race. real or unreal.

10 years ago the american anthropological association published a statement that “race” is not a product of biological inheritance, rather an assimilation of environmental milieu. namely, a coupling of socio-economics, politics, and education.

juxtaposed with the predilection of certain “populations” for disease susceptibility and/or inherited phenotypes and traits this was all the fuss at the National Human Genome Research Institute (an NIH institute) this week. . .

what is it about the word race that brings about a banter of paranoia, unease and panic in folks. always a great/disastrous cocktail party discussion . . . yalda.

check out the read below:

The Touchy Subject of ‘Race’

Constance Holden

Nothing makes scientists more nervous than the topic of “race,” so much so that they’d like to find a way not to talk about it at all. That was the core issue last week at a meeting* at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Rockville, Maryland, where about 40 scientists and ethicists debated how to present the torrent of new findings from human gene sequencing studies to the public.

In different parts of the world, different gene mutations become advantageous and spread quickly through a population, making some variants more prevalent in particular ancestral groups. Some are innocuous enough–such as the emergence of lactose tolerance in farming populations. But there’s already much debate over the use in medicine of findings of racial differences in the prevalence of genes associated with certain diseases. Many scientists predict that it won’t be long before they have solid leads on much more controversial genes: genes that influence behavior–possibly including intelligence.

Everyone at the meeting agreed on the need for non-“fraught” terminology–“geographic ancestry,” for example, instead of “race.” But specifying such ancestries is also a minefield. “Amerindian,” for example, is offensive to Native Americans, according to one speaker. “Caucasian” is also unacceptable because it implies racial rather than geographic ancestry. Some speakers even advised that it is inappropriate to refer to a “European allele” for lactose tolerance, because it also occurs in other groups.

Participants acknowledged that however they characterize their findings, they can’t control what the public makes of them. “When translated into popular culture, society reads whatever term we pick as ‘race,’ ” said Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Carlos Bustamante, a population geneticist at Cornell University, said that when his group published a study in Nature this year indicating that European-Americans had more deleterious gene mutations than African-Americans, some publications touted the report as suggesting that blacks are fitter than whites.

Some tense moments came during a discussion of a paper on brain genes. In 2005, geneticist Bruce Lahn and colleagues at the University of Chicago in Illinois reported evidence for selection in mutations of two genes regulating brain development that are more common in Eurasians than in Africans (Science, 9 September 2005, pp. 1717 and 1720). They hypothesized that these mutations were related to the human cultural explosion some 40,000 years ago (Science, 22 December 2006, p. 1871). Celeste Condit, a professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia, Athens, criticized the way the papers were written, saying they could be seen as having a “political message embedded” in them: that the genes might contribute to racial differences in brain size and therefore perhaps to racial differences in IQ. Lahn denied any political message, telling her she was “putting words in [my] mouth.”

Figure 1 Ancestry, not race. Researchers are grappling with how to communicate genetic data on differences among populations.CREDIT: PHOTOS.COM

Later, Lahn commented that some scientists “are almost like creationists” in their unwillingness to acknowledge that the brain is not exempt from selection pressures.

At the end of the day, Allen Buchanan, a philosophy professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, warned the group against going overboard. “A visible, concerted effort to change vocabulary for moral reasons is likely to trigger a backlash,” he said. There’s “risk of … stifling freedom of expression in the name of political correctness,” he said, and losing credibility in the process.

*Workshop on Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues in Natural Selection Research.

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