A New Academic Debate on Race and Genetics

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “How Genetics is Changing Our Concept of Race,” David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard University, argued that scientists should not disregard the genetic differences between groups of people. He notes that some groups have greater risk factors for certain diseases due to genetic differences. He takes his argument further to explore possible genetic differences in intelligence.

Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan said that Reich “carefully advanced the case that there are genetic variations between subpopulations of humans, that these are caused, as in every other species, by natural selection, and that some of these variations are not entirely superficial and do indeed overlap with our idea of race.”

In response, a group of 67 academics penned an open letter entitled “How Not to Talk About Race and Genetics.” The authors acknowledge the existence of geographically based genetic variation in our species, but they present evidence that such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race. For example they state that “sickle cell anemia is a meaningful biological trait. In the U.S. it is commonly (and mistakenly) identified as a ‘Black’ disease. In fact, while it does have a high prevalence in populations of people with West and Central African ancestry, it also has a high prevalence in populations from much of the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of the Mediterranean and India. This is because the genetic variant that causes sickle cell is more prevalent in people descended from parts of the world with a high incidence of malaria. ‘Race’ has nothing to do with it.”

The authors of the open letter conclude by saying “we encourage geneticists to collaborate with their colleagues in the social sciences, humanities, and public health to consider more carefully how best to use racial categories in scientific research. Together, we can conduct research that will influence human lives positively.”

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