When the Human Genome Project (the vast plan to decode and map all the genes of the human body) was completed last year, the first pronouncement about it from many scientists was that it proved “race doesn’t exist.”
The claim was not new. The notion that race is merely a “social construct” and a “biologically meaningless” concept as the New England Journal of Medicine editorialized had prevailed among most biological and social scientists for decades.
Now, however, the scientists have made yet another discovery: Race exists.
One scientist who says race exists is Dr. Neil Risch of Stanford University. His claims were surveyed in the New York Times Science section last month, and a good many of his colleagues are agreeing with him. Dr. Risch points out that some variations in human genetic endowment largely correspond to common ethnic and racial categories and, most importantly for his purposes, that the variations have immense medical significance.
In fact, that has long been known. As the Times article points out, Africans tend to have a genetic mutation that causes sickle cell anemia, while another that causes a certain metabolic disorder is rare among Chinese and Indians but present among Swedes. There are similar racial variations for such disorders or diseases as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs syndrome and the ability to digest milk. Put simply, different racial groups inherit certain diseases or tendencies to contract them, and therefore there are genetic differences between the races. Race exists.
Dr. Risch isn’t the only one saying this these days. As the Times notes,
“Many population geneticists … say it is essential to take race and ethnicity into account to understand each group’s specific pattern of disease and to ensure that everyone shares equally in the expected benefits of genomic medicine.”
Dr. Risch argues that race
“has arisen because of the numerous small genetic differences that have developed in populations around the world,”
and he points to studies showing that
“these differences cluster into five major groups, which are simply the world’s major continental areas.”
Dr. Risch is not using his claim to justify donning a bedsheet, and so far nobody seems to have accused him of that (give them a little time, though).
His point is simply that denying the existence of race, largely for ideological reasons, is not only scientifically false but also medically harmful.
Knowing that racial variations in diseases exist is immensely helpful to doctors and researchers trying to cure or prevent the diseases.
Denying the reality of race doesn’t advance such efforts. It’s a little like trying to develop a space program if you assume the earth is flat and rests on the back of giant turtle.
The “race doesn’t exist” school of thought, of course, has been invoked to discredit segregation, white supremacy and apartheid (though all of those institutions developed well before any scientific concept of race existed at all). But challenging and abandoning the very concept of race when white racial power was the target was not exactly consistent with programs like affirmative action that counted by race.
In short, when whites used race to justify and entrench their privileges, race didn’t exist; when non-whites used race to justify and entrench theirs, it did.
Denying that race exists, therefore, doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to serve a particular group’s political agenda, nor does affirming that race does exist necessarily imply that it will or should be used to serve another group’s agenda.
It does mean that scientists, of all people, ought to face the truth about what they study.
And it also means that race may mean more than differences in diseases. If race “has arisen because of the numerous small genetic differences that have developed in populations around the world,” then there logically ought to be other differences between the races than merely their proclivity to different health problems.
Each race, developing in a different environment, came into existence because of the need to adapt to such environments. It makes sense to believe that there may be many other differences between the races in addition to those we are—painfully—finally acknowledging as real.
Now that we know that race is real, the thing for serious scientists to do is to stop denying its existence and get on with finding out what else is real about it.
Once we know what race really means—not just for disease and health but also for intelligence, temperament and behavior—we’ll be able to forget about some agendas and pursue others that are based on something closer to scientific reality than to racial and political ideology.