Eve is from Adam's Rib, the Earth is Flat, and Races Come from Genes
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Jacqueline Stevens is an assistant professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She writes on how states establish taxonomies of race and ethnicity. Her publications on this topic include Reproducing the State (Princeton, 1999) and "Racial Meanings and Scientific Methods: Policy Changes for NIH-funded Publications Reporting Human Variation," Journal of Health Policy Politics and Law (2003).

With the benefit of being a late-comer to this esteemed group of scholars responding to Armand Mari Leroi's characterizations about the state of the research on genetics and race, it seems obvious that the evidence in favor of re-opening the debate on whether race is a genetic classification has as much validity as that which might prompt revisiting empirical claims from Genesis and medieval Catholic astronomy. Especially troubling are Leroi's claims about the most credible source for his evidence, the conference that led to the Nature Genetics supplement. He states that at the conference leading to this publication, “some even argued that, looked at the right way, genetic data show that races clearly do exist,” but he does not say how many said this or who they were. Joseph L. Graves Jr. was on the external advisory board of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University, the group that organized the conference whose results Leroi putatively summarizes. Graves was also present, read the papers, and writes that Leroi's claim about their meetings supporting a return to conventional uses of nineteenth century racial taxonomies was wrong. “[N]one expressed that 'race' as classically defined was an appropriate way to classify individuals” (emphasis added).1 It may be that Graves overlooked a comment here or there but it would be quite bizarre if he missed an emerging consensus.

Among the articles appearing in the Nature Genetics issue that Leroi references as authorizing his claims about a new use of a geneticized concept of race, only one makes even a weak case for using race in biomedical research. And this article, authored by scientists mapping genes and their evolution, not doing clinical research, says relying on standard racial classifications for medical interventions is apt to be unhelpful. “At face value, such results [locating disease genes in ancestral populations] could be interpreted as supporting the use of race in evaluating medical treatment options,” write Lynn Jorde and Stephen Wooding, “but race and ancestry are not equivalent. Many polymorphisms are required to estimate an individual's ancestry, whereas the number of genes involved in mediating a specific drug response may be relatively small. If disease-associated alleles are common (and thus of clinical significance), they are likely to be relatively ancient and therefore shared among multiple populations. Consequently, an individual's population affiliation would often be a faulty indicator of the presence or absence of an allele related to diagnosis or drug response” (emphasis added).2 One reason the New York Times readers were never clued into Leroi's missed attributions is that he left their sources unnamed. Leroi quotes only the texts with which he takes issue and not the ones he asserts support his views. This allows him to impute an authority to certain claims that are not supported in the texts themselves. His article contains not a single direct quotation from anyone justifying racial classifications for medical research.

In addition to misidentifying an emerging consensus, Leroi has incorrectly dated the origin for critiques of a geneticized idea of race and the underlying evidence that they have used. As Graves also points out, Leroi wants his audience to believe that until Richard Lewontin's denunciation of race in 1971, racial categories reflected long-held popular intuitions. But the concept of race is a relatively recent one, dating only from the fifteenth century, which is when the Roman Catholic Church banned enslaving enemies, even when captured in just wars.3 At that point Portugal's King Alfonso V sailed deeper into southern Africa, where he could initiate a slave trade and kidnap people from political communities with whom Portugal had no previous contact, unlike the Moors of northern Africa, who themselves had occupied Portugal and Spain for large swaths of time. Some Moors had become Christianized—and many Portuguese and Spaniards converted to Islam. In short, no one in the neighborhood of the existing European and even Islamic empires was fair game for enslavement. Not being able to enslave human beings, as these could be converted, Spanish and Portuguese monarchs claimed these tribes from southern Africa were sub-human, and hence emerged the idea of race.

Unlike the word “mountain” to which Leroi analogizes the vagaries of “race”—Leroi says the variation in genetic differences within each race is like variation among mountain heights—the first recorded use of the cognate for the word “race” in Europe is less than five hundred years old. “Mountain,” on the other hand, is from the Latin mons, which has essentially the same meaning as today's usage of “mountain” and has roots that go back to Indo-European languages. In other words, this meaning of mountain has been around for millennia. While it is true that we use words in ways that allow us to include a range of observed phenomena — to use Leroi's example, the Pennines and the Himalayas are both “mountains”— no one has disputed that mountains exist, but since its inception “races” has had numerous critics.

As Graves also points out, Charles Darwin, Ashley Montagu, Franz Boas, and Ruth Benedict are just a few of the luminaries whose worries about the scientific basis of racial classifications span three century marks.4 He could have included Max Weber and W.E.B. Du Bois as well.5 And before them there was Bartholemew de Las Casas, a 16th century Spanish priest who denounced the racial thinking that was justifying the enslavement of Indians in the New World. These writers and many more are part of a very odd counter-narrative which seems always to have the factual and moral high ground and yet whose evidence is always positioned as new and from the margins. No doubt this is because those defending race as hereditable have easy recourse to the idioms produced by legal rules producing kinship structures. Hence it is not the truth of a genetic racial fact but the power of this idea as it is institutionalized by the state that guarantees its survival over the generations.

Perhaps the most lucid early dramatization of the power of the racial concept's politics and the fact of the weakness of its science appears in texts by Du Bois. His 1914 critique of the alleged scientific basis of race in his book to be titled The Negro Race was so devastating that its editor had the word “race” omitted from the title.6 Du Bois writes, “In fact it is generally recognized today that no scientific definition of race is possible. Differences, and striking differences, there are between men and groups of men, but they fade into each other so insensibly that we can only indicate the main divisions of men in broad outlines. As Von Luschan says, “The question of the number of human races has quite lost its raison d'etre and has become a subject rather of philosophic speculation rather than of scientific research. It is of no more importance now to know how many human races there are than to know how many angels can dance on the point of a needle.”7 In his Dusk of Dawn, subtitled, The Autobiography of the Concept of Race, Du Bois narrates a fictional conversation between the white American Christian Roger Van Dieman and himself. The Du Bois interlocutor never has a chance and after Du Bois reports on his own white grandfather, Van Dieman asks, “But what is this group: and how do you differentiate it; and how can you call it 'black' when you admit it is not black?'” to which Du Bois replies, “I recognize it quite easily and with full legal sanction; the black man is a person who must ride 'Jim Crow' in Georgia.” 8 Du Bois knew from his studies of Hegel that the power of a concept did not follow from its being observed by the naked eye, but rather the state's institutionalization of certain ideas would make one see some things and not others and the more power the state had, the less likely its fictions, its knowledge, would be disputed much less named as such.

Fortunately, there is a recursive process of knowledge formation occurring within the state sponsorship of racialized genetics today. In part because of policy directives and Ethics, Legal, and Social Implications funding incentives (five percent of the U.S. Human Genome Project funds must go toward this), many government scientists are having thoughtful conversations about how to grapple with the statistically significant variations in health among idiomatically racial and ethnic groups without reinforcing hereditary stereotypes. This work is challenging and rather awkward because the government itself, not only in its scientific branches but especially in its economic and social programs, has done so much to institutionalize these categories. Slavery and miscegenation laws, then Jim Crow, then citizenship laws have inflicted considerable taxonomic damage in their categorization of the population along lines of race and ethnicity. Researchers throughout the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) are finding it very hard to resist using the off-the-shelf racial categories that the government continues to prioritize in its law enforcement, census, and other data-collecting work. The task for scientists and policy analysts who want to be honest about variations among idiomatic racial and ethnic groups while at the same time protecting against the proliferation of heuristics like geneticized racial and ethnic groups is to operationalize research concepts that precisely name existing populations without advancing wrong and harmful connotations of their being rooted in genetics.9

This could be accomplished were the DHHS to implement two proposals.

  • The DHHS should issue a regulation prohibiting its staff or grantees, including those receiving NIH funding, from publishing in any form—including internal documents and citations to other studies—claims about genetics associated with variables of race, ethnicity, nationality, or any other category of population that is observed or imagined as heritable unless statistically significant disparities between groups exist and description of these will yield clear benefits for public health, as deemed by a standing committee to which these claims must be submitted and authorized prior to their circulation in any form beyond the committee.
  • The NIH should issue a clarification of the current congressional requirement that “women and members of minorities and their subpopulations are included in all human subject research federally funded medical research,” which has been interpreted to refer strictly to ethnic and racial groups (59 Federal Register 11,146 [9 March 1994]). The new regulation should specify that federally funded medical research study many populations, including those that vary by childhood residence, current residence, occupation, diet, exercise, age, wealth, income, and regularity of medical care.

The rules advocated above could be enforced by an NIH committee similar in purpose to the NIH Recombinant DNA (rDNA) Advisory Committee, but with more enforcement capabilities. Scientists using NIH funds for rDNA research must submit their proposals to the Advisory Committee, which then ascertains whether the experiments warrant public review. If the committee deems it necessary, for reasons of safety or ethical concerns, the scientists must make their plans available and receive public comment. Though the recommendations resulting from this review are not enforceable, the review procedure is: “Evidence of noncompliance may result in suspension or termination of NIH financial support and other sanctions applicable to the project researchers and their institutions.” 10

The model proposed for reviewing genetic etiologies associated with group differences, including those of race, would require the standing committee to evaluate the public comments and, with these in mind, to determine whether the research can be published. Adherence to the first recommendation would sharply curtail research references to race and ethnicity, with relatively little impact on genetic medical research agendas. Most of the studies funded by the NIH seem not to be centrally concerned with these differences but mention them in passing, seemingly as a matter of habit. Once pressed to supply more precise data and arguments on their relevance to public health, authors of these articles will likely be dissuaded from pursuing approval for these claims. If Leroi, for instance, were receiving an NIH grant and publishing under these guidelines he would have to provide clear evidence for his claims, not simply gesture toward some vague consensus that he does not specify.

Though geneticists researching in this area may cringe at what appears to be a restraint on their freedom of speech and study, the intellectual basis for this ban is unassailable. There is no empirical evidence that populations taxonomized by descent yield more knowledge useful for treating most diseases than those analyzed along other axes, while there is overwhelming evidence that nongenetic taxonomies have great predictive value and yield robust information in repeated experiments. Scientists can point to hundreds of articles studying genetics and ethnic associations with statistically significant differences, but for the vast majority of these, retesting shows that their results are spurious, possibly a result of data mining (when scientists try different regression equations and only publish those whose variables yield significant correlations).

To ensure against this form of misdirection, scientists should disclose to the committee all of the suspected allele sites they investigated for correlations and adjust their standard error accordingly. Ideally, scientists should compare the racial and ethnic group genetic differences with those of groups not thought to be hereditary. If, using the same method they use for studying group differences, they find similar rates of statistically significant correlations for polymorphisms among arbitrarily selected groups—for instance populations divided by the last digit of their phone numbers—they should reconsider stating any conclusions about the role of heritable genes.

The second recommendation—expanding the number of variables studied—serves two purposes. First, it challenges the intuition that hereditary identities confer the most important differences among us. The lip-service paid to “environmental” factors will have to be given research space for its documentation, the effect of which is to make visible the overwhelming importance of nonhereditary contributions to disease variation. Even the National Human Genomic Research Institute acknowledges hereditary factors account for only between one to 20% of more than 95% of all diseases, including diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure, as well as breast cancer.11 Also, studying race, ethnicity, and sex alongside environmental variables may assist in useful inferences about the ways that race, ethnicity, and even sex are also social differences.

One hesitation in requiring these additional variables stems from statistical concerns. More variables mean more subgroups per study. Not just rich blacks, poor blacks, rich whites and poor whites but all sorts of groups with many variations in their conditions would have to be observed in order to make claims about the predictive utility of racial variations. One consequence will be that each subgroup will be smaller than in studies that do not control for so many variations and it will be difficult to assemble a data set with sufficient numbers so as to make observations that reach the level of statistical significance. There may not even be a New Hampshire counterpart to the Asian stockbroker who grew up in the rural Midwest near a power plant and lives now in New York City, for example. This is not a methodological glitch to be avoided but the truth about our complicated lives. Since we live in a world of these and many other variables, statistically weak results more honestly reflect the uncertainty inherent in such studies than those that artificially limit the variables observed. By including these many variables and the murky medical scenarios that they produce, scientists appropriately make explicit the uncertainty of their results.

It is possible that were these guidelines implemented, scientists would study only white men and not specify their results held for just this group. The salutary effect of the NIH not funding publication of putative hereditary population characteristics is not that studies oversampling the genomes of white men are fair or that the findings lend themselves to completely accurate inferences about disease and risk for everyone else. Rather, because of the overwhelming similarities in the causes and treatments of the diseases the NIH is prioritizing—hypertension, diabetes, and asthma—the false universalization of heritable traits poses fewer health risks than a false particularization of such traits, a probability that Leroi does not consider when he predicts great advantages to medicine tailored to racial subgroups.

Mistakes in extrapolating from specific studies are unavoidable for any study that goes beyond an individual genome. Nonetheless research avoiding hereditary population taxonomies still would be more accurate and beneficial than the epistemic and medical consequences attendant on the obsessive reconstitution of hereditary racial groups. Denying geneticists the ability to study heritable traits by large populations still allows researchers to compare family trees, and privately funded studies can pursue genetic racial and other population taxonomies. Preventing governments from organizing racial information as genetic is very important but it is entirely unnecessary to prevent all discussion of these ideas. The NIH does a great service by not funding studies of the Zodiac sign, but it does no great harm by failing to squelch studies of astrology funded by Nancy Reagan.

As racial differences are not just called socially constructed but analyzed as socially and especially politically constructed, it is to be expected that they will recede. Just as serfs—also treated as a hereditary group—vanished as such with the elimination of the feudal legal structure, it is possible that abandoning the interpellation of race as biological by the governmental scientific community may also result in vanquishing the biological connotations of this group, so that being black would be regarded as no more genetic than being a Manhattanite. In the fourteenth century, to think that a serf was a purely political convention and a woman might be a venture capitalist would be absurd. Developments in political economy change profoundly not just what we do but who we are. Albeit many times these changes are unforeseen, it is much better, especially for a democracy, if these changes are directed self-consciously toward the elimination of arbitrary inequalities and forms of alienation.

When the government funds research it maintains the prerogative to decide its priorities. Just as creationist researchers, using methods and premises the NIH rejects, do not receive funding, the NIH is free to exercise its judgment as to what it considers useful expenditures on disease etiology. One potential legal objection to this rule would be that it restricts free speech. However, the rules above do not censor scientists, but deny them funding for particular types of studies, unless they go through a review. They are free to conduct these studies with private money and to publish them, albeit with the knowledge that scientists receiving NIH funding cannot cite them. One anticipates such a rule would take away any incentives for shoddy, inflammatory work, since presumably scientists would want their insights used by others and will spend time doing research where that is possible.

Related precedents suggest that while such a rule may anger some, the rule is constitutionally sound. Analogous regulations tying funding to speech restrictions in the area of medicine as well as the arts have been held constitutional. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal regulation under Title X prohibiting family planning clinics receiving federal funds from providing any information about abortion or abortion referrals. Nurses and doctors who asserted a First Amendment right to alert patients to medical treatments were told that the government had no obligation to pay for their exercise of this right.12 Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 upheld, eight to one, Congress’s requirement that the National Endowment for the Arts consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when awarding grants, even though artists protested this violated their First Amendment rights.13 A rule prohibiting reference to variations associated with hereditary populations in federally funded research is no more an assault on free speech than is the NIH presumption against funding publications on whether Geminis are fickle.

In closing I must confess that this recurring debate about the legitimacy of a genetic basis for racial classifications has been dull for quite some time. What is touted as “new discoveries” are seldom either. They are either old myths or hypotheses for which the falsification goes unreported, as Jay Kaufman shows in his report on hypertension 14 and as has been repeatedly documented for many other diseases by the others whose contributions appear here, including myself. I sincerely hope that Leroi, and others like him, will abandon their public education on racial heuristics.


1 Graves, J.L. “What We Know and What We Don't Know: Human Genetic Variation and the Social Construction of Race” at www.raceand genomics.ssrc.org.

2 “Genetic Variation, Classification and 'Race'.” Nature Genetics 36 S28- S33 (2004), published online doi:10.1038/ng1435.

3 A detailed description of the origins of race with citations appears in my Reproducing the State, chapter 5 (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1999), esp. 176-186.

4 Graves 2005.

5 Economy and Society, vol. 1 and 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) and Du Bois, W.E.B. The Negro [1914], ed. Herbert Aptheker (New York: Kraus-Thomson Publishers, 1975).

6 Ibid., p. 7.

7 Ibid., p. 13.

8 Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept [1940] (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992), p. 153.

9 For a justification of using a cost-benefit analysis here, see my “Racial Meanings and Scientific Methods: Policy Changes for NIH-funded Publications Reporting Human Variation,” Journal of Health Policy, Politics and Law, 28 (6) (December 2003): 1033-1098.

10 Baram, M. 2001. Making Clinical Trials Safer for Human Subjects. American Journal of Law and Medicine 27:253–282. Available through the AJLMWeb site at aslme.org/pub_ajlm.

11 Collins, F., M. Guyer, and A. Chakravarti. 1997. Variations on a Theme: Cataloguing Human DNA Variation. Science 278:1580.

12 Rust v. Sullivan/State of New York v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991)

13 National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998).

14 “The Anatomy of a Medical Myth,” 2005.