Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (In-Formation)
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
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
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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