How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Letters, Media Archive on 2018-03-31 02:37Z by Steven

How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics


Micah Baldwin / Via Flickr: micahb37

Race has long been a potent way of defining differences between human beings. But science and the categories it constructs do not operate in a political vacuum.

This open letter was produced by a group of 68 scientists and researchers. The full list of signatories can be found below.

In his newly published book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich engages with the complex and often fraught intersections of genetics with our understandings of human differences — most prominently, race.

He admirably challenges misrepresentations about race and genetics made by the likes of former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade and Nobel Laureate James Watson. As an eminent scientist, Reich clearly has experience with the genetics side of this relationship. But his skillfulness with ancient and contemporary DNA should not be confused with a mastery of the cultural, political, and biological meanings of human groups.

As a group of 68 scholars from disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, medical and population health sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities, we would like to make it clear that Reich’s understanding of “race” — most recently in a Times column warning that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’” — is seriously flawed…

Read the entire letter here.

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Human Variation: A Genetic Perspective on Diversity, Race, and Medicine

Posted in Africa, Anthologies, Asian Diaspora, Books, Canada, Caribbean/Latin America, Europe, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2015-10-21 02:26Z by Steven

Human Variation: A Genetic Perspective on Diversity, Race, and Medicine

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
131 pages
(21 4C, 5B&W), index
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-621820-90-1
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-936113-25-5

Edited by:

Aravinda Chakravarti, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics, Molecular Biology & Genetics, and, Biostatistics
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Institute of Genetic Medicine

Since the appearance of modern humans in Africa around 200,000 years ago, we have migrated around the globe and accumulated genetic variations that affect various traits, including our appearance, skin color, food tolerance, and susceptibility to different diseases. Large-scale DNA sequencing is now allowing us to map the patterns of human genetic variation more accurately than ever before, trace our ancestries, and develop personalized therapies for particular diseases. It is also reinforcing the idea that human populations are far from homogeneous, are highly intermixed, and do not fall into distinct races or castes that can be defined genetically.

This book provides a state-of-the-art view of human genetic variation and what we can infer from it, surveying the genetic diversity seen in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and India. The contributors discuss what this can tell us about human history and how it can be used to improve human health. They also caution against assumptions that differences between individuals always stem from our DNA, stressing the importance of nongenetic forces and pointing out the limits of our knowledge. The book is thus essential reading for all human geneticists and anyone interested in how we differ and what this means.


  • Preface
  • Perspectives on Human Variation through the Lens of Diversity and Race / Aravinda Chakravarti
  • What Type of Person Are You? Old-Fashioned Thinking Even in Modern Science / Kenneth M. Weiss and Brian W. Lambert
  • Social Diversity in Humans: Implications and Hidden Consequences for Biological Research / Troy Duster
  • Demographic Events and Evolutionary Forces Shaping European Genetic Diversity / Krishna R. Veeramah and John Novembre
  • Genetic Variation and Adaptation in Africa: Implications for Human Evolution and Disease / Felicia Gomez, Jibril Hirbo and Sarah A. Tishkoff
  • A Genomic View of Peopling and Population Structure of India / Partha P. Majumder and Analahba Basu
  • How Genes Have Illuminated the History of Early Americans and Latino Americans / Andres Ruiz-Linares
  • Can Genetics Help Us Understand Indian Social History? / Romila Thapar
  • Race in Biological and Biomedical Research / Richard S. Cooper
  • Personalized Medicine and Human Genetic Diversity / Yi-Fan Lu, David B. Goldstein, Misha Angrist, and Gianpiero Cavalleri
  • Index
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A Post-Genomic Surprise: the molecular reinscription of race in science, law and medicine

Posted in Audio, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, Videos on 2014-11-17 02:12Z by Steven

A Post-Genomic Surprise: the molecular reinscription of race in science, law and medicine

The London School of Economics and Political Science
Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
London, United Kingdom


Troy Duster, Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology
Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy
University of California, Berkeley


Nigel Dodd, Professor of Sociology
London School of Economics

Professor Duster will analyse the resurgence of the idea that racial taxonomies deployed to explain complex social behaviours and outcomes have a biological and genetic basis.

Download the audio (01:29:49/43.2 MB) here. Download the video (01:29:27/767.1 MB) here.

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Mexico boasts a staggering genetic diversity, study shows

Posted in Caribbean/Latin America, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Mexico on 2014-07-02 01:45Z by Steven

Mexico boasts a staggering genetic diversity, study shows

Los Angeles Times

Geoffrey Mohan


▼ DNA offers a nuanced answer to what it means to be Mexican
▼ Ancient genetic signal survived conquest in Mexico
▼ Latino and Hispanic labels don’t do justice to Mexico’s genome

Writers, artists and historians have long pondered what it means to be Mexican. Now science has offered its answer, and it could change how medicine uses racial and ethnic categories to assess disease risk, testing and treatment..

The broadest analysis of the Mexican genome ever undertaken reveals a nation of staggering genetic diversity, where European conquest only thinly masks the ancestral DNA of Native Americans, and where some populations remain as distinct from one another as Europeans are from Chinese, according to findings published Thursday in the journal Science.

Forty researchers, who share Latino heritage as well as professional qualms over the significance of ethnic and racial categories, teamed up across borders to analyze more than 1 million variations in the building blocks of DNA. They examined more than 500 samples collected in Mexico’s remote Indian villages and polyglot cities, and from Mexican Americans in California.

“Because these populations are so rich, so genetically differentiated, you can’t just lump them all in,” said lead investigator Carlos Bustamante, a population geneticist and co-director of Stanford University’s Center for Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics. “You really have to embrace that diversity and think about doing medical genetic studies on a very large scale.”

To illustrate their point, the researchers compared their new genetic data with the results of lung function tests for children in Mexico City and Latinos in the San Francisco Bay Area. They discovered that pulmonary function varied in ways that were mirrored in DNA. It was as if someone with a fraction of Maya ancestry had lungs that were 10 years older than someone with a bit of northern indigenous heritage…

…Researchers not involved in the study, however, caution that correlations between disease risk and ancestry may not have much of a genetic basis at all. In many cases, they might mask socioeconomic or environmental factors — where and how you live.

The suggestion that differences in DNA are responsible for observed differences in lung capacity “is an enormous leap,” said UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster, who has written extensively on the intersection of race, biology and public policy.

Lundy Braun, an Africana studies professor at Brown University who studies the intersection of race and medicine, said medicine’s focus on genetics may be overshadowing other avenues of research.

“The effects of social class on lung function have been largely ignored in favor of the focus on race and ethnic difference,” she said.

Braun and Duster worry that such genomic studies may unwittingly lend legitimacy to widely discredited ideas about racial disparities.

“There is always lurking danger that this kind of research, which emphasizes the genetic structure of ethnic and racial groups, fuels the notion that the biology or genetics of those groups explains their condition,” Duster said…

Read the entire article here.

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Posted in Audio, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2014-04-21 01:12Z by Steven


Season 5, Episode 3, April 2014

Shea Walsh

This hour of Radiolab, a look at race.

When the human genome was first fully mapped in 2000, Bill Clinton, Craig Venter, and Francis Collins took the stage and pronounced that “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” Great words spoken with great intentions. But what do they really mean, and where do they leave us? Our genes are nearly all the same, but that hasn’t made race meaningless, or wiped out our evolving conversation about it.

Guests: Ali Abbas, Dr. Jay Cohn, Richard Cooper, Troy Duster, Tony Frudakis, Malcolm Gladwell, Nell Greenfieldboyce, Wayne Joseph and David Sherrin

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Deep Roots and Tangled Branches

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2012-10-05 03:34Z by Steven

Deep Roots and Tangled Branches

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Troy Duster, Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology
University of California, Berkeley
Also Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge
New York University

People who know their biological parents and grandparents typically take the information for granted. Some have a difficult time empathizing with the passionate genealogical quests of adoptees and, increasingly, products of anonymous sperm banks and other new technologies where one or both genetic contributors are unknown. In recent years, new legislation has enabled people to search for information about genetic progenitors – even in cases where there had been a signed agreement of nondisclosure. The laserlike focus of that search can be as relentless as Ahab’s hunt for the white whale.

Mystery of lineage is the stuff of great literature. Mark Twain made use of it for biting social commentary in his Pudd’nhead Wilson, a story about the mix-up of babies born to a slave and a free person. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière, and Dickens built grand tragedy and enduring comedy on the theme. In England in 2002, a white Englishwoman gave birth to mixed-race twins after a mix-up at an in vitro fertilization clinic. Imagine what Shakespeare would have done with that!

If one person’s passions can be so riled by such a puzzle, imagine the emotions involved when the uncertainty applies to a whole group – say, of 12 million people. The middle passage did just that to Americans of recent African descent. Names were obliterated from record books, and slaves were typically anointed with a new single first name. Sometimes no names were recorded, just the slaves’ numbers, ages, and genders. Some African-Americans have deliberately and actively participated in the erasure, showing no desire to pursue a genealogical trail. For others, fragments of oral history generate a fierce longing to do the detective work.

That is the case among the prominent subjects featured in “African American Lives,” a two-night, four-part PBS series scheduled for February 1 and 8. The host and executive co-producer is Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard. Gates has assembled eight notably successful African-Americans, among them the media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey, the legendary music producer Quincy Jones, and the film star Whoopi Goldberg. Each participant, along with Gates, is the subject of some serious professional family-tree tracing. There are surprises for each of them, and the series has undeniable human-interest appeal…

Read the entire article here.

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What Can DNA Really Tell Us About Race?

Posted in Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Videos on 2010-09-20 04:55Z by Steven

What Can DNA Really Tell Us About Race?

Unviersity of California

Introduction by
Howard Winnant, Professor of Sociology
University of California, Santa Barbara

Troy Duster, Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology
University of California, Berkeley

Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge
New York University

One of the leading authorities on race and science, Troy Duster discusses how the understanding of race is being reshaped by the genomics revolution. Sometimes unintentionally and sometimes not so innocently, genomics may be generating a new and more sophisticated racism, not so different from the eugenics-based and criminological racism that flourished in decades gone by. Series: “Voices” [7/2007] [Public Affairs] [Humanities] [Science] [Show ID: 13008]

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Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limits – and Caveat Emptor

Posted in Africa, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-07-23 19:17Z by Steven

Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limits – and Caveat Emptor

Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 22, Issue 3-4 (July-August 2009)
Pages 16-18

Troy Duster, Professor of Sociology
New York University

Direct consumer use of DNA  tests for ancestry tracing has taken off in the last five years, and we are not just talking about probes for first-generation genetic lineage as in the “Who’s your daddy?” tests popularized on daytime television.  Since 2002, nearly a half-million people have purchased tests from at least two dozen companies marketing direct-to-consumer kits.  The motives for testing range from the desire for ancestral links to those who lived on other continents five-hundred plus years ago to a more modest interest in reconstructing family histories.  For many African-Americans, the quest to find a link to regions and peoples of sub-Saharan Africa can take on a spiritual or even messianic quest, at least partially explained by the fact that the Middle Passage across the Atlantic during the slave trade explicitly and purposefully obliterated linguistic, cultural, religious, political and kinship ties.  The 2006 PBS television series, African American Lives, brought this quest into sharp relief.  First celebrity and later ordinary Blacks were mesmerized by stories of DNA matches that claimed to reveal or refute specific ancestral links to Africa, to Native American heritage, and surprising to some, East Asian or European populations.

In sharp contrast, CBS’ 60 minutes aired a dramatic segment in the fall of 2007 (October 7) that portrayed a direct and sharp challenge to the claims-making about such ancestry testing.  The segment began with Vy Higgensen, an African-American woman from New York’s Harlem triumphantly affirming her connection to “new kin” (one of whom was a white male cattle rancher from Missouri).  But as the program unfolds, we see a disturbing cloud of doubt drift over the last part of the segment that ends with a less than subtle hint at specious claims.  A first test from the company African Ancestry, claims that Higgensen is linked to ancestors in the Sierra Leone, the Mende people.  She rejoices. “I am thrilled!  It puts a name, a place, a location, a people!”  But then she is shown the results of a second test, from another company, Relative Genetics, which claims that she instead has a genetic match to the Wobe tribe of the Ivory Coast.  She seems unruffled.  Yet a third test, from Trace Genetics, claims that her ancestors are from Senegal, the Mendenka.  Now she seems agitated, visibly concerned, confused – and most certainly disappointed that what began as a definitive match to a particular group or region of Africa has now turned into a “you pick which one you want to believe” game.

What can DNA tell us about our genetic lineage, and where does it fall short? What explains Vy Higgensen’s multiple results from different testing sites? Flawed methodology? Partial truths hyped as definitive findings? Did the testing companies use different methods or deploy different reference populations – or both?…

…There is a yet more ominous and troubling element of the reliance upon DNA analysis to determine who we are in terms of lineage, identity, and identification. The very technology that tells us what proportion of our ancestry can be linked, proportionately, to sub-Saharan Africa (ancestry-informative markers) is the same being offered to police stations around the country to “predict” or “estimate” whether the DNA left at a crime scene belongs to a white or black person. This “ethnic estimation” using DNA relies on a social definition of the phenotype (the observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences). That is, in order to say that someone is 85 percent African, we must know who is 100 percent African. Any molecular, population, or behavioral geneticist who uses the term “percent European” or “percent Native American” is obliged to disclose that the measuring point of this “purity” (100 percent) is a statistical artifact that begins not with the DNA, but with a researcher adopting the folk categories of race and ethnicity…

Read the entire article here.

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Race and Reification in Science

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-03-14 19:24Z by Steven

Race and Reification in Science

Science Magazine
Volume 307
pages 1050-1051

Troy Duster, Professor of Sociology
New York University

Alfred North Whitehead warned many years ago about “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (1), by which he meant the tendency to assume that categories of thought coincide with the obdurate character of the empirical world. If we think of a shoe as “really a shoe,” then we are not likely to use it as a hammer (when no hammer is around). Whitehead’s insight about misplaced concreteness is also known as the fallacy of reification. Recent research in medicine and genetics makes it even more crucial to resist actively the temptation to deploy racial categories as if immutable in nature and society…

Read the entire article here.

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Race in a Genetic World

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Social Science, Women on 2010-03-14 18:49Z by Steven

Race in a Genetic World

Harvard Magazine
Volume 110, Number 5
May-June 2008

Duana Fullwiley
Photograph by Stu Rosner

“I am an African American,” says Duana Fullwiley, “but in parts of Africa, I am white.” To do fieldwork as a medical anthropologist in Senegal, she says, “I take a plane to France, a seven- to eight-hour ride. My race changes as I cross the Atlantic. There, I say, ‘Je suis noire,’ and they say, ‘Oh, okay—métisse—you are mixed.’ Then I fly another six to seven hours to Senegal, and I am white. In the space of a day, I can change from African American, to métisse, to tubaab [Wolof for “white/European”]. This is not a joke, or something to laugh at, or to take lightly. It is the kind of social recognition that even two-year-olds who can barely speak understand. Tubaab,’ they say when they greet me.”

Is race, then, purely a social construct? The fact that racial categories change from one society to another might suggest it is. But now, says Fullwiley, assistant professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies, genetic methods, with their precision and implied accuracy, are being used in the same way that physical appearance has historically been used: “to build—to literally construct—certain ideas about why race matters.”

Genetic science has revolutionized biology and medicine, and even rewritten our understanding of human history. But the fact that human beings are 99.9 percent identical genetically, as Francis Collins and Craig Venter jointly announced at the White House on June 26, 2000, when the rough draft of the human genome was released, risks being lost, some scholars fear, in an emphasis on human genetic difference. Both in federally funded scientific research and in increasingly popular practice—such as ancestry testing, which often purports to prove or disprove membership in a particular race, group, or tribe—genetic testing has appeared to lend scientific credence to the idea that there is a biological basis for racial categories.

In fact, “There is no genetic basis for race,” says Fullwiley, who has studied the ethical, legal, and social implications of the human genome project with sociologist Troy Duster at UC [University of California], Berkeley. She sometimes quotes Richard Lewontin, now professor of biology and Agassiz professor of zoology emeritus, who said much the same thing in 1972, when he discovered that of all human genetic variation (which we now know to be just 0.1 percent of all genetic material), 85 percent occurs within geographically distinct groups, while 15 percent or less occurs between them. The issue today, Fullwiley says, is that many scientists are mining that 15 percent in search of human differences by continent…

Read the entire article here.

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