Gene studies suggest ‘races’ may exist but sociologists push back, fearing stereotypes

| March 28, 2014
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This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Humans, like all animals, are born with millions of individual characteristics with lots of variation. But, we seem to be the only organism on the planet obsessed with sorting ourselves into groups. With the exploding availability of genetic information, some sociologists worry that we may use this data to implement a ‘new racism’ where genetics proxies for skin pigmentation.

Paul Voosen summarizes the newest sociological thinking on the issue for The Chronicle of Higher Education: race is only and ever a social construct and there is no appreciable difference between humans, genetic or otherwise. Rhazib Kahn, a genetics PhD student at University of California-Davis takes the opposing view at when you look at genomes in the human population the data sort into groups, regrettably or not. Kahn says sociologists aren’t engaging with current research:

“Whenever I try and delve into the topic it seems that sociologists don’t actually engage with the latest genomic research, but simply rehash older models which refute naive essentialism which biologists would never find plausible in the first place.”

However, both writers are drawn to University of Oregon sociologist Jiannbin L. Shiao’s idea that sociologists look at race as the social construct put on top of genomic ancestry data just as we talk now about the difference between gender and the biological idea of sex. Shiao adopts the biology based concept of clines, groups that develops out of the genetic data, a break from the idea that “races” don’t exist at all.

Perhaps this is early evidence that sociologists are more willing to embrace emerging genetic data rather than denying it for moral reasons. As noted biologist A.W.F Edwards writes:

“A proper analysis of human data reveals a substantial amount of information about genetic differences. What use, if any, one makes of it is quite another matter. But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality.”

Throughout history, conflict between societies’ normative values, what we think ought to be, and scientific evidence, what is, has emerged. Kahn summarizes the issue:

“Certainly over the years I have encountered many people who have come to the conclusion that the standard sociological arguments about the fictional nature of racial categories are false, and derive from the caricature that crude racist positions are tenable and correct, and defensible on normative grounds. I have to say that part of this is due to the appeal to science by those who defend liberal democratic values, when that science may not stand up to deeper inspection. Basing your ought on is is not always wrongheaded in my opinion, but you should be very clear on what you are doing.”


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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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