Thursday, August 20, 2009

Anne Wojcicki's Politically Correct View of Race

 
Anne Wojcicki is the co-founder of "23andMe" a company that will analyze your DNA for a fee. She was recently interviewed and the results are posted on the New York Times website [Genetics Entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki Answers Your Questions].

One of the questions asked about "race." Here's her reply.
A lot of the difficulty in talking about race has been a lack of agreement on what “race” means. In the past, the idea of pure races also included an ordering of certain races as inherently superior to others. We reject this idea absolutely. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no genetic differences between populations of different ancestral origin. A few of our features use the genome-wide data of reference populations from around the world to trace the origin of pieces of an individual’s genome. Some customers have complex patterns depending on where their ancestors originated. These reference populations aren’t “races”; they’re representative samples of peoples who have lived in a single place for a very long time and have thus accumulated different sets of genetic variants over time.
John Hawks noticed this and blogged about it: Modern genomics and race. He said exactly what I was thinking ...
That's a tricky piece of wordcraft -- they're not 'races'; "they're representative samples of peoples who have lived in a single place for a very long time and have thus accumulated different sets of genetic variants over time."

Uhh....I'm thinking that's pretty much the definition of race in a lot of textbooks...
Most species are subdivided into races (also called subspecies, or demes).

Humans are not an exception. Races exist. Pretending that they don't isn't going to solve the problems of racism. It just makes you look stupid.


24 comments :

  1. I agree, however scientifically accurate groupings are quite far from popular notions of which races exist (for instance, most people ignore there are several african races and tend to think of all as "the black race")

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  2. I think this might boil down to the sort of conflict between sociological (or colloquial) and scientific terminology that leads to the "it's just a theory" fallacy.

    There has been a lot of valuable work done in the social sciences and the humanities describing "race" as a social construct as opposed to an empirically definable property. Without looking at the question from a biological perspective, this makes a lot of sense. Of course, as you point out, Larry, if your goal is to classify organisms so as to be able to describe their evolutionary past, your concept of "race" is different and much more useful.

    So it seems like Ms. Wojcicki is caught between the two. Her job spans fields where both meanings are highly relevant. I don't know if her background is a scientific one, but it seems like she is carefully choosing to address the fact that "race" is a very charged term colloquially, and backing away from potential "evilutionists want eugenics" quagmires despite its usefulness as a scientific term. As such, I lean toward being more charitable in my interpretation of her motivations.

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  3. Let's not forget the question ...

    As projects like yours and the HapMap uncover numerous instances of genetic differences between human groups or races, what is the responsibility of the genetics community when discussing innate differences between races, particularly when a large part of academia is convinced that there are no such differences?

    It's the responsibility of the "genetics community" to tell the truth about science.

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  4. And, arguably, to make an effort to put the scientific truth in the correct context so as to hopefully minimize the potential for it to be misquoted and perverted to the aims of nuts.

    Perhaps this is more the responsibility of the science writers than of the scientists and entrepreneurs. But it is not unreasonable, I think, to remain conscious of and careful with scientific terms such as "race", especially given the glee with which reporters seem to run with any misinterpretation that makes a good headline.

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  5. She doesn't say that races don't exist. She says that the reference populations, like the Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria used by HapMap are not races. It's a small sample.

    That reference population may or may not share many SNPs, or other characteristics, with other populations from Africa. If it does, and those populations cluster together and don't overlap much with other groups, then the idea of race has some predictive value and scientific content. I thought the data showed that it was much messier than that.

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  6. Mrs Google is out to make money by any means possible. That much is obvious from 23andMe's false advertisements (e.g., "your risk analyzed for 116 diseases and traits, including ... rheumatoid arthritis"). These days, a mere admittance that race is a valid concept risks you being labeled a racist. Dare to go a half step from there and start thinking about group differences, and you can be ostracized and fired from your job. So it should come as no surprise that Anne would lie through her teeth and pretend that races don't exist.

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  7. Scientists like James Watson, who have made ignorant and prejudiced comments about race, make it much harder to have a sincere discussion about innate racial differences, placing all under suspicion of similar personal racial prejudice.

    Watson simply waved away all the progress made on the topic since the 60's: From the acceptance as fact that intelligence was innately inferior in some races; to the massive de-bunking of all the studies that allegedly demonstrated this, and the realization that no reliable scientific evidence exists. Indeed, I challenge anyone to present and discuss the evidence for innate racial differences in intelligence.

    Those who think that "political correctness could be hiding the truth" have to understand clearly, this once WAS the truth, that was later abandoned. Actually, there has been an abundance of studies, from IQ tests to cranial capacity. Many of them were phony, others simply have not found any evidence for innate racial differences in intelligence.

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  8. I'd say she answered perfectly. She didn't reject the term race, as you imply, but noted that one version, the most common version in people's minds, is not something borne out in the data. I'd say she's far clearer than most scientists on this issue and can neatly avoid false implications by doing so.

    There are quibbles, and then there's just being wrong...

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  9. To A. Vargas WRT:

    Indeed, I challenge anyone to present and discuss the evidence for innate racial differences in intelligence.

    You know that "hard" evidence of this sort is almost impossible. "Race","intelligence" and "innate" are pretty much not defined in comparison to terms that "real" sciences normally operate with.

    That said, I wonder if you'd be willing to share your thoughts on why Argentina is the only country in South America that can claim three Nobel laureates in sciences. About 11% of total population and 3 science Nobels has to be contrasted with 89% and 0 science Nobels. What is it that you think made Argentina special?

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  10. Hahaha

    Well, you say no hard evidence or precise discussion is possible...this does not mean you are now free to fling any stupid argument, like that dumb nobel prize thing...It's either hard evidence, or NOTHING... never free pass for increasingly stupid, bad arguments.

    You're wrong from step 1. These things can be discussed scientifically. "Innate" can be defined. Task-performances can be measured.

    If someone just properly demonstrated that one race performs better in IQ tests due to their genes, that would be evidence.

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  11. Larry said-
    Most species are subdivided into races (also called subspecies, or demes)

    Wouldn't it be in our best interest to just use the words "subspecies" or "deme"? We could drop all of the colloquial baggage, and misunderstandings associated with the word "race".

    Maybe "deme" is best... subspecies would probably be more inflammatory to the general public. ;-)

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  12. Sorry but the word "race" (for humans) has its history, and it's impossible to do as if it doesn't. Biologists may use this word in a precise sens. Cattle breeders too. But for the general public, "the human races" are still Blumenbach's 5 great groups, and nothing else. And the idea that the "whites" and "yellows" are just on of several subgroups of the "blacks" would be considered strange by many people, if they had ever heard about it.

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  13. I usually stay clear of the intelligence question when discussing this topic and stick to things like neutral SNP or even medically relevant variants that are differentially represented amongst particular populations. Even so I have noticed that to simply maintain that SNP data can allow you to accurately sort populations into groups that correspond to commonly accepted 'races' (european, sub saharan african, east asian) is quite sufficient to get you labeled a racist.
    There is a definite change here from the old notion of a racist being someone who asserted essential differences in ability between races to a new definition that seems to require adherence to the party line of there being no biological differences between 'races' and thus the word 'race' itself being scientifically invalid.

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  14. I'm surprised this didn't come up already...

    While there is no doubt that humans do divide into groups at a genetic level, they don't correlate very well with what we normally consider to be the "races". Most of the genetic groups are in Africa - as in what we generally consider one race is genetically many. And what we consider to be well-divided groups (europeans and middle-easters, for example) are not so well divided at the genetic level.

    And there is also the issue of how you divide things up - using different genes can give you different groupings.

    I don't know if those details invalidate the laymans concept of 'race', but it does make the scientific version of race a little less of a cut-and-dried concept.

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  15. this does not mean you are now free to fling any stupid argument, like that dumb nobel prize thing

    OK, so I understand you don't want to answer that stupid question. A different one then. I noticed that countries with highest GDP per capita in South America are Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Would you share your thoughts on what made these countries economically more successful? I am sure Bolivia would love to know the secret.

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  16. Obviously, it's because the Bolivians are genetically inferior.

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  17. I don't get what all the fuss is about. Can't we just agree that meaning of the word RACE has acquired a lot of emotional baggage for historical reasons, and just adopt the word DEME for scientific purposes? It gets the concept across without provoking any of the confusion and pandemonium the R-word will.

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  18. Bayman

    Demes and subspecies (or races) cannot be equated, or arranged on a ladder of increasingly fine division. Demes are defined as structured, relatively closely interbreeding populations, whereas subspecies are taxonomic designations that only exist epistemologically, not ontologically, and are often arbitrarily sections of clines.

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  19. Dr. Moran, why don't you finally come all of the way out of the "race realist" (you know, racial differences in genetic potential in IQ, temperament etc.) closet. A lot of people will have issues with that but at least you can stop tapdancing around when it is becoming increasingly obvious where your sympathies lie. Those "politically correct" pronouncements on race certainly seem to tick you off.

    And maybe your friends PZ Myers and Bora Zivokic will have something to say about it.

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  20. I'm not entirely happy with the concept of race. It implies discrete populations. I find it more realistic to think of centers of origins of genes. Obviously there are many places where there are strong correlations between sets of genes, but (especially) where two correlated sets intersect there's ambiguity.

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  21. the human race exists we are already the subspecies
    "homo sapiens sapiens"

    but asian african european arent races/subspecies

    here are examples for other races
    "Homo sapiens idaltu" 160.000 year old findings from ethiopia
    "Homo sapiens balangodensis" 12.000 year old fossiles from Sri Lanka

    Race or subspecies imply a small or non existent flow of genes betewn the populations
    and they imply enough distinction e.g. relativly different sizes of certain bones

    due to constant warfare between humans there was always poplulations moving arround

    thus the gene-flow never was small but rather big


    AND MY POINT IS

    Prove me that a random african guy and a random european guy have more genetic differences than they each have to their neighbours who live in the next house

    you cant, thus races are a mer construct and fiction if it comes to modern humans

    have a great day

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  22. anonymous says,

    Prove me that a random african guy and a random european guy have more genetic differences than they each have to their neighbours who live in the next house

    you cant, thus races are a mer construct and fiction if it comes to modern humans

    have a great day


    You really should publish your ideas. They conflict with a massive amount of scientific data. Thousands of papers would have to be retracted if your ideas became widely known.

    You will be famous.

    [Note for the irony deficient:

    A typical Caucasian individual and a typical African individual last shared a common ancestor about 100,000 years ago. Thus, each lineage will have have accumulated a large number of genetic differences.

    The Caucasian will have fewer differences with any individual on the out-of-Africa lineage and that includes Asians. The African, on the other hand, will differ by exactly the same amount with every individual on that lineage.

    The situation is similar with respect to the difference between Caucasians and other Africans and our African individual vs. other Africans.

    But there's a complication. Some Africans descend from a branch that is deeper that the last common ancestor between non-Africans and their closest relatives. Depending on which African individual you choose, you could have several possibilities, including a situation where a Caucasian is more closely related to an African neighbor than the African individual we've chosen.

    The chosen African would be equally related to the two others in that scenario.

    You'll never have the exact situation that anonymous describes—it's not possible for the two randomly chosen individuals to both be closer to a neighbor than they are to each other.]

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  23. Dr. Moran, why don't you finally come all of the way out of the "race realist" (you know, racial differences in genetic potential in IQ, temperament etc.) closet.

    Well, if I were to hazzard a guess, I'd say that he doesn't come out of the closet because the closet exists only in your mind.

    But, hey, don't look at me; I'm not really saying anything here! Wouldn't want to accidentally fall out of any imaginary closets.

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