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Sunday, July 20, 2008

'Race' and genetics: strong warning!

A group of geneticists, mostly from Stanford University, including some famous names like Cavalli-Sforza and Underhill, have published an open letter giving a strong warning on the use and abuse of racial labelling in medical genetics.

The letter consists of ten statements, whose first sentences (headlines) are reproduced here:

Statement 1: 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

Statement 2: 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

Statement 3: We urge those who use genetic information to reconstruct an individual's geographic ancestry to present results within the broader context of an individual's overall ancestry

Statement 4: We recognize that racial and ethnic categories are created and maintained within sociopolitical contexts and have shifted in meaning over time

Statement 5: 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

Statement 6: We encourage all researchers who use racial or ethnic categories to describe how individual samples are assigned category labels, to explain why samples with such labels were included in the study, and to state whether the racial or ethnic categories are research variables

Statement 7: We discourage the use of race as a proxy for biological similarity and support efforts to minimize the use of the categories of race and ethnicity in clinical medicine, maintaining focus on the individual rather than the group

Statement 8: We encourage the funding of interdisciplinary study of human genetic variation that includes a broad range of experts in the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences

Statement 9: We urge researchers, those working in media, and others engaged in the translation of research results to collaborate on efforts to avoid overstatement of the contribution of genetic variation to phenotypic variation

Statement 10: We recommend that the teaching of genetics include historical and social scientific information on past uses of science to promote racism as well as the potential impact of future policies; we encourage increased funding for the development of such teaching materials and programs for secondary and undergraduate education

Please read the whole text anyhow, as this is just an excerpt.

As I see it, statement 5 is particularly important, specially upon the hype that racists around the world are placing on the ultra-biased psudoscientific "findings" of people like Richard Lynn, who claims that some ethnic groups of Africa have such a low IQ that the whole ethnicities should be considered retarded - against what any impartial observer can infer. Such "research" is, of course, founded by Nazi groups, akin to the Klu Klux Klan - but some intelligent people is giving credibility to it, what is outraging.

Statements 3 and 7 look particularly related. When I read studies that come up with conclusions that supposedly apply to all "Caucasoids" based on a limited sample of "Utah whites" (of very restricted NW European ancestry and with likely founder efefctes of their own - Mormon colonization and all that) I feel that my intelligence is being insulted. The least they could do is to create a really comprehensive and representative sample of "Caucasoids" around the world or at least in their original homeland of West Eurasia and neighbouring areas, if they really want to reach to any meaningful conclussion.

Overall, it's clear that the hype of a hypersimplified understanding of genetics and the dismissal of other factors underlying genetic expression (epigenetics...) as well as of economic, social and cultural factors is a dangerous reality in some corners. The very fact that most Anglosaxon countries still use (against all Western humanistic values) racial categories in official papers is a clear symptom that racism is far from deceased and that special caution should be displayed when dealing with the geographic/ethnic patterns that may exist.

This letter is probably (and sadly) necesary and I hope it raises a good number of adherents.


Note: Manjunat also posts on it. There are other related posts in my blogroll but they are mostly based on a totally distorted version of the letter published in New Scientist.


Anonymous said...

TRANSLATION: Political correctness is more important than the *truth*...

Maju said...

I don't think I'd call myself "politically correct", I am not. I am just clearly anti-racist, and I think some people is trying to promote racism by misreading diversity.

And, btw, the truth doesn't exist: reality is always much larger than any map. If you get a standard world map, you get Africa below and Europe above, but the opposite is also true (or rather both are equally false).

Like the Spanish poet (A. Machado) wrote:

Your truth not, the truth.
And come with me to search for it,
yours keep it for you.

I know perfectly that some have prejudices and will look for any minimal indication that those are "true" and will publicize that as "clear evidence".

Ask yourself this question: have you reached at your conclussions after looking at all the evidence or rather have you reached to your conclussions and then looked for any "evidence" to back them.

The latter is not science, it's politics (and bad politics, btw).

terryt said...

I thought I'd just mention here that I largely agree with your comments on Dienekes regarding this subject. I'm not prepared at this stage to get into an argument on the subject with him. In fact I haven't really worked out what his angle is. I suspect it's related to Greek and non-Greek, especially Turk in relation to Cyprus.

Regional differences certainly exist and I think you'd both agree with that. Your disagreement is largely over the significance of those differences.

The real problem lies, though, in when geographic differences in the human popluation are used as a basis for economic, or any other, exploitation.

But certainly each race (however we like to define that term) contains huge variability. This fact totally removes any idea that races can be categorised along a scale of inferiority or superiority.

Maju said...

I think some people with way too much interest in anthropometry, just love the concept of race to let it slip away on light of hardcore evidence.

It's an intuitive concept and it can be somewhat measured. But those measures when put in the context of what means being human lose their importance.