Human Genome Project may have made traditional race-based measurements of human differences obsolete

Published on January 17, 2005 at 3:19 AM · No Comments

New and sophisticated methods for studying the relationship between human genetic differences, the environment, health and behavior, all made possible by the completion of the Human Genome Project, have made traditional race-based measurements of human differences obsolete, according to numerous authors writing in a special issue of the American Psychologist devoted to Genes, Race, and Psychology in the Genome Era (January, 2005).

American Psychologist is the journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In a series of articles, leading researchers discuss racial health disparities and the controversial area of intelligence, while also carefully outlining specific instances and ways in which researchers should measure or use race. According to the authors, such research requires a careful examination of both environmental and genetic factors, as well as conceptually sound and methodologically rigorous measures of race at a level not yet universal in all research. The special issue also looks at the construct of race in the 21st century, as well as the historical use of the construct in science, including issues of new genetic markers for race vs. self-reported race, racial vs. ancestral identity, racial disparities, and the interaction between genes and the environment. In separate articles, other authors discuss the long-standing and controversial examination of race and intelligence. The backdrop for each of the articles is the high expectation that the completion of the Human Genome Project will lead to dramatic advances in our understanding of health and behavior.

"This special issue takes a comprehensive look at the concept of race and its usefulness in the genome age," says Norman B. Anderson, PhD, editor of the American Psychologist and CEO of the APA. "It reports on the potential research opportunities afforded by new genetic technologies, while also addressing the ethical and legal complexities presented by these new technologies and the information they produce. Furthermore, it acknowledges the controversial role that psychology has played in past theories about the impact of race on intelligence." (click here for a pdf version of the introductory article).

Along a continuum of opinion, the validity of the use of race as a measure in health, social science and genetics research is addressed. Researchers raise the question of whether race measurements can be made in a more nuanced and scientifically sound way, particularly in the light of advances in knowledge due to the Human Genome Project. The question is raised as to whether self-identified race variables, specifically in genetics analyses, should be discarded altogether.

Alexandra Shields, PhD (Georgetown University), and her coauthors suggest the latter. "Given the social risks inherent in using self-identified racial groups in the context of behavioral genetics research and given that more elegant and powerful strategies for controlling for population admixture are now available, we call for an end to the use of self-identified race variables in genetics analyses and for direct measurement of key underlying social and environmental exposures for which race variables have traditionally been used as proxies.”

While an article by Smedley (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Smedley (Institute of Medicine), argues the value of retaining the use of race categories for some purposes including some social policies.

The issue is made up of a series of 10 articles. Highlights are summarized below.


Race and Ethnicity in the Genome Era: The Complexity of the Constructs. Authors Vence L. Bonham, PhD (National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health), Esther Warshauer-Baker, PhD (National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health), and Francis S. Collins, PhD (National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health), write, "We remain optimistic about the benefits that genomic advances will provide for those suffering from psychological disorders, and there is good reason to believe that the incorporation of genomics into behavioral research will generate new insights and areas of investigation. While retaining this enthusiasm, we remain wary of the abuses of the past and the potential for genomic research to harm those who have historically been most vulnerable. We hope that by forging ahead with scientifically rigorous research and accompanying that research with deep inquiry into social, ethical, and legal implications, the promise of genomics will become a reality for all peoples."


Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race. In this article, Anthropologist Audrey Smedley, PhD (Virginia Commonwealth University), and Psychologist Brian D. Smedley, PhD (Institute of Medicine), submit that racialized science—science distinctions based on race—are imprecise and distort human differences. However, while race is a poor construct in science, it is a very relevant construct for social policy concerns. "Race remains a significant predictor of which groups will have greater access to societal goods and resources and which groups will face barriers...the fact of inequality renders race an important social policy concern."


The Meaning of Race in Psychology and How To Change It: A Methodological Perspective. Authors Janet E. Helms, PhD (Boston College), Maryam Jernigan, PhD (Boston College), and Jackquelyn Mascher, PhD (Boston College), state that the use of race categories within psychological research and theory lend credibility to a "conceptually meaningless concept" and should be replaced. They suggest substituting concepts of ethnicity, ethnic group, or ethnic identity for race or racial group, saying this approach would "consider such factors as values, customs, and traditions."


In the Eye of the Storm: Race and Genomics in Research and Practice. Authors Vivian Ota Wang, PhD (National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health), and Stanley Sue, PhD (University of California, Davis), warn of the danger of the imprecise measure of race as a research determinate. "Geneticists and social and behavioral scientists and clinicians must recognize how their own unclear use of race creates havoc for scientific, clinical, and health policy enterprises," state the authors. Race, according to the authors, is a "second-order construct" that is too often used as a proxy for assumed biological, genetic, social, psychological, and other phenotypic factors, including people's beliefs about ancestry, nationality, language(s)/accent, religion, skin color, and racial identity, and, as such, limits the value of the research.

"Until population (and race) variables are more methodologically robust and used more consistently, social, behavioral, and genetic research will be limited in answering the questions related to biological and psychological differences, treatment efficiency, diagnostic bias, and service delivery."


Intelligence, Race, and Genetics. Authors Robert J. Sternberg, PhD (Yale University), Elena L. Grigorenko, PhD (Yale University), and Kenneth K. Kidd, PhD (Yale University), submit that research that attempts to link genetics and race with intelligence is invalid—based in folklore and not in science. Race is a social construction, not a scientific one, according to the authors, and studies of the relationship between race and other constructs may serve (or harm) social ends, but they do not serve science well.

"There is nothing special about the skin color that serves as a basis for differentiating humans into so-called “races," the authors state.

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