News

Developing: Debate on ‘Race’ and Genomics

Last month, Harvard geneticist David Reich published a New York Times op-ed, entitled “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’” In the piece, Reich argues that geneticists “are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.”

The article prompted 67 natural and social scientists, legal scholars and public health researchers to draft an open letter in response to Reich’s claims. The letter, published by Buzzfeed, asserts that Reich misrepresents critiques of of the use of ‘race’ and ‘population’ in biomedical and genetic research.  It urges collaboration between geneticists and their social science and humanities colleagues so that more careful thinking and writing can be brought to bear upon consequential and controversial questions about how human differences should be ordered and understood.

In the weeks since, this debate has carried on. As it develops, this page will serve as repository for related stories, and will be regularly updated with new information and new links.

We will pay particular attention to how this debate is playing out differently in different countries.  Professor of Sociology and Science and Justice Director Jenny Reardon, who helped draft the Buzzfeed response, and who just finished a second book on the condition of living with genomes, has participated in this continuing discussion from Germany.  There she is collaborating with historians and population geneticists who are responding to efforts to re-introduce into Germany genetic definitions of human groups.  Since WWII, it has been taboo in the German context to use the term Rasse (the German word for ‘race’) to refer to humans.  However, many major German language media outlets are mobilizing the Reich op ed to argue that this taboo should end.  To give the reader some context for this current debate, in addition to the news coverage, we provide links to relevant academic articles.  We also provide links to coverage in other parts of the world.

 

Resources (updated regularly):

Op-Ed and Initial Response:

Reich’s Op-Ed:

 

Buzzfeed response co-authored by natural and social scientists, legal scholars, and public health researchers:

 

Responses in the Popular Press:

United States:

Germany:

Switzerland:

Austria:

United Kingdom:

  • The Unwelcome Revival of ‘Race Science’The Guardian, March 2, 2018
    • Writing several weeks prior to Reich’s op-ed, Gavin Evans describes race science as “debunked” and notes how race science is taken up by the alt-right and defended as “standing up for uncomfortable truths.”
  • How ancient DNA is transforming our view of the pastBBC News, April 12, 2018
    • A BBC reporter asks Reich about Buzzfeed response.  Rather than responding to substance to the critique, Reich says he is “very pleased to be part of introducing this discussion.”

France:

Korea:

  • Race, Genetics and Us – Korea Times, March 30
    • Jason Lim questions Reich’s optimism about the ability of society to not ‘weaponize’ findings about race and genomics.

Canada:

  • Opinion: Is ‘Race” a Made-Up Label?The Globe and Mail, April 14, 2018
    • Margaret Wente defends Reich for “expanding the range of what is sayable on a topic that is explosive, uncomfortable, and also increasingly inescapable.”
  • Why Your DNA Test Won’t Reveal the Real You – The Globe and Mail, May 4, 2018
    • Timothy Caulfield argues that race is a “biological fiction” and that attempts to attach genetics to human classification, as exemplified by genetic ancestry testing, tend to reify and legitimate racist perspectives.

India:

  • The Science is ComingIndia Times Magazine, April 5, 2018
    • Razib Khan compares Reich’s op-ed to “tossing a grenade into the public square,” but defends his work and his book as not controversial, but “wondrous.”

 

Race and Genomics Debates in the U.S. and Germany:

Paloma Medina: The Diversity of the Natural World

Paloma Medina, a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at SJRC, contributes to the field of population genetics with a distinctly feminist mindset.

By Bradley Jin, SJRC Communications Intern, UC Santa Cruz undergraduate in Sociology and Feminist Studies

Biology has been integral in the formation of what is ‘natural.’ Concepts of the natural have shaped many of our understandings of what is normal in terms  of race, sexuality, and gender. The history of population genetics is not immune to the prejudices carried by the people who seek to understand population diversity. Moreover, genetic population studies have been used as justification to promote systems of inequality. To learn from and change this history, Paloma Medina, a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at the Science & Justice Research Center, works with queer community members to inform the applications of her research in population genetics. She works in what is known as ‘queer ecology.’ Queer ecology has many definitions, but it can be loosely described as the interdisciplinary practice of biology that focuses on the gender and sexual diversity found in nature. Queer ecology is a way of practicing just and fair science.

Medina is inspired by the diversity she sees in nature and many biologists share her mindset. She leads a queer ecology research cluster reading group at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Here, graduate students meet to read about and discuss the variety of the natural world. “Biodiversity is almost sacred to biologists. When I tell them about sex and gender diversity in the natural world, they’re like ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’" In the Queer Ecology Research Cluster, Medina seeks to move beyond the critique of science and elevate the stories of queer animals, of which there are many.

For Medina, the side-blotched lizard is a striking example of biodiversity in the animal kingdom. Medina relates that “they have different coloration patterns on their neck that coincide with their lifestyle strategy.” Here, ‘lifestyle strategy’ is almost synonymous with gender expression. This pattern of coloration communicates the behavior of the individual lizards to others. Aggressive males are marked one way, non-aggressive males another. It forms a sort of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ style of dominance. This species, among others, challenges the concept of dichotomous, ‘biological and natural’ gender and sex. Animals like the side-blotched lizard inspire Medina to think of ‘queer’ animals as a reflection of the diversity of human identity.

Along with running the queer ecology reading group Medina has given presentations on biodiversity at the Brain Mind Consciousness Society at UCSC and at the Queer U conference at the University of British Columbia. Having given both lectures and workshops, she states,  “I think students get more out of a workshop than a lecture because students can engage with other students and converse about ideas in a workshop setting. Of course the two styles are not mutually exclusive, but allowing the opportunity to talk about and relate to ideas is critical to learning and expanding.” In addition to workshops, Medina is working with the Youth Group of the Santa Cruz Diversity Center on an illustrated novel. The novel will tell the story of a clownfish who transitions from male to female when the matriarch of their colony leaves.  She hopes this project will elevate the voices of queer and trans youth to a broader community.

 

 

Paloma Medina is a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. At the Center Medina strives not to practice science as justice, or justice as science, but instead view them as the same thing. For her, science is justice, and justice is science. Technology and science intersect with society to such a degree that they are inseparable.