Race as Biology in The New York Times

Posted by Diane Tober February 21, 2013
Biopolitical Times
Portrait of a woman, with multiple faces, featuring parts of mny women of color.

Writing in The New York Times, science journalist Nicholas Wade reports on the recent discovery that a 35,000-year-old genetic mutation accounts for some of the phenotypic variations found in East Asian populations. From Wade’s article:

Gaining a deep insight into human evolution, researchers have identified a mutation in a critical human gene as the source of several distinctive traits that make East Asians different from other races….Each race has a different set of selected regions, reflecting the fact that the human population had dispersed from its African homeland and faced different challenges that led to genetic adaptation on each continent [emphasis added].

Wade’s choice of words here is deeply troubling. He is apparently rejecting the widely accepted understanding that “race” is a social and political category, not a biological one.

As an anthropologist who has taught cultural and medical anthropology, biological anthropology, and integrative and molecular biology, I find this both surprising and disturbing. To be clear, the concern is not about the fact that variation exists between (as well as within) human groups, however we define those groups. Nor is there any disagreement that human beings – all of us stemming from a common origin in Africa – have adapted to different environmental contexts. The concern is about the way in which the term “race” is still being constructed as a biological reality by those who should know better – especially when they write for a publication with the influence and reach of The New York Times.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at the scientific evidence. Two of the primary lessons of the Human Genome Project are first, that human beings, regardless of ancestry or geographic origins, are greater than 99.9% the same at the molecular level; and second, that there is more variation within groups – however defined – than between them. According to a Human Genome Project report:

DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.

A number of observers have noted the recent resurgence of race as biology; see especially Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century and Osagie Obasogie’s Playing the Gene Card?: A Report on Race and Human Biotechnology. As they and many others note, since “race” has been used throughout history to rationalize a wide array of injustices, reviving this discredited idea is hardly an innocuous mistake.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: