On BioScience and Life and Such

Find me a new term for “race”, please

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2009 at 9:02 am

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Races doesn’t exist – well fine, but how do you want to label our genetic differences then. Stop using the “term” race because it leads to racism would be like treating a symptom while disregarding the disease.

Reading this post on Greg Laden’s blog we learn that using the term “race” in derogatory ways lead to racism. Well, duh, thank you captain obvious.

The discussion following the post adds some nuance to the subject, but still fails to adress the real problem: if you do not want to use “race”, which term would you want to use to describe groups who share a set of genetic traits ? Ethnicity maybe, a label of geographical location maybe, – what about “of Caucasian ancestry albeit with significant genetic differences to other Caucasians”.

Genetic traits can be grouped. In my work I need to do this when I do pharmacogenetics. Some of the genetic markers I need to test for are very common in Caucasians, some are very common in people of Asian ancestry and yet others are very common in people of African ancestry. Testing for all of them would be overwhelmingly many (and too expensive) so we need to make a selection of the ones that are most likely to be present in our patient population. And, we have to make this selection based on ethnicity, geographical loation of ancestry, or “race” if you will. I do this selection without any thought of other aspects of the word “race” . I do this to provide the best care I can to our patients.

One of the arguments in the above mentioned debate (and in the respective friendfeed entry) is that we do not need a label for these groups, – but I do ! To do my work in a proper manner I really do !

If anyone labels me a racist over having to do this, they are creating the problem rather than helping to solve it.

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  1. Ancestry. “This historic ambiguity is why term “race” has been replaced by “ancestry” to mean “the total inherited character of a population” in human biology.”


  2. Also, racist is just a fashionable witch term like “atheist” of previous generations. The common use has nothing to do with the actual scientific substance of the belief, but instead represents a collection of negative traits. What does the disbelief in the supernatural have to do with being a evil loner hedonist? What does the understanding of biological human ancestry have to do with being a backwards violent hatemonger?

  3. Thank you Andrew. “Ancestry” it is.

  4. Oh, but you still need to put a group label in front of “ancestry”- would that be too much to handle for politically correct “race”-haters out there ??

  5. Stop using the “term” race because it leads to racism, as well as stop using the “term” science because it leads to scientism…
    Like Karl Popper, I am not a slave of the “word”.

  6. “Ethnicity” is probably a less loaded word. I think Greg’s point is that by and large there are not enough genetic differences to define “races” by. Most Caucasians have lots of African genes and vice versa. Travel back more than a few generations and the nonlocality of a person’s genome becomes very apparent.
    I think in your work you are noticing genetic markers that appear with more frequency in certain ethnic groups, so I would use the term ethnicity. In fact, it is already in use on government forms throughout the USA. People are usually asked what ethnicity they identify with, not what race they are. So the term “ethnicity” might make make your paperwork a little easier since you will be using the term already used on government forms and by many corporations.
    I think it’s important for two reasons: 1. because genetic markers such as you work with are not devices by which “races” can be defined, and 2. the history of abuse under the banner of racism in this case demands we use a less emotionally charged word.

  7. Ethnicity is fine too, but again you need to put a group label in front – which could potentially make “ethnicity” equally emotionally charged.

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