National Human Genome Research Institute Debates Race

One of the pieces to appear in the latest Science is Constance Holden’s synopsis of the core issues discussed at last week’s meeting of the National Human Genome Research Institute: defining geographic populations, handling interpretations of race (especially as as a sociopolitical term), and phrasing results of population genetic studies.

I paid cursory attention to the etymological aspects of the piece. Yes, I know Amerindian isn’t how some Native Americans want to be identified as, and there are some problems with figuring out where European populations end and where Asian populations begin. But I’m hopeful, as more individual genomes are sequenced and released, that genetic patterns can better define populations than cultural and geographic categories have in the past. We don’t necessarily have to rephrase terms or agree on new ones, but can possibly use biological terms, such as allele frequencies, as defining characteristics of populations.

Holden also reviews a discussion on interpretations of fitness — i.e. how some of the public may interpret Carlos Bustamante’s recent Nature paper, where he concluded that European-Americans had more deleterious gene mutations than African-Americans. Does that mean there’s some sort of superiority? No, but that doesn’t mean the public won’t interpret it like that. Should scientists hold back on their reporting their results or sugar coat them just to prevent the public from over analyzing them? I don’t think so.

The must read part of this news piece, especially for anyone news piece for anyone interested in the current state of population genetics and molecular anthropology, is the heated debate between Bruce Lahn and Celeste Condit, a professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia, Athens. Bruce Lahn, as you may know reported 4 years ago that selection in mutations of two genes (ASPM & microcephalin) regulating brain development is more common in Eurasians than in Africans. Condit argued that Lahn’s results have a political message embedded, a common mistake that many uneducated critics of population genetics repeat. We’ve had similiar misconceptions raised on Lahn retored back that some…

“are almost like creationists” in their unwillingness to acknowledge that the brain is not exempt from selection pressures.”

Oh snap! The whole meeting didn’t seem to be fruitless though, most agreed that suppressing freedom of reporting results as they are observed in the name of political correctness is not conduicive to the scientific method.

3 thoughts on “National Human Genome Research Institute Debates Race

  1. When are Americans going to give up euphemisms?

    An Amerindian is no Indian, nor is he a Native American. He probably has his own name for his own people, and we should respect that.

    But then, everybody needs a general category, and Native American may have to serve for the time being.

    Getting on to slightly more controversial subjects…a [edited] is a [edited] is a [edited].

    God knows, we English have put up with being called Limeys for long enough by you Yanks.

  2. It strikes me that if one wants to discuss professional ethical responsibility – instead of arguing that scientists have a duty to repress results one could argue that scientists have a duty to publicly contextualize results. Under this argument, professionally ethical scientists would be duty bound to teach the public how to interpret their research. Intermediaries, like journalists, would be used to help fulfill this obligation. However, they would not have primary responsibility. If results are taken out of their proper methodological context and used in an inappropriate way intermediaries or by the general public, the scientist will have at least done her best to oppose this misuse.

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