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The Evolution of Race and Population Identifiers in Scientific Thought and Practice

Publication Date:
Updated:

Collection Editor(s):

Collection Editor(s)
Name & Degree
Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH
Work Title/Institution
Vice Dean & Professor, College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University
Name & Degree
Sebastián Gil-Riaño, PhD
Work Title/Institution
Assistant Professor, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania
Name & Degree
Evelynn Hammonds, PhD
Work Title/Institution
Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science; Professor of African and African American Studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University

Introduction

The fields of genetics and genomics are at a historically significant crossroads. After more than a century of criticism concerning the use of racial categories in human biological research (by a litany of natural and social scientists, as well as by scholars in the humanities), the recent National Academy of Sciences report, Using Population Descriptors in Genetics and Genomics Research: A New Framework for an Evolving Field, offers a possible path forward that forsakes racial categories in genetic research. Could the report’s first recommendation—“researchers should not use race as a proxy for human genetic variation”—be an inflection point in the long history of racial science? One that finally sees the race concept in genetics abandoned? 

As historians, while we applaud the efforts of the National Academy’s Committee on the Use of Race, Ethnicity, and Ancestry as Population Descriptors in Genomics Research, we know that this is not the first attempt to remove race from human genetics, even while we hope it will be the last. Since the early 20th century, biologists and social scientists have raised questions about the scientific utility and…

The fields of genetics and genomics are at a historically significant crossroads. After more than a century of criticism concerning the use of racial categories in human biological research (by a litany of natural and social scientists, as well as by scholars in the humanities), the recent National Academy of Sciences report, Using Population Descriptors in Genetics and Genomics Research: A New Framework for an Evolving Field, offers a possible path forward that forsakes racial categories in genetic research. Could the report’s first recommendation—“researchers should not use race as a proxy for human genetic variation”—be an inflection point in the long history of racial science? One that finally sees the race concept in genetics abandoned? 

As historians, while we applaud the efforts of the National Academy’s Committee on the Use of Race, Ethnicity, and Ancestry as Population Descriptors in Genomics Research, we know that this is not the first attempt to remove race from human genetics, even while we hope it will be the last. Since the early 20th century, biologists and social scientists have raised questions about the scientific utility and coherence of the race concept, sparking heated debates but generating little consensus. The 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race, chaired by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, made a pronouncement concerning race and genetics, argued that “for all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth,” and proposed using ethnic instead of racial categories. In 2000, the genome scientist Craig Venter, who led one of the efforts to complete the sequencing of the human genome, voiced similar skepticism about the utility of race concepts in human genetic research, saying that “the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” Yet, here we are, again trying to remove race, a category that is considered by most scientists to be a poor measure of human genetic diversity deeply rooted in histories of racism, colonialism, and power. 

The books and articles below are a starting point to understanding our caution that this may finally be the moment to abandon race in genetics/genomics. We argue that history matters and there is a need to deeply understand how race concepts became so embedded in these sciences before they can be successfully abandoned. We have divided the readings into three categories: books that provide broad historical perspectives on race, biology, and genetics; books and articles that share innovative new scholarship that brings essential perspectives from the Global South into this history; and books and articles situating the use and misuse of racial categories and other population identifiers in the post-genomic era.  
 

Collection Header
Race, Biology, and Genetics in Historical Perspective
Body
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Race and Population in the Global South
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Rethinking Race and Population Identifiers in the Wake of the Human Genome Project
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Tags
scientific racism
population identifiers
NASEM
colonialism

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ELSIhub Collections are essential reading lists on fundamental or emerging topics in ELSI, curated and explained by expert Collection Editors, often paired with ELSI trainees. This series assembles materials from cross-disciplinary literatures to enable quick access to key information.

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