Science & Tech, World, Editor's Choice

Genetics and Race: Science is Colorblind

The concept of race seems to be an inherent trait of humanity. While diversity is increasingly accepted and embraced by many, ideologies like white supremacy keep looming on the fringes. Racism is deeply rooted in the fear of the unknown and the rejection of superficial differences. Genetics prove just how arbitrary these notions actually are, and that science actually cannot define or replicate the races as clearly as we use them, making them a primarily social concept.

We all have stereotypical images in our minds when talking about race. When talking about Africans, Asians, Hispanics or Caucasians – we conveniently group them together in our mind as if they were a fixed collective. They certainly share visual characteristics that could be described as a similarity, but just how well does our superficial definition of race hold up scientifically? Not at all, it turns out.

Game Changer: The Human Genome Project

At the turn of the century, the Human Genome Project made an incredible breakthrough that changed the world of genetics forever. The research project was able to decipher the human genome in its entirety, opening the door to a variety of possibilities and research. One of which was the possibility to “go back in time” and research how humanity actually developed.

While the differences in the racial categories we created are visible, it is hardly a scientific evaluation of what humans are and how they differ from one another. It is not a straightforward topic, even in science, but it is safe to say that, in scientific terms, there is no genetic definition of “race”, especially not in the broad terms we use for it.

Humanity evolved over millions of years, shaped by environmental factors, migration, and interbreeding. While there are differences in bloodlines and evolution in certain populations, by now, we all are more similar than we are apart. If we wanted to really start finding appropriate groups according to scientifically verifiable differences we would need way more than a few categories, because we all only differ ever so slightly.

Scientific Evaluation of Genetics and Race

In fact, there have been scientific studies that suggest that people we attribute to different races are not more different than any two people within a race genetically speaking. While there are slight differences that make it possible to determine their broad geographic origin, we are all incredibly similar in our genetic makeup. In 2011, Noah Rosenberg, geneticist and Professor at Stanford University, used a computer program to compare and sort different genetic makeups based on similarity and differences to see just how drastic it would turn out.

When using five different clusters (in accordance with our often used racial groupings) to sort the examined samples it would result in only small differences that could be attributed to broad geographical location, confirming our broad conception of race. However, when choosing a broader or smaller range of clusters, the result would change drastically and suggest completely different makeups of similarities.

The sixth introduced cluster, for example, consisted of a specific Pakistani Tribe that only has a few thousand members. As a result, it has to be concluded that our conception of race cannot be reproduced in scientific research and that our definitions of race are artificial and more subject to interpretation than scientific fact. While there are genetic differences found in our genetics, they are comparably small and wouldn’t warrant categorization like we perform them in our daily lives.

The Myth of Race Debunked?

Rosenberg’s post-genome project study didn’t exhibit mind-blowing news, as it had been previously established just how little races actually differ. Early research already suggested that genetic differences in individuals within a certain race were far greater than in between races.

In 1998, the American Anthropological Association released a written “Statement on Race” stating:

“With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

25 years prior to this statement, Richard Lewontin had already come to a similar result. By analyzing several markers of people across the perceived racial groupings he determined the 94% and 6% difference within and in between races with over 85% of the differences occurring within distinct populations within one race, invalidating the difference in races argument. You may ask, if the Human Genome Project only deciphered the human genome in 2000, how this man went to prove his hypothesis?

Contested Science

It is a well-researched topic, yet it is not a one-sided discussion, nothing in science ever is. Lewontin examined alleles, variants of genes, and came to his conclusion, which has opponents. Alleles, while still being genetically similar across populations and races, cause different observable traits, such as pigmentation. This does not invalidate the fact that we all are genetically similar except minor differences, but it does indicate that the occurrence of alleles could potentially mean that there are other factors that are different across our racial categories.

What is certain, however, is that our conception of race and their differences bear minimal scientific relevance when talking about our fundamental genetic makeup.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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