Race and Genetics: The Discussion Continues
Do genetic test results actually mean anything??
This was the question in my head after my professor suggested the answer was “no” offhand in a lecture for the class I was taking: The History of Capitalism (which I do recommend, if it’s taught again).
I love both science and the humanities. But I’ve come to discover how different the two lenses can be. Sometimes they are at odds, it seems.
See, from listening to progressive cultural dialogue on race, I’d come to understand that race is a social construct. It is cultural interpretation of outward appearances. Prejudices, archetypes, generalizations projected onto loosely-defined groups of people distinguished by arbitrary physical characteristics: hair color and texture, skin color, eye color, height, facial structure, etc.
Not that it’s meaningless, but race is rooted in history and culture, not blood.
On the other hand, new commercial genetic tests that use scientific processes are meanwhile all the rage. I see videos and ads and testimony about people finding out their race using direct-to-consumer genetic tests. My instinct is to accept this as legitimate science. Of course race is tied to genetics because genes determine our physical features, and if this was unscientific, the tests wouldn’t work. But having become a somewhat racial constructivist, I also want to reject this. You can’t tell someone’s race using science, because it’s a social construct arbitrarily superimposed on human features.
That’s what motivated me to write this article. Is there are resolution to this disjuncture? Is one right and the other wrong? Is it possible for them both to be true?
So I wrote an article for the Spring 2019 issue (page 12) on the subject.
Even after writing it, I still don’t have an answer to that question. But I lean a certain direction.
I refrained from taking a position in the article itself, but I’ll tell you my narrative here:
We have the physical characteristics we have because of genetics. Physical characteristics are generally, but not perfectly, shared amongst people related to you, and if you go far back enough in time, the family that gave you those characteristics were genetically isolated geographically specific places. This is why you can claim belonging to a group that is connected to a geographical place. I myself am inclined not to define these groups as races. Maybe “populations” or “ethnic groups.”
Then society takes a look at your physical characteristics and guesses where that geographical place might be. They might treat you differently based on that judgement. That’s race, as I see it.
Genetic tests take a look at your molecular characteristics and take a very, very calculated guess at which family you belong to and, in turn, tells you what race they’re generally defined as.
I think that almost strikes the right balance for me, but it’s riddled with holes and simplifications.
Personally, race hasn’t been a big part of my identity, so I’m kind of compelled to stop caring about what defines race. But for others (maybe most), it’s not just something that can simply be let go.
Caring about race is odd because it’s simultaneously anti- and pro-racism. Whereas racists care very much about race because they believe it justifies differential treatment, anti-racists care about race because differential treatment causes differences and disparities in welfare between races that warrant corrective measures. Advocating that we stop caring about it altogether is therefore a double-edged sword. It empowers both sides in different ways.
There’s so much to think about in relation to this topic. Almost too much, honestly. And in thinking about it we’re forced to confront where our ideas about race and origin come from, how we perceive ourselves and others, and the implications of all the different answers to these questions.
Talking about race is taboo. It can almost feel dangerous. Publishing this and my article made me feel afraid of offending people, afraid of being wrong, and afraid of everlasting uncertainty about my own thoughts on the topic. But it is not worthwhile to let those fears stop exploration of this idea.
Don’t let fear stop you either. What do you think?
Optional Discussion Questions
- Is a scientific definition for race fundamentally flawed and dangerously empowering to racists or can careful use of terminology and a more complex understanding of how population genetics works maintain the legitimacy of using ethnic categories in science?
- And how does the answer to this question change how you perceive ancestry results and yourself?
- If ethnicity or race really are just arbitrary social categories that science can only guess at, what’s the point of taking a test?
- Should your genetics have any bearing on how you perceive yourself and your identity?
These articles were very helpful in my research and very interesting to read about, too. Check them out if you’re interested.
David Reich and his Critics
- David Reich’s Article, “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of Race” March 23, 2018
- David Reich’s Response to Comments “How to Talk about ‘Race’ and Genetics” March 30, 2018
- A Response to Reich’s Article “How Not to Talk about Race and Genetics” March 30, 2018 (Co-written by Jenny Reardon and other Scholars)
Some of Jenny Reardon’s Publications on Questions Related to this Discussion
- Reardon, J. (2004). Decoding Race and Human Difference in a Genomic Age. differences, 15(3), 38–65. https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-15-3-38
- Reardon, J. (2007). The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing. Science, 318(5849), 399–400. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1150098
- Reardon is also head of the Science Justice Research Center at UCSC. They put on this talk at the Museum of Art and History in late April and I attended. Check them out! They do great work.