Race and Genomics. Old Wine in New Bottles? Documents from a Transdisciplinary Discussion

Race and Genomics. Old Wine in New Bottles? Documents from a Transdisciplinary Discussion

NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
Volume 16, Number 3 (August 2008)
pages 363-386
DOI 10.1007/S00048-008-0301-6

Staffan Müller-Wille
ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society
University of Exeter

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Berlin, Germany

From July 25 to 29, 2007, the biennial meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology(ISHPSSB) was hosted by the University of Exeter. About 430 papers were submitted, and we had the pleasure to put together a programme as well as a plenary session of invited speakers on a topic of their choice. After some discussion within the programme committee, we decided to organize a session of four speakers who were asked to address, each from a different disciplinary perspective, the recent re-emphasis on racial categories in genomic studies of ancestry, public health, pharmacology, and forensics.

The topic was not only chosen because of its timeliness. It so happened that the ISHPSSB meeting also coincided with the tercentenary of both Georges Buffon and Carl Linnaeus. Both are arguably the founding fathers of modern biology, with the emphasis they put on the reproduction rather than the generation of living beings (Müller-Wille/Rheinberger 2007). But there is also another legacy of these naturalists, one which is more problematic. This is racial anthropology which both Buffon and Linnaeus, almost simultaneously, initiated by their proposals for a universal partitioning of mankind along lines of skin colour, temperament, and descent (Sloan 1995). This original classification of mankind into three or four major ”races”—a white, a black, and a yellow or red one—is still very much in place, even in the high-tech contexts of today’s genomics. According to its own rhetoric, for example, the International Haplotype Map Project studies human genomic variation through four sample populations” (see http://www.hapmap.org/abouthapmap.html). The choice of these sample populations, however, is revealing: the Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria; Japanese from Tokyo; the Han Chinese from Beijing; Utah residents with ancestry from northern and western Europe. This choice was undoubtedly guided by the colour scheme originally proposed by Linnaeus and Buffon. The history of race in biology and medicine exhibits a curious mixture of archaic and innovative elements.

Until very recently there existed a broad consensus among scientists, as well as students of science, that racial anthropology belonged to a past thoroughly outdated by the combined efforts of mathematical population genetics and molecular biology, a consensus that dates back to the so-called UNESCO Statement on Race from 1951. However, in the wake of the completion of the Human Genome Project, and with projects like the Human Diversity Project, the HapMap Project, various national ‘biobank’ projects, and a diversity of private and public initiatives of ‘ancestry’ research, racial categories appear to have regained significance in recent years again, inside and outside of the biomedical sciences. Human genomic diversity is mapped against grids of racial distinctions, drugs and life-style recommendations target racially defined groups, and genetic tests offer the opportunity to determine ancestry in racial terms. Increasingly, close historical scrutiny also reveals that race was not only put back on the agenda again occasionally by high-profile publications like Richard J. Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), but that it has also formed a persistent thread in medical and population genetics research throughout the post-WWII era (Pogliano 2005, Wailoo/Pemberton 2006).

To set the stage for the plenary session, we included five questions in the letter of invitation that we sent to the four speakers. It may be useful to quote them here, as they were originally formulated: “What is it about racial categories—famously introduced in an ad hoc fashion by Buffon and Linnaeus, and again and again denounced as primitive and untenable by prominent life-scientists in the course of their long history—that lets them persist, even in the high-tech world of present day genomics and systems biology? Or is this resilience just an illusion? Has ‘race’, just like any other scientific concept, acquired very different meanings in different historical settings? In that case: How does ‘race’ in its present usage differ from ‘race’ in the past? And which recent social and political developments have triggered its renewed significance?”

The four statements that were given in front of the delegates of the ISHPSSB meeting on the morning of July 26, 2007, were very different in style and perspective. We will not endeavour to distil a common take-home message from them, but will let each speak for themselves. One common structural element to all of them, however, is probably worth pointing out, as it may reflect the specific historical moment in which the session took place. This is the acknowledgement that “race” is not per se an “irrational” concept, but a highly variable and diverse concept that was and continues to be shaped by the ways in which science and society are articulated.

…Is there a Biological Concept of Race?

Jean Gayon
Université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne
Institut d’histoire et philosophie des sciences et des techniques

Most contemporary biologists have abandoned the use of the term “race” in scientific discourse. Other words are used to categorise intra-specific taxonomic diversity: sub-species, variety, strain, local population, deme, etc. These words are ideologically more neutral than “race.” Nevertheless, biologists find it difficult when they discuss with a public that continues to use the vocabulary of “race.” For example, when a biologist says “races do not exist”, the exact meaning is generally unclear. Does he or she mean that the notion of race is confused? Or that the term does have a precise meaning, but that what it refers to does not exist, either in nature in general, or among humans in particular? This is the question I want to examine in two steps. First I will consider what the category of race could mean for modern biologists as a whole; then I will examine those aspects that specifically relate to humans…

…To conclude, I would like to relativize the biological approaches to the notion of race in the case of humans, and say that in humans, the most important aspect of race is not the biological aspect, but rather race as a social signifier. In a remarkable book published around 30 years ago, the sociologist Colette Guillaumin argued that we should distinguish two levels of discussion in the question of human races: the “concrete” level which, she argues, is that of biological research, and the “symbolic” level, which relates to the function of the signifier “race” in modern societies. Guillaumin insisted that the question of race as a social signifier is separate from that of the result of scientific debates on races as natural objects. Race as a social operator is not so much a concept as a fetish-notion. What is important is not whether it exists or not, but what it produces in practice. “That [i.e., race] does not exist. That leads to death. It is a murder machine, a technical murder machine. Of proven efficacy. It is a way of rationalising and organising the murderous violence and the domination of some social groups over other social groups that have been rendered powerless.” (Guillaumin 1972: 65)…

…Race in History

Renato G. Mazzolini
Università degli studi di Trento
Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali

The only way I may contribute to the issue under discussion is by briefly talking about my own research and then by addressing four of the five questions that have been put on the floor by the organizers of this session (see introduction). Let me also state straight away that I feel more confident with literature published between 1600 and 1850 than in contemporary scientific literature on race and that my knowledge is limited to ideas and theories put forth in western Europe and North America.

It is generally assumed that the term race took on a taxonomic meaning at the very end of the eighteenth century. Many of the authors I studied worked before that date, before the notion of race was solidified, and they investigated skin colour (Mazzolini 1994). It should be noted that in the period running from the early seventeenth century to 1800 human pigmentation…

  • was the object of intense anatomical, microscopical, physiological and chemical investigations giving rise to a number of theories which attempted to explain how human differences in skin colour came about;
  • was used as the principal marker for classifying human varieties from a zoological point of view;
  • was viewed as the main trait indicating interracial crossing and thus provided an element of analysis for what is often called pre-Mendelian genetics;
  • stimulated scholars to think about the original colour of mankind by appearing in pathological conditions such as albinism;
  • was the cornerstone on which the notion of race was constructed;
  • was used to construct powerful models of somatic identities (e.g. white, black, yellow, brown and red) which still have far more devastating effects on human relations than the very notion of race.

Theories of skin colour cannot be understood without considering slavery and colonialism. At the end of the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century skin colour was linked to history, civilisation and social structure. And so was the notion of race, for which skin colour remained the main marker of racial differences (Mazzolini 2007). For this reason I stress that race is a biopolitical notion, that is, a notion that has been used in daily life as well as by the life sciences and the social sciences, with the result of reciprocal contaminations. At a historical level this is quite evident. Some scholars distinguish four distinct ideas of race: status-race, formal-race, historical-race, and culture-race. From my point of view, it is interesting to note that in all these four ideas of race, colour plays a significant role…

…Race and Biology. Beyond the Perpetual Return of Crisis

Jenny Reardon
University of California, Santa Cruz
Sociology Department

The use of racial categories in biology has once again arisen as a problem in political and scholarly arenas. As the editors of this issue note, “until recently there existed a broad consensus among scientists, as well as students of science, that racial anthropology belonged to a past thoroughly outdated by the combined efforts of mathematical population genetics and molecular biology.” Several other similar moments of consensus preceded this one. In each moment, natural scientists, social scientists and the popular press concurred that a new powerful science had emerged that could reveal the truth, and thus counter social ideologies, about “race”: the science of population genetics in the 1950s, molecular biology in the 1970s, the genome sciences and bioinformatics in the 1990s and today. In each case, a crisis reoccurred as social ideologies of race once again became associated with biological ideas and practices. In the brief space at my disposal here I would like to reflect on what produces this experience of the cyclical return of the problem of race in biology. I would like to then offer a diagnosis of what is unique about the current moment of return, and how we might respond to it…

…An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Impact of Genomics on the Meaning of “Race”, and the Future Role of Racial Categories in Biomedical Research

George T. H. Ellison
St. George’s-University of London

Richard Tutton

Simon M. Outram

Paul Martin

Richard Ashcroft

Andrew Smart

As an interdisciplinary team exploring the use of racial categories in biomedical research from the perspective of epidemiology (GTHE), anthropology (GTHE, SMO), sociology (RT, AS), bioethics (RA) and science and technology studies (RT, PM, AS), what we hope to offer to this trans-disciplinary dialogue on “race and genomics” in the NTM. Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine draws on: our analysis of the longstanding debate within the biomedical literature concerning the meaning and aetiological utility of “race” as well as interviews with 22 geneticists working on the editorial boards of high-impact genetics and biomedical journals and 36 researchers working on UK-based biobanking and pharmacogenetic projects– interviews which examined variation in the conceptualisation and operationalisation of racial categories, and the perceived utility of these categories in the analytical design of research, the interpretation of research findings, and the translation thereof across different research and clinical contexts (see Outram/Ellison 2006a, Martin et al. 2007).

At the outset, however, we feel it is important to acknowledge that much of what we hope to contribute here has already been said, and said more eloquently, by a good many commentators and analysts before us. Not least amongst these is the Loyola University epidemiologist Richard S. Cooper, whose 2003 article in the International Journal of Epidemiology (bearing the uncannily similar title “Race, genes, and health—new wine in old bottles”) addressed many of the questions posed by the organisers of this trans-disciplinary dialogue. Cooper felt that advances in genetic technology should have been able to resolve the contentious and questionable use of racial categories as “surrogates for genetic effects at the population level” (i.e. as markers for potentially important differences in genetic variation amongst human populations) during the important period—what anthropologist Mike Fortun (2007) has called the “meantime”—between the conceptualisation and invention of genomic technologies and their widespread use in biomedical research. Richard Cooper also recognised that there was a “tension between reaffirmation of tradition and transformation of biological concepts” in which the new genomic technologies have, somewhat paradoxically, been used both to confirm that there are measurable differences in genetic variation between traditional “racial” groups and to demonstrate that these differences are far smaller than those found between individuals within such groups (cf. Reardon in this issue). And although Cooper has long questioned the value of using “racial” categories as markers for genetic variation in biomedical research (see also: Cooper 1993, Cooper/Kaufman 1998)—even for the modest “racial” differences in genetic variation that have been confirmed by advances in genomic technology—he accepts that the meaning of these differences in genetic variation remain open to interpretation, and that the claim that “race has little or no biological [i.e. genetic] meaning” has been an unhelpful “irritant to geneticists who see the importance of population variation [in genetics] in an array of conditions.”…

Read the entire article here.

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