On BioScience and Life and Such

On race and genetics

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2008 at 3:10 pm

In the previous post “A refreshing view on James Watson“, I referred to the website HonestThinking. The background was a post on this website pointing out the lack of scientific evidence for the unison discreditation of Watson. This has spurred a debate in some (local) newspapers about the validity of the term “race”. Race it is argued, is a social construct used to stigmatize groups. In addition there are claims that there isn’t any biological/genetic evidence to indicate that we are more different between races than within a race. Race is clearly then, a controversial term.

HonestThinking has replied to, and rejected, these arguments elegantly and has referred to the brilliant website Edge. Edge has a piece written by Mark Pagel on this issue which is very worth reading (see quote below).

As a reminder that knowledge is key to avoid prejudice, enlightened biologists do not view race as controversial. We are familiar with genetic diversity. We know that there are significant differences between ethnic groups. Our community does not associate these genetic differences with political or racist issues. James Watson on the other hand, did, – and that was hopefully, the real reason for his job-suspension. Our challenge is to communicate the scientific truth in a manner exactly opposite to Dr. Watson’s.

The scientific truth is that there are genetic differences with biological implications. These differences are larger than we previously thought. Not only are there differences in protein encoding regions of DNA, there are also differences leading to differential gene expression and in addition, there are differences in genetic insertions/deletions in the human genome. Add to this a variation in gene copy number and the multitude of ways we can be different at the genetic level becomes apparent. Altogether the 99,9 % genetic similarity we thought existed between humans is probably much lower.

On top of the genetic differences there are epigenetic differences that can contribute to phenotype variation (difference in appearance). Thus, we are all substantially different, but that does not mean we are of unequal value. It just means we’re not the same, – let’s be thankful and appreciative of that. I know I am.

Ending quote from Mark Pagel in Edge’s “The World Question Center”:

What this all means is that, like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations — including differences that may even correspond to old categories of ‘race’ — that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem. This in no way says one group is in general ‘superior’ to another, or that one group should be preferred over another. But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.”


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