Researchers Call for an End to the Use of Genetic Concepts of Race in Biological Research

A group of scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University in Philadelphia, and the American Museum of Natural History have published a paper in the journal Science calling for an end to the use of genetic concepts of race in biological research.

The authors write that ““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.” They recommend that instead of race, researchers refer to population groups in terms of ancestry or population group.

The authors go on to say that they hope to “strengthen scientific research by thinking more carefully about human genetic diversity and to responsibly engage in a century long dialogue about the role of race and its impact on biology and society.”

Roberts for releaseAmong the authors of the study is Dorothy Roberts, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and in the departments of Africana studies and sociology. Professor Roberts joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 after teaching at the Northwestern University School of Law. A graduate of Yale University, Professor Roberts earned her law degree at Harvard Law School. She is the author of several books including Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New Press, 2011).

The article, “Taking Race Out of Human Genetics,” can be accessed here.

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  1. This is appropriate but it would be have been more informative had the piece in JBHE stated how the group defined “race”. This is a source of much confusion. Race (subspecies) is a legitimate level in the theoretical taxonomic hierarchy, but it does apply to living human beings. The issue is more than one of “social construction.” There are several issues that the JBHE piece could have mentioned for those who may not get around to reading the journal Science.

    I propose that another meeting be held where the issue of the term “race” is discussed as a descriptor in the census and NIH research language/requirements. It should be advocated that the term race be dropped. More scholars should be invited who can speak to this from various perspectives, and not only from certain institutions.

    There are populations but no races in reference to living humans.

    The US census is set up in such a way that people from certain regions in Africa, for example Algeria or Egypt, that even when they call themselves Africans or wish to do this they are told not to; this stems from categorical and racist traditions of thinking which are non-evolutionary need no elaboration. In my medical practice I have been told by Egyptians who tell their children to mark African American that others have attempted to tell them they cannot do this (even if they phenotypically can fit right into that “pre-existing” Afro-America). At federal government sponsored meetings Egyptians have reported the same story. There is diversity in Africa and all Arabs are not “white”–look at the Sabah family from Kuwait, specifically the late leader. The received notion of “race” operationalized by government policy blocks various folk from being able to claim an accurate identity that may be useful in biomedical or scientific research. It also obscures biogeographcal accuracy, ethnohistorical accuracy, and biohistorical connections and reality. More population designations are needed, and better language to describe populations overall has already been proposed, but goes ignored.

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