Human Genetics

, Volume 126, Issue 3, pp 355–362 | Cite as

Looking for race in all the wrong places: analyzing the lack of productivity in the ongoing debate about race and genetics

  • Morris W. FosterEmail author
Review Article


The ongoing debate about the relationship between race and genetics is more than a century old and has yet to be resolved. Recent emphasis on population-based patterns in human genetic variation and the implications of those for disease susceptibility and drug response have revitalized that long-standing debate. Both sides in the debate use the same rhetorical device of treating geographic, ancestral, population-specific, and other categories as surrogates for race, but otherwise share no evidentiary standards, analytic frameworks, or scientific goals that might resolve the debate and result in some productive outcome. Setting a common goal of weighing the scientific benefits of using racial and other social heuristics with testable estimates of the potential social harms of racialization can reduce both the unreflexive use of race and other social identities in biological analyses as well as the unreflexive use of racialization in social critiques of genetics. Treating social identities used in genetic studies as objects for investigation rather than artifacts of participant self-report or researcher attribution also will reduce the extent to which genetic studies that report social identities imply that membership in social categories can be defined or predicted using genetic features.


Social Identity Population Stratification Social Category Genetic Finding Racial Category 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This paper benefited from discussions at the Banbury Center conference, “Who are we? Kinship, ancestry, and social identity,” which was funded in part by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.


  1. Allocco DJ, Song Q, Gibbons GH, Ramoni MF, Kohane I (2007) Geography and genography: prediction of continental origin using randomly selected single nucleotide polymorphisms. BMC Genomics 8:68. doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-8-68 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bamshad M, Guthery SL (2007) Race, genetics and medicine: does the color of a leopard’s spots matter? Curr Opin Pediatr 19:613–618PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blank RM, Dabady M, Citro CF (eds) (2004) Measuring racial discrimination: panel on methods for assessing discrimination. National Academies Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  4. Boas F (1912) Changes in bodily form of descendants of immigrants. Am Anthropol 14:53–562CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burchard EG, Ziv E, Coyle N, Gomez SL, Tang H, Karter AJ, Mountain JL, Perez-Stable EJ, Sheppard D, Risch N (2003) The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice. N Engl J Med 348(12):1170–1175PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burchard EG, Borrell LN, Choudhry S, Naqvi M, Tsai HJ, Rodriguez-Santana JR, Chapela R, Rogers SD, Mei R, Rodriguez-Cintron W, Arena JF, Kittles R, Perez-Stable EJ, Ziv E, Risch N (2005) Latino populations: a unique opportunity for the study of race, genetics, and social environment in epidemiological research. Am J Public Health 95(12):2161–2168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Campbell CD, Ogburn EL, Lunetta KL et al (2005) Demonstrating stratification in a European American population. Nat Genet 37(8):868–872PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chakravarti A (1999) Population genetics—making sense out of sequence. Nat Genet 21(1s):56–60PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Choudhry S, Burchard EG, Borrell LN, Tang H, Gomez I, Naqvi M, Nazario S, Torres A, Casal J, Martinez-Cruzado JC, Ziv E, Avila PC, Rogriquez-Cintron W, Risch NJ (2006) Ancestry-environment interactions and asthma risk among Puerto Ricans. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 174(10):1086–1091CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Conrad DF, Jakobsson M, Coop G, Wen XQ, Wall JD, Rosenberg NA, Pritchard JK (2006) A worldwide survey of haplotype variation and linkage disequilibrium in the human genome. Nat Genet 38(11):1251–1260PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cooper RS, Kaufman JS, Ward R (2003) Race and genomics. N Engl J Med 348(12):1166–1170PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fujimura JH, Duster T, Rajagopalan R (2008) Introduction: race, genetics, and disease: questions of evidence, matters of consequence. Soc Stud Sci 38(5):643–656PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fullwiley D (2007) Race and genetics: attempts to define the relationship. Biosocieties 2:221–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fullwiley D (2008) The biologistical construction of race: “admixture” technology and the new genetic medicine. Soc Stud Sci 38:695–735PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gannett L (2001) Racism and human genome diversity research: the ethical limits of “population thinking”. Philos Sci 68(3):S479–S492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gonzalez-Neira A, Ke XY, Lao O, Calafell F, Navarro A, Comas D, Cann H, Bumpstead S, Ghori J, Hunt S, Deloukas P, Dunham I, Cardon LR, Bertranpetit J (2006) The portability of tagSNPs across populations: a worldwide survey. Genome Res 16(3):323–330PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Goodman AH (2000) Why genes don’t count (for racial differences in health). Am J Public Health 90(11):1699–1702PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Halder I, Shirver M, Thomas M, Fernandez JR, Frudakis T (2008) A panel of ancestry informative markers for estimating individual biogeographical ancestry and admixture from four continents: utility and applications. Hum Mutat 29(5):648–658PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hamilton JA (2008) Revitalizing difference in the HapMap: race and contemporary human genetic variation research. J Law Med Ethics 36(3):471–477PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Handley LJ, Manica A, Goudet J, Balloux F (2007) Going the distance: human population genetics in a clinal world. Trends Genet 23(9):432–439PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Happe KE (2006) The rhetoric of race in breast cancer research. Patterns Prejudice 40(4–5):461–480CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hunt LM, Megyesi MS (2008) Genes, race and research ethics: who’s minding the store? J Med Ethics 34(6):495–500PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. International Congress of Eugenics (1923) Scientific papers of the second International Congress of Eugenics: held at American Museum of Natural History, New York, 22–28 September 1921, Committee on Publication, Charles B. Davenport, Chairman. Williams & Williams, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  24. Kahn J (2006) Genes, race, and population: avoiding a collision of categories. Am J Public Health 96(11):1965–1970PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Klimentidis YC, Miller GF, Shriver MD (2009) Genetic admixture, self-reported ethnicity, self-estimated admixture, and skin pigmentation among hispanics and native Americans. Am J Phys Anthropol 138(4):375–383PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Krieger N (2000) Refiguring “race”: epidemiology, racialized biology, and biological expressions of race relations. Int J Health Serv 30(1):211–216PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lee SSJ (2005) Ethical implications of race and genomics—racializing drug design: implications of pharmacogenomics. Am J Public Health 95(12):2133–2138PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lee SSJ (2006) Biobanks of a ‘racial kind’: mining for difference in the new genetics. Patterns Prejudice 40(4–5):443–460Google Scholar
  29. Lee SSJ, Mudaliar A (2009) Racing forward: the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act. Science 323(5912):342PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lewontin RC (1974) The genetic basis of evolutionary change. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Marchini J, Cardon LR, Phillips MS, Donnelly P (2004) The effects of human population structure on large genetic association studies. Nat Genet 36(5):512–517PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Need AC, Goldstein DB (2006) Genome-wide tagging for everyone. Nat Genet 38(11):1227–1228PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Novembre J, Stephens M (2008) Interpreting principal component analyses of spatial population genetic variation. Nat Genet 60:646–649CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Paradies YC, Montoya MJ, Fullerton SM (2007) Racialized genetics and the study of complex diseases—the thrifty genotype revisited. Perspect Biol Med 50(2):203–227PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Reardon J (2007) Democratic Mis-haps: the problem of democratization in a time of biopolitics. Biosocieties 2:239–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Risch N (2006) Dissecting racial and ethnic differences. N Engl J Med 354(4):408–411PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Risch N, Burchard E, Ziv E, Tang H (2002) Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. Genome Biol 3:comment2007.1-2007.12Google Scholar
  38. Rosenberg NA, Mahajan S, Ramachandran S, Zhao C, Pritchard JK, Feldman MW (2005) Clines, clusters, and the effect of study design on the inference of human population structure. PLoS Genet 1:e70PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sankar P, Cho MK, Mountain J (2007) Race and ethnicity in genetic research. Am J Med Genet A 143A(9):961–970PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Serre D, Paabo SP (2004) Evidence for gradients of human genetic diversity within and among continents. Genome Res 14(9):1679–1685PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Service S, Sabatti C, Freimer N (2007) Tag SNPs chosen from HapMap perform well in several population isolates. Genet Epidemiol 31(3):189–194PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Snipp CM (2003) Racial measurement in the American census: past practices and implications for the future. Ann Rev Sociol 29:563–588CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Tang H, Quertermous T, Rodriguez B, Kardia SLR, Zhu XF, Brown A, Pankow JS, Province MA, Hunt SC, Boerwinkle E, Schork NJ, Risch NJ (2005) Genetic structure, self-identified race/ethnicity, and confounding in case-control association studies. Am J Hum Genet 76(2):268–275PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Tang H, Coram M, Wang P et al (2006) Reconstructing genetic ancestry blocks in admixed individuals. Am J Hum Genet 79(1):1–12PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Tian C, Gregersen PK, Seldin MF (2008) Accounting for ancestry: population substructure and genome-wide association studies. Hum Mol Genet 17(2):R143–R150PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Witherspoon DJ, Wooding S, Rogers AR et al (2007) Genetic similarities within and between human populations. Genetics 176(1):351–359PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Yang JJ, Burchard EG, Choudhry S et al (2008) Differences in allergic sensitization by self-reported race and genetic ancestry. J Allergy Clin Immunol 122(4):820–827PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of OklahomaOKUSA

Personalised recommendations