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Thursday, November 17th, 2005


Race To the Finish : Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (04 Edition)

by Jenny Reardon

Race Without Racism?

A review by David J. Rothman & Sheila M. Rothman

One might have anticipated that in the aftermath of World War II, and the near-universal rejection of Nazi eugenic theories, the concept of race would have been totally discredited and gladly abandoned by all disciplines. But the history of the idea turns out to be remarkably different. Although still associated in the popular mind with a murderous ideology, in science and medicine the category of race has not merely survived, it has flourished. In this post-human genome era, it serves as an essential organizing concept for research and presentation of data. How race managed to overcome its past, why it continues to be used, and what the implications are for both science and society, are the subjects of Jenny Reardon's smart, informative, and aptly titled book. Every generation, it seems, is destined to do battle with the meaning and the relevance of race, and her account of the short, unhappy history of the Human Diversity Project makes clear that we are no exception.

Why did race survive in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust? The answer is that biologists in the 1950s and 1960s insisted that the concept was indispensable to their work, and they were fully confident that they could assign peoples to races without being racist. They scrupulously differentiated their work from pseudo-scientists who used race to create hierarchy (Aryans at the top, Jews and Gypsies at the bottom), and to posit innate human differences (Germans as vigorous, Jews as diseased). From their perspective, all species, of which homo sapiens were one, were composed of races -- that is, reproductive communities that generated common traits among their members. Only by acknowledging race and analyzing its formation could investigators understand human variation and evolutionary processes. Race was the indispensable tool for tracing the dynamics of human evolution and diversity. What could be less racist than that?

Two well-known UNESCO Statements on Race, one written in 1950 and the other in 1951, exemplified the approach. Historians have usually celebrated the documents as marking the end of racial theories and racist science. Reardon offers a more nuanced view. The UNESCO Statements, particularly the 1951 version, reflected and re-inforced the idea that race was an essential component of genetic research. Race allowed geneticists to analyze inherited differences within a species by focusing on the frequency with which given traits appeared within populations or races (they used the terms interchangeably) that were geographically isolated. As the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, one of the drafters of the UNESCO statements, declared, racial groupings facilitated the study of the "relative differences in the frequencies of genes." He and others went on to assert that these statistical measures of frequency did not imply the innate superiority of any particular group or trait. Distributions of genes were random, with no hierarchical distinctions. You could have race without racism.

Race without racism was the approach that dominated the postwar decades. Carleton Coon, the anthropologist who was so fierce a proponent of innate racial differences that some colleagues considered him racist, defended the UNESCO position on the grounds that the "no-race school ... ignores natural selection, which screens the passage of genetic traits from one race to another." To presume that races did not exist was to act "as if Darwin had drowned on the voyage of The Beagle." His more esteemed colleague, Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of the field of population genetics, elaborated the position: "If races have to be 'discrete units,' then there are no races." More, if races are divided only by visible physical characteristics, such as skin color or hair texture, then the concept is meaningless. But race had another meaning: "Races arise chiefly as a result of the ordering of the genetic variability by natural selection in conformity with the environmental conditions in different territories." In other words, "Variability precedes race and serves as a raw material for its formation." Race was derived from variation, and was not an a priori explanation for variation.

Still, could the concept of race be invoked without buying into a racial hierarchy and judging some traits to be superior to others? Biologists doggedly insisted that the answer was yes, and to further buttress their position they argued that not all members of a given race were "equal in endowment." The second UNESCO Statement on Race carefully distinguished between intra-group and inter-group differences: "It is possible, though not proved, that some types of innate capacity for intellectual and emotional responses are commoner in one human group than another, but it is certain that, within a single group, innate capacities vary as much as, if not more than, they do between different groups." So even if it turned out that one race was more intellectually gifted than another, no one need be concerned, because any given individual from another race could be just as intellectually gifted.

The most powerful and influential statement of this position came from Richard Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard and a former student of Dobzhansky. In 1972, in his classic article "The Apportionment of Human Diversity," Lewontin used the new technology of protein electrophoresis to analyze the proportion of genetic variation that could be accounted for by differences between racial groups and individuals within the groups. By demonstrating statistically that within-group differences in the human species were greater than between-group differences, Lewontin concluded that traditional groupings of race accounted for a very small proportion of genetic variation (approximately 6 percent) and individual differences within a racial group were considerable (85 percent).

Lewontin believed that his finding demonstrated that "human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations." But most of his peers were comfortable using race as an analytical category and measuring differences between races, provided that they always remembered to make two qualifications: no race or inherited trait was better than any other, and any one member of a race might be less like other members of his race and more like members of other races. However dreadful the past abuses, race was a biological fact.

Taking off from this position, population geneticists in the 1950s and 1960s were eager to study isolated populations, the more geographically remote, the better. Modeling their research on Darwin's studies, they were convinced that people residing in such places would provide valuable clues for understanding human evolution, population movements, and race formation. Indeed, they worried that if the task was not quickly accomplished, the groups would disappear. As Dobzhansky wrote in 1950, "Because of the rapid development of communications even in the most remote corners of the world, and the consequent mixing of previously isolated tribes, such investigation cannot be long postponed ... our generation is the last one which can still secure data of momentous significance for the solution of the problem of the origin of human races."

Although his generation did not make much progress toward meeting the goal, the creation of the Human Genome Project in 1990, and the considerable financial and intellectual investment that went into mapping the human genome, breathed new life into the agenda. In the summer of 1991, as Reardon explains, a group of population geneticists proposed "to sample and archive the world's human genetic diversity." The DNA of geographically and technologically isolated populations in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa represented, as one organizer noted, "rare and valuable resources to study human origins and patterns of population genetics." As Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a pre-eminent population geneticist and one of the originators of the project, declared: "The populations that can tell us the most about our evolutionary past are those that have been isolated for some time, are likely to be linguistically and culturally distinct, and are often surrounded by geographic barriers." These "vanishing populations" might disappear before science could gain knowledge about the evolutionary process from them, enrich our understanding of race formation, and enable us to better understand and treat a variety of diseases.

The proposal quickly won support from the NIH, and the organizers anticipated launching the Human Genome Diversity Project in 1994. But to their astonishment, the project was bitterly attacked for a number of reasons, of which scientific racism was the most fundamental and damaging. Population geneticists may not have had difficulty with the idea of race, but a number of indigenous populations certainly did. The Diversity Project died a slow death over the next several years, and although parts of its mission have been taken over by other projects, Reardon's intellectual autopsy of the enterprise is very much needed.

The sources of the problem, Reardon shows, had nothing to do with the reputations of the project's leading proponents. They carried impeccable credentials, and not only in science; they were active and energetic defenders of human rights. The geneticist Robert Cook-Deegan had conducted investigations for Physicians for Human Rights on health conditions among Kurds in Iraq. Mary-Claire King, who helped identify the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, had used genetic techniques to help unite grandmothers with grandchildren who had been kidnapped by the military during Argentina's Dirty War. Cavalli-Sforza had exposed William Shockley's gross misuse of IQ data and race. They were assuredly not greedy investors trying to exploit the DNA of "primitive people" for their own financial gain. "It will be essential," they made clear from the outset, "to integrate the study of peoples with response to their related needs." They did not intend to "sample and run."

And yet objections and anxieties about the project quickly surfaced. The earliest salvos came from anthropologists who were rankled at their exclusion from the project and deeply troubled by its conceptual orientation. Their first line of attack was on the presumption that collecting and analyzing the DNA of seemingly intact and isolated populations would help explain human diversity. From their perspective, sampling DNA without taking into account complex cultural factors such as group adaptation and structure reduced human experience to a genetic process. What was at stake, as Reardon explains, was not "just questions about how nature should be understood, but also about how societies and cultures should be ordered, for whom, and to what ends."

The anthropologists were also disturbed by the labels the project applied to populations. After hearing Cavalli-Sforza discuss its approach, one of them observed that he had used the term "ethnic group" to refer to European populations and "tribes" to refer to Africans. Was there not an implicit condescension, or even racism, here? In this same spirit, one of the project's early drafts explained that the populations to be sampled would be sufficiently isolated so that the chances of "miscegenation" would be reduced. In using such a term, was science still mired in racist thinking? As one critic concluded, the project represented "21st-century technology applied to 19th-century biology."

Even more vehement protest came from the very groups who were to be the objects of the research. No sooner was the project announced than indigenous rights organizations charged that it threatened their identity and autonomy and demanded that it be halted. These advocacy groups owed much of their existence to the controversies that followed on Western efforts to collect and to analyze plants and medicines found only in remote countries. The fear was that the outsiders would steal native plants, patent their active agents, reap profits, and give nothing back to their rightful owners.

Whatever the accuracy of the charge -- it was not without some basis -- the organizations moved rapidly and predictably from seeds to genes. One of the most aggressive opponents was the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), whose mission in the 1970s had been to protect the interests of small farmers from exploitation. RAFI was convinced that the Diversity Project was up to the same trick: take the DNA of indigenous populations for the use and gain of others. It was a "Vampire Project," whose goal was "biocolonialism."

The objections were fueled by more than a seed-gene linkage. The Diversity Project could not escape the dark side of race. A clash may have been unavoidable: research does not have a good name among vulnerable populations. When the record ranges from depriving American blacks in the 1950s of access to penicillin so that untreated syphilis could be studied to depriving African blacks of anti-retroviral therapy so the untreated course of AIDS could be studied, there are good reasons to be suspicious of white people carrying syringes and needles to collect blood. But it surely did not help that the Diversity Project organizers were tone-deaf. To them, the inclusion criteria for populations to be studied were neutral; they could not grasp what it meant to the populations to be described as "vanishing," or about to "disappear," or "isolates of historic interest." Viewed by the populations themselves, the researchers were re-creating racial hierarchies. The rich and powerful north was permanent; the south was transient. The one was integrated, the other was isolated. Who gave Western science the authority to define, and to marginalize, certain populations? The question served as a highly effective rallying point for an international campaign that urged "all groups and individuals concerned with indigenous peoples' rights to mobilize public opinion against the case of human communities as material for scientific experimentation and patenting."

Facing this objection, the Diversity Project responded with proposals to invigorate the consent process. They would set up ethics committees among the groups so that there could be a collective as well as individual agreement to the research protocol. But it was too little, too late. The issues went beyond group consent to group identity. Biologists could not have their way with race, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.

Reardon closes her story by observing that there is still no consensus on how, when, and to what ends race should be used -- or, in still broader terms, "what defines human identity at the level of the genome." But even in the absence of such consensus, it should be added, racial categories are entrenched in genetic research, and pervade scientific and medical journals. Take the example of Ashkenazi Jews. Only a few years ago, the term was relatively obscure to anyone outside the group; now it is common in breast cancer literature. "AJ" is a well-known medical acronym in publications and medical charts, and medical residents will begin a presentation on rounds with the phrase: "This 45 year old, well-nourished, Ashkenazi Jewish woman...." Similarly, the first race-based drug, Bidil, has been approved by the FDA to treat heart failure in African Americans. Just a few years ago residents were warned never to begin a presentation with: "This is a forty year old black man...." But with Bidil in the pharmacy, this caution no longer holds. Since racial categories are arguably helpful in diagnosis and treatment, their use is being vigorously defended. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project at the NIH, is one of many who justify applications of racial categories on pragmatic grounds: they are a convenient tool for exploring the genetic origins of disease. The most frequently cited example is the link that has been forged between Ashkenazi Jews and breast cancer.

So race is surely not finished. But its staying power does not come with conceptual clarity or consistency. In an overview of the "biogeography of human populations" that appeared in Nature Genetics in November 2004, two geneticists argued that racial categories are "inadequate descriptors" of genetic variation in populations, and that obvious physical markers such as skin color "are not always good indicators of race," nor are particular language or cultural patterns. Yet they immediately dismiss the idea that race is "biologically meaningless" on the grounds that "the lay person will ridicule that position as nonsense, because people from different parts of the world look different." There are five races, they assert, and each corresponds to a geographic region (Africa, Europe, East Asia, Oceania, and the Americas). Not unexpectedly, having reified race, they caution against using it for purposes of discrimination, although in terms so odd that they are worth quoting: "Statements like 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' ... reflect morality, not science. One can accept this moral imperative and still recognize that all individuals, independently conceived, are genetically unique," that is, not equal.

What can we learn from all this? Not much about race, but a good deal about science and race. As Reardon rightly concludes: "Struggles over the meaning of race and racism are at once contestations over who has the expertise needed to represent the truth about human diversity in nature, and contestations over who has the authority to create just representations of human diversity in society." The answer does not rest with the expertise or the authority of science. Science is a part of the problem, not the solution.

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