What does it mean that race is a social construct

Over 100 years ago, American sociologist w.e.b. du bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. he spoke out against the idea of ​​”white” and “black” as discrete groups, stating that these distinctions ignored the extent of human diversity.

Science would favor du bois. Today, the main belief among scientists is that race is a social construct with no biological meaning. And yet, you could still open a study on genetics in a major scientific journal and find categories like “white” and “black” being used as biological variables.

In an article published today (February 4) in the journal Science, four academics say racial categories are weak indicators of genetic diversity and should be phased out. [unraveling the human genome: 6 molecular milestones]

they have called us. national academies of science, engineering, and medicine to convene a panel of experts in the biological and social sciences to devise ways for researchers to move away from the concept of race in genetic research.

“it is a concept that we believe is too crude to provide useful information, it is a concept that has a social meaning that interferes with scientific understanding of human genetic diversity, and it is a concept that we are not the first to invoke to get away of,” said michael yudell, a professor of public health at drexel university in philadelphia.

yudell said that modern genetic research is operating on a paradox, which is that race is understood as a useful tool for elucidating human genetic diversity, but on the other hand, race is also understood as a poorly defined marker of genetic diversity. that diversity and an imprecise indicator of the relationship between ancestry and genetics.

“Essentially, I couldn’t agree more with the authors,” said Svante Pääbo, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who worked on the Neanderthal genome but was not involved in the new paper.

“what the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, which means that there is not a single variant in which all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another, even when recent migration is ignored,” Pääbo told wordssidekick.com. “It’s all a matter of differences in the frequency of the different variants on different continents and in different regions.”

In an example that demonstrated that genetic differences were not fixed along racial lines, the complete genomes of James Watson and Craig Venter, two famous American scientists of European descent, were compared with that of a Korean scientist, Seong-jin Kim. . It turned out that Watson (who, ironically, was ostracized in the scientific community after making racist comments) and Venter shared fewer variations in their genetic sequences than they did with Kim.

Assumptions about genetic differences between people of different races have had obvious social and historical repercussions, and still threaten to fuel racist beliefs. That was evident two years ago, when several scientists were angered by the inclusion of their research in Nicholas Wade’s controversial book, “A Troubled Inheritance” (Penguin Press, 2014), which proposed that genetic selection has led to behaviors other than between different populations. In a letter to the New York Times, five researchers wrote that “Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in IQ test scores.” intellectual, political institutions and economic development.”

The authors of the new scientific paper noted that racial assumptions could also be particularly dangerous in a medical setting.

“If you make clinical predictions based on someone’s race, you’re going to be wrong a lot of the time,” Yudell told wordssidekick.com. In the article, he and his colleagues used the example of cystic fibrosis, which is not diagnosed in people of African descent because it is considered a “white” disease. [the best genealogy software to trace your family tree]

mindy fullilove, a psychiatrist at columbia university, believes the changes proposed in the scientific paper are “much needed.” fullilove pointed out that under some laws in the united states, people with a black ancestor of 32 can be called “black”, but their other 31 ancestors are also important in influencing their health.

“This is a compelling and important call for us to change our work,” said fullilove. “It will have a huge influence and help improve science.”

so what other variables could be used if the concept of race is dropped? Pääbo said geography might be a better proxy in regions like Europe for defining “populations” from a genetic perspective. However, he added that, in North America, where the majority of the population has come from different parts of the world for the last 300 years, distinctions such as “African American” or “European American” could still function as stand-ins to suggest where originated a person’s primary ancestry.

yudell also said that scientists need to be more specific with their language, perhaps using terms like “ancestry” or “population” that could more accurately reflect the relationship between humans and their genes, both at the individual and group levels. population. The researchers also recognized that there are some areas where race as a construct could still be useful in scientific research: as a political and social variable, but not a biological one.

“While we advocate the phasing out of racial terminology in the biological sciences, we also recognize that the use of race as a political or social category to study racism, while presenting many challenges, remains necessary given our need to understand how structural inequalities and discrimination produce health disparities between groups,” yudell said.

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