ancestry tests also tend to equate present-day peoples and contemporary patterns of genetic variation with those that existed in the past, even though they are not identical. In this regard, ancestry tests often oversimplify and misrepresent the history and pattern of human genetic variation, and do so in ways that suggest more congruence between genetic patterns and culturally-defined categories than really exists.”

There are many ways to celebrate DNA today, including reading the original paper (it’s only a page long) , extracting DNA with your kids at home , reading award-winning essays submitted to the American Society of Human Genetics by students, or browsing the #DNADay19 hashtag on twitter to see gleeful and geeky tweets by scientists. Thanks to the AAPA, you can now add to your list of activities “learn about genetics and race.” As Professor Agustín Fuentes (University of Notre Dame), one of the co-authors, encourages: “This statement reflects the reality of what we know from the science of race and racism. At this point ignorance is unacceptable. We hope people read it, use it and build from it.”

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