Even with the human genome in hand, geneticists are split about how to deal with issues of race, genetics and medicine.
Some favor using genetic markers to sort humans into groups based on ancestral origin – groups that may show meaningful health differences. Others argue that genetic variations across the human species are too gradual to support such divisions and that any categorisation based on genetic differences is arbitrary.
These issues have been discussed in depth by a multidisciplinary group – ranging from geneticists and psychologists to historians and philosophers – led by Sandra Soo-Jin Lee of Stanford University, California.
Now the group has released a set of 10 guiding principles for the scientific community, published as an open letter in this week's Genome Biology.
Here is my commentary on each of the "commandments":
1. All races are created equalThis is a vague statement that is false for two reasons: (i) for any particular single trait, there is a wealth of evidence that one race may be genetically better than another, e.g., Caucasoids are inherently more likely to get skin cancer than Negroids. (ii) there is no way set-in-stone to rand two groups based on a number of many different traits. But, this is an obvious statement: if someone is beautiful and dumb and another one is ugly and intelligent, then you can't say that one is better than another: it depends on what importance you assign to different traits.
No genetic data has ever shown that one group of people is inherently superior to another. Equality is a moral value central to the idea of human rights; discrimination against any group should never be tolerated.
2. An Argentinian and an Australian are more likely to have differences in their DNA than two ArgentiniansCorrect, although populations are hardly mixing at a very high rate even in our interconnected world, but definitely more so than in pre-Columbian times.
Groups of human beings have moved around throughout history. Those that share the same culture, language or location tend to have different genetic variations than other groups. This is becoming less true, though, as populations mix.
3. A person's history isn't written only in his or her genesEssentially correct, since groups and individuals differ both because of genes and because of culture.
Everyone's genetic material carries a useful, though incomplete, map of his or her ancestors' travels. Studies looking for health disparities between individuals shouldn't rely solely on this identity. They should also consider a person's cultural background.
4: Members of the same race may have different underlying geneticsCorrect in the sense that there is variation within races. Also, in the sense that socially-defined races such as "black" and "Hispanic" do not correspond perfectly to biological races. "Blacks", at least in the United States are usually thought of as partial Negroids, and "Hispanics" are usually thought as Spanish speakers who tend to have a variable amount of Caucasoid and American Mongoloid ancestry.
Social definitions of what it means to be "Hispanic" or "black" have changed over time. People who claim the same race may actually have very different genetic histories.
5. Both nature and nurture play important parts in our behaviors and abilitiesEssentially correct. However, this statement is often used to "ease the blow" of the fact that races may indeed have genetic differences that affect outcomes irrespective of environments, or at least in the range of environments that people tend to find themselves in in the 21st century.
Trying to use genetic differences between groups to show differences in intelligence, violent behaviors or the ability to throw a ball is an oversimplification of much more complicated interactions between genetics and environment.
6. Researchers should be careful about using racial groups when designing experimentsNo disagreement here.
When scientists decide to divide their subjects into groups based on ethnicity, they need to be clear about why and how these divisions are made to avoid contributing to stereotypes.
7. Medicine should focus on the individual, not the race
Although some diseases are connected to genetic markers, these markers tend to be found in many different racial groups. Overemphasising genetics may promote racist views or focus attention on a group when it should be on the individual.
Focusing on the individual is a noble goal for the future. Doctors don't have infinite time and resources to study the individual in all its particulars, so they work by placing him and his condition in a few relevant categories, e.g., "old white male". The category "white" may be of little relevance depending if one has a broken limb but of greater relevance if one has a skin pathology.
Individuals are real, but we don't really perceive individuals: we perceive a cloud of categories and attributes about individuals, as time, knowledge, and interest allows, and one of these categories -and not an insignificant one- is their race.
8. The study of genetics requires cooperation between experts in many different fields
Human disease is the product of a mishmash of factors: genetic, cultural, economic and behavioral. Interdisciplinary efforts that involve the social sciences are more likely to be successful.
Scientists should try to make scientific results accessible to the public without fueling misconceptions. A big part of this is being honest about race-related research, something which many scientists holding a politically correct "races don't exist/races are social constructs" seem unwilling to do.
9. Oversimplified science feeds popular misconceptions
Policy makers should be careful about simplifying and politicising scientific data. When presenting science to the public, the media should address the limitations of race-related research.
10. Genetics 101 should include a history of racismGenetics 101 should focus on the science of genetics, nothing more and nothing less. It should impart on the student correct notions about the science, and about differences between groups.
Any high school or college student learning about genetics should also learn about misguided attempts in the past to use science to justify racism. New textbooks should be developed for this purpose.
UPDATE (July 19):
The Genome biology open letter on which the New Scientist article is based.