Life Lines: Why race is not used by geneticists

Life Lines: Why race is not used by geneticists

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Why is the term race rarely used by geneticists? The term race is not a scientific one. It is largely cultural when applied to humans. It is too ambiguous a term for describing a population of any one species.

For example, suppose I were a breeder of dachshunds and I specialized in two varieties — one that had a black coat of fur and the other that had a tan coat of fur. I would not call them black or tan races. I would call them varieties of a specific breed called dachshunds of dogs who are described by biologists as the species Canis vulgaris.

The term race is vague. Is it the varietal difference? Is it the collection of traits that we use for dogs, cats, horses, cattle and other domesticated animals? If it is applied to the color of dachshunds, does that mean humans are divided into thousands of races if I were to use McKusick’s online reference work on Mendelian inheritance in humans?

That work describes thousands of genetic traits caused by single gene malfunctions. Geneticists use the term breed for genetically manipulated traits or collections of traits by human selection or breeding. They use the term varieties or naturally occurring variations in a population or for new varieties arising by mutation in a sperm or egg.

Racism is used to describe a social application of race to designate rights and to assign attributes to other races by members of a specific race. There is far more genetic variation within a single race than there is between any two races. The criteria for classifying human races are often arbitrary and are based on skin color, facial appearance, hair texture and other visually distinctive traits. Many of these traits involve quantitative factors (like skin color), and thus racial mixture quickly obliterates the sharp racial traits initially used to describe a person of a specific race.

Quite a few people who have considered themselves and their immediate family as white are surprised when they send off DNA to be analyzed and discover they have percentages of African, Asian, Hispanic, Native American or Jewish ancestry along with their majority Caucasian Western European ancestry.

Racism is particularly destructive in assigning behavioral traits (personality, intelligence and social failure or inadequacy) to race. Most of those traits are determined by how we are raised and not by a roll of genes in forming our parents’ sperm or eggs. If they were to follow their own criteria, racists would find that white Catholics and Protestants are inferior to Jews and Orientals in intelligence measured by intelligence tests or IQs.

The revival of racist ideology among groups like the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups is not based on biology or genetics. It is based on prejudice passed down by people who feel victimized if people different from them are treated with justice, fairness and equal opportunity.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. Thousands of abolitionists participated to hide escaped slaves, write books and pamphlets denouncing slavery and demanded the freedom of all slaves. The Confederacy seceded from the U.S. and fought to keep its slaves, many slave owners justifying slavery on biblical grounds — that it was a divine punishment for the descendants of a son who laughed at his drunken naked father.

Most ministers and priests in the North denounced that interpretation. We are not born with a knowledge of our past history. It has to be learned and it has to be taught. It is easier to avoid talking about our past errors than to ignore them.

Germany made a special effort after World War II to teach the racism of its Nazi past to all its school children so that error would never again be repeated. Let us hope that we teach our youth that we are one living species, Homo sapiens, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition we all have one ancestor in common.

In the scientific tradition we also have one human species in recorded history and enormous genetic variation that is constantly changing as humans migrate around the world, settle down or move on to new areas of the Earth. Most of that variation is in Africa where our species first arose.

It is ironic that whites who enslaved or colonized Africa diminished, in their minds, this genetic variation and reduced it to racist formulas of a handful of physical or behavioral traits. I hope this revived racism will recede and our focus will shift to problems that can and should be solved by our elected representatives. Those problems are overwhelmingly caused by our social and economic conditions and not by our genes.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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