Under the skin

Nathaniel Comfort in Nature:

Is race biologically real? A clutch of books published this year argue the question. All miss the point.

RaceMichael Yudell's Race Unmasked and Robert Sussman's The Myth of Race can be read as inadvertent retorts to former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance, published while the former were in the press. Wade's book is by far the most insidious, but all three are polemics that become mired in proving (in Wade's case) or disproving (in the others') whether race is biological and therefore 'real'. This question is a dead end, a distraction from what is really at stake in this debate: human social equality.

Race is certainly real — ask any African American. It originated long before the science of genetics, as sets of phenotypes and stereotypes. These correlate with haplotypes, clusters of genetic variation. In this sense, race is genetically 'real'. But those correlations depend on judgement calls. Wade cites population-genetics studies that identify three principal races: caucasian, African and East Asian. Elsewhere he cites five, adding Australasian and Native American; or seven, splitting caucasians into people from Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. A study in Scientific Reports this year identified 19 “ancestral components”, including Mozabites, Kalash and Uygurs (D. Shriner et al. Sci. Rep. 4, 6055; 2014). Palaeogeneticist Svante Pääbo and others have revealed the underlying human genetic variation to be a series of gradients. Whether and how one parses that variation depends on one's training, inclination and acculturation. So: race is real and race is genetic, but that does not mean that race is 'really' genetic. The completion of the draft human-genome sequence in 2000 led some optimists to forecast the end of race (one of them, Craig Venter, wrote the foreword to Yudell's book), but use of the term in the biomedical literature has actually increased since then. For clinicians, race is a matter of pragmatism. Although each of us is genetically and epigenetically unique, our ancestry leaves footprints in our genomes. Consequently, clinicians use familiar racial categories such as 'black' or 'Ashkenazi Jewish' as crude markers of genotypes, in a step towards individualized medicine. For them, the reality of race is immaterial; diagnosis and treatment are what count (see page 301).

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