Dropping 'Race' In Human Genetics
Race is a social construct, but the field of human genetics struggles how to accurately describe populations
The 19th and 20th centuries saw an insurgence of racial terms like “Negroid” and “Mongoloid” in science to define groups. As a consequence, these terms and the science behind them have perpetuated discrimination against groups of people; i.e. eugenics.
The biological basis of racial categories has since been debunked thoroughly. We now understand more biological variations exist within groups than amongst or between groups. Therefore, race is a social construct.
Over time, the scientific community is changing its tone to keep up with this shift. Of the 11,635 papers published from 1949 to 2018 in the American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG), the term “race” appeared in over 22% of their publications in the first decade. Specifically, terms like “Negro” were used in 21% of papers and “Caucasian” in 12% of papers in the journal’s first ten years. Now, the use of the term “race” has now declined to 4% of papers in AJHG in the last decade. Moreover, fewer than 1% of current papers now use “Negro” or “Caucasian”. This decrease in frequency reflects how the scientific community is responding.
In lieu of racial terms of the past, new terms like “ethnicity” and “ancestry” are used to describe groups of people. In fact, labels such as “African,” “Asian,” and “European” have increased by 18%, 14%, and 42% respectively in the last 10 years. This rapid increase in these terms is more esoteric and ambiguous.
But these words, and the ones from the past, are still published and cannot be taken away. It is extremely challenging not to use any term in describing populations of people. And even more challenging is control of the message. In other words, the public’s perception of what the findings mean. But we’re addressing that too…
For example, the American Society of Human Genetics, the society behind the AJHG, has started a project to investigate the impact of injustices perpetrated by terms used in genetic publications. Others have established a committee such as the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, to evaluate how race impacts health disparities. Some are experimenting with antiracist language in genetic publications.
I personally welcome these advances. Understanding our trends in language and how it affects the public as a whole is a responsible step. Taking it further and seeing how it’s impacting injustice, medicine, and making steps to prevent it from occurring again is commendable. Unfortunately, though, I just do not know what the right language is to use to describe groups of humans.
Does anyone out there have their own thoughts to share on how best to describe human populations?
Race, Ethnicity, and Genetics Working Group. (2005). The use of racial, ethnic, and ancestral categories in human genetics research. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 77(4), 519–532.
Byeon, Y. J. J., Islamaj, R., Yeganova, L., Wilbur, W. J., Lu, Z., Brody, L. C., & Bonham, V. L. (2021). Evolving use of ancestry, ethnicity, and race in genetics research—A survey spanning seven decades. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 108(12), 2215–2223.
Anderson, W. (2021, December 1). ASHG launches project to acknowledge and reckon with historic harms in human genetics as part of pathway to building an equitable future. Ashg.Org. https://www.ashg.org/publications-news/ashg-news/pathway-to-building-an-equitable-future/
Use of race ethnicity and ancestry as population descriptors in genomics research. (n.d.). Nationalacademies.Org. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/use-of-race-ethnicity-and-ancestry-as-population-descriptors-in-genomics-research
Brothers, K.B., Bennett, R.L. & Cho, M.K. Taking an antiracist posture in scientific publications in human genetics and genomics. Genet Med 23, 1004–1007 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41436-021-01109-w
Re: "I just do not know what the right language is to use to describe groups of humans." It's a no-win situation to try to identify terms that will work across disciplines and trends, especially when content from scientific studies will be turned into misunderstood headlines and tweets. The hot potato aspects shouldn't prevent scientists from trying to be clear and specific. I hope everyone involved in these efforts is trying to avoid creating yet another set of in-group jargon. Offering the caveats of terminology then getting down to the specific evidence of one's own research may be the best we can do.