Racial differences among people are real, new studies suggest, contradicting claims by some of the world’s leading scientists and scientific institutions that race doesn’t exist. These experts had said race is merely a “social construct,” or a creation of society’s collective imagination. But the new studies from Stanford University in Stanford, California suggest that the way people classify themselves by race reflects real and clear genetic differences among them.
But they added that it’s important to define race correctly, since dangerous misconceptions, such as the notion that some races are superior to others, persist and can serve to excuse racism. What is true, researchers said in light of the new studies, is that people of different races have different ancestries. This means different genes, since genes are inherited from ancestors. “The public in general is much more honest” about race than many academics are, “because the general public knows it signifies something rather than nothing,” said Jon Entine, a journalist and author.
The latest research to challenge the race-as-social-construct theory is a study of 3,636 people from across America and Taiwan, led by Neil Risch, then of the Stanford University School of Medicine and now at the University of California at San Francisco. It found that people’s self-identified race is a nearly perfect indicator of their genetic background, contradicting the race-as-social-construct view, Risch said. The study’s authors said it was the largest study of its kind. The participants identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. For each participant, the researchers examined 326 DNA regions that tend to vary between people. These regions are not necessarily within functioning genes—some regions of the genome have no known use—but are simply genetic signposts that come in a variety.
Without knowing how the participants had identified themselves, Risch and his team ran the results through a computer program that grouped individuals according to patterns of the 326 signposts. This analysis could have resulted in any number of different clusters, but only four clear groups turned up. And in each case the individuals within those clusters all fell within the same self-identified racial group.
“This work comes on the heels of several contradictory studies about the genetic basis of race. Some found that race is a social construct with no genetic basis while others suggested that clear genetic differences exist between people of different races,” a press release from Stanford said.
“What makes the current study, published in the February issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, more conclusive is its size. The study is by far the largest, consisting of 3,636 people who all identified themselves as either white, African-American, East Asian or Hispanic. Of these, only five individuals had DNA that matched an ethnic group different than the box they checked at the beginning of the study.”
Although it was reported as the largest study to find genetic differences between races, Risch’s study is not the first. Previous studies have found that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more susceptible than average for Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal nervous system disorder, for instance. Black populations have been found to carry higher levels of a mutation that leads to sickle-cell anemia. The education gap is another reality that shows up repeatedly regardless of socioeconomic conditions.
Risch’s study is not only the largest study but also the first to find that these genetic differences are not isolated cases involving a handful of genes, but are spread throughout the genome. These differences should be of more than passing interest to the medical community, Risch added, because recognizing them can help tailor treatments and prevention programs to better serve specific ethnic groups.
It can also help geneticists avoid skewed results in epedemiological studies, he wrote. For instance, failing to account for the gene-race relationship could make researchers think a particular difference between populations results from genes when in fact it stems from different cultural conditions. Several scientists who have supported the view of race as a social construct did not respond to requests for comment on the new studies, including officials from the American Anthropological Association and the author of the New England Journal editorial.
However, some other scientists reacted without surprise to the new findings. “As an ordinary citizen educated in biology, it is self-evident that there are genetic differences between people who have been geographically segregated into mating populations, just as there are genetic differences for all species and subspecies,” wrote Michael Wigler, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in an email.