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.”
  • Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans – London Review of Books, September 13, 2018
    • Steven Mithen reviews Reich’s Who We are and How We Got Here. He notes that ancient DNA research has “implications for the politics of the present,” mentions the Buzzfeed-published response to Reich’s treatment of race. Ultimately, he argues that population genomics, while illuminating, ultimately stand on equal footing with culture and beliefs as ways of defining ‘who we are.’

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:

Hear SJRC Director Jenny Reardon on Radio Australia

Radio Australia recently aired an episode of its Big Ideas program featuring a talk by SJRC Director Jenny Reardon. The episode highlighted her research on genomics and justice, as well as her forthcoming book from the University of Chicago Press, The Postgenomic Condition: Ethics, Justice, and Knowledge After the Genome. Reardon specifically discussed the ways in which, despite the hype and real advances of genomic science in recent decades, genomics also has produced a pervasive “dis-ease” that must be addressed through a turn to justice as a guiding principle if the hope for a genomics that serves public values is to be realized. You can listen to the entire episode via Radio Australia’s website here and see Professor Reardon discuss her book in person on November 29 at UC Santa Cruz.

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election of Donald Trump: a Statement from the UCSC Science and Justice Research Center

 

 

Dear Science and Justice Friends, Colleagues, Allies and Communities,

Like many of you, all of us at SJRC have been reflecting, re-grouping and gearing up for action in light of the November 2016 US presidential election. We are re-committing to our core values and standing in solidarity with all those threatened by state sanctioned violence and repressive policies. We will work to empower and support students, staff, scholars and scientists through collaborative research and action:

  • We will oppose threats to defund science, the Environmental Protection Agency and other crucial regulatory agencies, healthcare programs, and sanctuary cities.
  • We will oppose the surveillance and targeting of professors (e.g. the Professor Watchlist) and climate scientists, Muslim communities (e.g. the “Muslim Registry”), undocumented immigrants, and community activists from diverse backgrounds and movements.
  • We will support sanctuary campuses and safe spaces at UCSC, defend academic freedom in and beyond universities, academic freedom, oppose censorship and provide a platform for the views and research of our affiliates to create broad impacts across multiple audiences.
  • We will continue to draw on our critical resources as feminist decolonial anti-racist science studies scholars to re-claim and enrich our commitments to objectivity, truth and social and environmental justice. In the face of “fake news”, climate denialism, new instantiations of eugenics, and all efforts to de-legitimize and de-fund science, we will fight for situated, robust and responsive inquiry and critical engagement. We will work to make our concepts/categories adequate for the present moment.
  • We will build a public archive of the dismantlement of knowledge production, critical regulatory institutions, and healthcare and environmental infrastructures. We will track the efforts afoot to dismantle the EPA, repeal the ACA and privatize Medicare, and the attacks made against individual scientists, institutions, and disciplines.
  • We will support our graduate and undergraduate students in pursuing “seedling” research and community action projects that can rapidly and flexibly respond to the problems, questions, and mobilizations that are most urgent.
  • We will fight against racism, white supremacy, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and misogyny, and assaults on poor and historically marginalized people both here in the US and worldwide.
  • We will continue to work from a place of caring response-ability, mutual support and fierce solidarity.

President Napolitano, Chancellor Blumenthal and members of the California Legislature have made statements to affirm their commitments to inclusion and diversity, and in particular in support of undocumented members of our UC community. We offer our unqualified support for all undocumented communities in California, and in particular support the UC’s commitment to the privacy and civil rights of everyone in our community. We stand with these leaders, and we promise to hold ourselves accountable when our actions and policies fall short.

In solidarity,

Science and Justice Research Center leadership, staff and faculty-affiliates

#UCSCvalues

James Battle • 2013-2015

battle-headshotJames Battle is a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. A graduate of the UC Berkeley/UC San Francisco Joint Medical Anthropology Program, Dr. Battle’s work focuses on the medical anthropology and sociology of The Black Atlantic, creolization, and the political economy of race. A member of the Race, Genomics and the Media Working Group at UCSC, his current research examines the discursive politics of race since the genomic revolution. In particular, this project explores the bioethical implications of changing institutional relationships and approaches to health disparities research. He is currently working on a book manuscript examining genomic “Africa” and its intersections with historical discourses of race, gender, and kinship in anthropology and sociology. His Science & Justice Research Center participation reflects his larger research concerns about the ways categories mobilize differential practices, resources, and forms of care.

Mentored by Jenny Reardon.

Battle-CV