Developing: Debate on ‘Race’ and Genomics

In March 2018, 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 following weeks and months, a debate took shape. This page will continue to follow this debate. It 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.

In May 2019, Angela Saini published her book Superior: The Return of Race Science. This book takes up questions of scientific racism and its history, as well as its more recent relationship with genetics and genomics. Reviews and responses to the book are also linked and covered here.

 

Resources (updated regularly, last updated May 21, 2019):

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:

  • Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the Allure of Race Science – Vox, March 27, 2018
    • Ezra Klein discusses a debate between himself and Sam Harris reignited by Reich’s op-ed, arguing, in short, that “in this country, given our history, discussions about race and IQ need more care and context than they get.”
  • Denying Genetics is Not Shutting Down Racism, It is Fueling it – New York Magazine, March 30, 2018
    • Andrew Sullivan agrees with Reich’s op-ed, and argues that dismissing science as “racist” helps fuel racism.
  • Race, Genetics and a Controversy – The New York Times, April 2, 2018
    • A series of letters to the editor in response to Reich’s op-ed.
  • Scientific Racism Isn’t ‘Back’: It Never Went Away – The Nation, April 6, 2018
    • Edward Burmila argues that Reich’s op-ed is merely the latest example of scientific racism, which is finding new purchase in the current political climate.
  • What Happens When Geneticists Talk Sloppily About Race – The Atlantic, April 25, 2018
    • Ian Holmes argues that biologists’ use of race as a category often reinforces historical biases.
  • Stop Talking about Race and IQ – Slate, April 27, 2018
    • William Saletan reflects on his past as a believer in the scientific validity of racial IQ disparities and argues that “the genetics of intelligence” and “the genetics of race” are, and should remain, separate fields of research.
  • Race Has a Place in Human Genetics Research, Philosopher Argues – Penn Today, May 2, 2018
    • Michelle Berger profiles Penn philosopher Quayshawn Spencer, who uses semantic theory to reconcile US Census racial categories with population geneticists’ ancestry groups and encourages collapsing the former into the latter.
  • Push for Forensic DNA Phenotyping, Ancestry Testing in Germany Raises Discrimination Concerns – Genome Web, May 4, 2018
    • Turna Ray describes the concerns surrounding legislation introduced in the Bavarian parliament that would allow DNA collection from ‘dangerous’ individuals and forensic DNA phenotyping of crime scene samples. Chief among these concerns is discrimination against immigrants.
  • Observations: “Plug and Play” Genetics, Racial Migrations and Human History – Scientific American, May 29, 2018.
    • John Edward Terrell discusses Reich’s book and argues that writing about “populations,” “migration,” and “admixture” reinforces ideas about separate human groups in potentially dangerous ways.
  • James Watson Had a Chance to Salvage His Reputation on Race. He Made Things Worse. – The New York Times, January 1, 2019.
    • Scientists debate the reasons for James Watson’s re-assertion that differences in IQ between “blacks and whites” are genetic.  Is this just an “old man” out of step with his time, or is he part of a dominant but rarely spoken view in genomics, a view that appeared to be bolstered in the spring by David Reich’s editorial in The New York Times?
  • Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps? – The New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2019.
    • Gideon Lewis-Kraus explores how Reich’s ancient DNA work has challenged existing archaeological consensus and transformed the academic landscape. He points out that the pressure to work with the handful of powerful ancient DNA labs, which he calls an “oligopoly,” is strong enough to create a “smash-and-grab” environment of “suspicion, anxiety, and paranoia.” Lewis-Kraus also characterizes this as setting up a divide between “those [like Reich] bewitched by grand historical narratives… and those who wearily warn that such adventures rarely end well.” He thoughtfully explores the practical agendas of racialized histories and forms of knowledge that claim to say who people “really” are and where they are “really” from, describes some of the scientific concerns and broader controversy surrounding ancient DNA research in particular, and ultimately connects the claims in Reich’s op-ed to his “broad brush” view of history.
      • Response: Letter in response to Jan. 17 article in The New York Times – David Reich, January 19, 2019
        • Reich responds to Lewis-Kraus, admitting that ancient DNA research faces unresolved ethical issues but also arguing that Lewis-Kraus misapprehends the rigor and nuance of the science to make his argument. Reich argues that his research has “rendered racist and colonialist narratives untenable.”
  • Genetics and Race: How Do We Have This Awkward Conversation? – Genetic Literacy Project, February 13, 2019.
    • Patrick Whittle argues that “genetic facts — including evidence of genetic differences between racial populations — carry no necessarily social or political implications,” and that confirmation of human difference may aid in designing policies to reduce inequalities. He also suggests that human geneticists should acknowledge the history and politics of ideas of race and understand the motives of what he calls “the opposition.”

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:

 

Superior: The Return of Race Science  – Angela Saini, May 21, 2019
  • Why Race Science is on the Rise Again – The Guardian, May 18, 2019
    • Angela Saini describes her new book, Superior: The Return of Race Sciencewhich focuses on the renewed growth of “intellectual racism” and its ties to global right-wing populist movements. She traces race science back to modern science’s earliest days, highlights its inherently political nature, and expresses concern for its growing acceptance in mainstream scientific publications.
  • The Disturbing Resilience of Scientific Racism – Smithsonian Magazine, May 20, 2019
    • Ramin Skibba reviews Saini’s book, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois to argue that the “problem of the color line” has persisted in the 21st century and taken root in the field of genetics. He highlight’s Saini’s insistence on both keeping the study of race, a social construct, out of genetics research and studying race responsibly in other disciplines.
  • Medical Controversies – Start the Week, BBC Radio, May 21, 2019
    • Andrew Marr discusses a number of medical controversies with guests, including Angela Saini. Saini discusses her new book, and the panel discusses how race science has made a return to the mainstream. The program also deals with gender bias in medical research and with how personalized medicine reproduces existing inequalities.
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini – review – The Guardian, May 27, 2019
    • Alok Jha writes, “This is an urgent, important book.” He observes that racialized science has proceeded “in the name of academic freedom to conduct dispassionate inquiry into the human condition” and notes the book’s timeliness amid the resurgence of white supremacist and authoritarian movements.
  • Superior by Angela Saini – are we all created equal? – Financial Times, May 29, 2019
    • Clive Cookson favorably reviews Saini’s new book but objects to the suggestion that “scientists refrain from investigating the genetic basic of human variation in intelligence and intellectual ability.” He suggests that this research is important to science’s attempts to understand “the brain,” as long as it is “conducted with proper safeguards.”
  • Why Do So Many Researchers Still Treat Race as a Scientific Concept? – Slate, May 30, 2019
    • Tim Requarth calls Saini’s book “damning” and says that she is not simply pointing out the abuse of science for racist political ends, but is telling a “complex and surprising story about the relationship between science and race today, one that is sure to challenge anyone who thinks these ideas are only kept afloat by avowed racists.” Requarth specifically mentions David Reich’s op-ed as an example of racialized science.
      • Requarth ends with a salient point for Science & Justice: “Scientists are required to take ethics courses, but these courses tend to focus on the ethical behaviors of scientists and the ethical ramifications of science. In other words, we consider how science percolates out of the lab and into the broader culture. What we tend not to address is how the broader culture finds its way back into the lab to influence our science. A small step would be for us to spend more time thinking not only about how our science shapes society, but also how society shapes our science. (After reading Saini’s books, I suggested we add such a section to the ethics course my department offers.) The best scientists relentlessly question their own scientific assumptions. It might make for even better science if they used this same self-awareness to question their cultural ones.”

 

Jenny Reardon and SJRC appear in Le Monde

Jenny Reardon, sociologist between science and justice

LE MONDE SCIENCE ET TECHNO

Jenny sitting on a log in the forest.

Jenny Reardon, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz on October 11, 2015. (Photo by Maurice Weiss/Ostkreuz for LE MONDE)

Editor’s note:

Below is an English translation of a profile of Jenny Reardon, professor of sociology and director of the Science and Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz. It was published Jan. 11, 2016 in the French daily newspaper Le Monde. The original in French may be found at the Le Monde site.

 

It is 1986 and Jenny Reardon is 13 years old. She lives in Kansas City in Missouri, a Midwestern state of the United States, when a Newsweek article draws her attention. It describes, according to scientific testimony, the consequences for the planet of changes in the ozone layer. Jenny Reardon begins a correspondence with scientific experts, designs experiments to study the effect of ultraviolet radiation on marine ecosystems, and states her results in a scientific paper. In the following year, these experiments earned her the Grand Prize for environmental science in the General Motors International Science and Engineering Fair, a competition that aims to encourage high school students to pursue scientific careers.  “Kansas City was not the ideal place to study marine biology but my father helped me set up a laboratory in the garage of our house. I designed experiments while watching, on a black and white television set, the ‘Oprah’ show, the talk show then in fashion,“ Reardon recalls with laughter.

Despite this early success, it is not in the sciences that this committed, 43-year-old woman excels today.  Rather, she works in the analysis of contexts in which the sciences are practiced. A professor of sociology, she directs the Science and Justice Research Center, created in 2010 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a university known, since the 1960s, for its avant-garde works. The idea? To create innovative forums in which scientists and non-scientists alike are invited to think together about the meaning of common concerns, such as those of race, genetics or ecology. “Jenny has a special ability to listen. This has greatly strengthened her leadership,” says the historian of science Donna Haraway, who works at the same university and who participated with Jenny Reardon in the creation of the research group. “She knows how to gather experts from different disciplines and to get them to think about the deeper meaning of the jargon they use,” she continues. “What I admire in her work is that she is not content with only a critical analysis of what scientists do. Rather, she seeks to open new perspectives with them,” adds the historian of science Joanna Radin of Yale University. “Genetics sheds new light on the definition of the human being, but we cannot let the scientists work alone in their corner.”   “Jenny Reardon is impressive in her ability to build bridges between the social sciences and biology, in order to bring them together to have a broader vision of what they do,” adds geneticist David Haussler of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Initiated in theology

Creating bridges was not always easy for Jenny Reardon. She is the daughter of a former Jesuit priest who was one of eight children of a famous American cartoonist, Foxo Reardon.  A charismatic man, he introduced her to theology and taught tolerance, without disparaging too much its principles. Her mother was attuned to politics after traveling in Eastern Europe right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  She was consequently not satisfied with just studying biology and, at the end of her studies, she was undecided between two directions: molecular biology as practiced in the laboratory led by geneticist Mary-Claire King at the University of California at Berkeley; and, science and technology studies, a new discipline that studies social, political and cultural influences on and of science, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  At this point, we are in the early 1990s and Mary-Claire King, who will later, in 2014, win the Lasker Award, already enjoys a strong reputation. She had just located the region in genome containing the BRCA1 gene, implicated in some hereditary forms of breast cancer. Yet, ultimately, Jenny Reardon chose to pursue the other direction.  “It was a very difficult choice. I declined to study in a prestigious laboratory located in a dream location and chose, instead, studies that do not interest many people. I felt I had betrayed those who believed in me,” she recalls.

A few years later, she returns to genetics, this time with new intellectual baggage. One subject was of particular interest to her: the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a major project launched by prominent geneticists of the time, including Mary-Claire King, and supported by the US government and then, later, abandoned in the 1990s. The geneticists had nothing other than good intentions: to study the genetic diversity of the first peoples to better understand the origins and the intermingling of populations. But those studied did not see it this way. Accusing geneticists of considering them as objects of study and as “material for a patent,” leaders of Native American tribes in the United States vetoed the project. Some anthropologists blamed the project of using modern tools to revive nineteenth century, racist biology.

The history of the concept of race

In her book Race to the finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton University Press, 2005), Jenny Reardon navigates these divisions to reposition the controversy in the history of the concept of race.  She situates the controversy’s origins in unresolved questions between geneticists and the rest of the population concerning the relevant criteria to be accounted for in any study of the human diversity.  “When you look back a hundred years, it appears that the science of the time was influenced by racial representations rooted in contemporary society and leading to the ranking of human groups. Although they deny it, the work of geneticists is still biased by the context within which they work,” says Gisli Palsson, an anthropologist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. “Jenny was among those who went to the heart of the problem. Her book remains the best analysis of the subject.”

The Science and Justice project is based on that analysis. Promoting “slow science,” its goal is to involve all stakeholders in society to reflect on scientific and technological advances. And, thus, it seeks to lead stakeholders to anticipate the implications of these advances before they define social choices. In addition to multidisciplinary meetings, Science and Justice offers a degree to students from fields as different as sociology and physics, to have them collaborate rethinking fundamental and sensitive issues, such as the commercialization of genetic testing by the company 23andMe; or, the use of drones for military operations. “We try to bring these students together to take into account their respective ways of approaching a problem so that they might think in a way that is not polarizing,” explains Jenny Reardon. “We are living in a time when science exerts incredible power on how people are governed. At the same time, issues concerning equity have become acute. Science and Justice seeks answers to this question: what science do we need in this world?”