New science undermines oldest notions about race

Genetics: Centuries-old concepts make no biological sense, scientists say.

October 10, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Most of us know a white person, a black person, an Asian or American Indian when we see one. We say we can spot them by their skin color, their hair texture, or by the shape of their eyes, or nose, or lips.

And many people, consciously or unconsciously, will leap from the perception of race to assumptions about a stranger's genetics, biology, behavior and abilities.

They'd probably be wrong.

Advances in genetics are undermining some of our oldest notions about the nature and biology of race. And the scientists whose intellectual forebears helped establish those notions say it's time to set the record straight.

"Race as an explanation for human biological variation is dead," says Alan H. Goodman, president-elect of the American Anthropological Association.

The truth emerging from modern genetics, scientists say, is that we're 99.9 percent identical. Thanks to our common origins, and our natural eagerness to exchange DNA, our genes are thoroughly scrambled. And what patterns do emerge bear little resemblance to our traditional, geographically rooted notions of "race."

Researchers say this new, deeper understanding should silence those who argue that some innate inferiority -- or superiority -- lies behind persistent racial disparities in such things as school achievement, poverty or incarceration rates, or infant mortality.

"That just doesn't wash," says Goodman, a professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. "It takes ... a gun out of the hand of racists."

`Race has real effects'

But it doesn't end the discussion. Race still exists as what scientists call a "social construct," an invention of society which we begin to learn by the age of 3 or 4.

"Race has real effects. It has material effects," Goodman says. "If you talk of differences in voting patterns in the U.S., differences in health care, education, housing, differences in school behavior -- that structure between racial groups is real. But it's not biological."

These realizations sparked anthropologists, who gathered recently in Alexandria, Va., to begin what they see as a badly needed public conversation about the biological and social realities of race in America.

They also want to put to rest some ghosts in their own history. It was one of their own -- German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, often called the father of physical anthropology -- who proposed in 1795 that mankind was divided into five races based on geography, physical attributes and traits. He called them Caucasian, Negro (or Ethiopian), American, Mongolian and Malayan.

The notion stuck, and it influenced the thinking of many 19th- and 20th-century scientists whose theories often confused science with cultural biases and value judgments.

"This led to errors and misapplications and, much more seriously, to the abuse of biology as a means of achieving power over others," says University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank Johnston. Nazi atrocities, apartheid in South Africa and "one drop of blood" rules, once used to assign race and expand slavery and oppression during America's antebellum and Jim Crow years, were all rationalized by misplaced theories of racial biology.

Now, the American Anthropological Association has begun a project to re-educate the public and change how people think about race.

Called "Understanding Race and Human Variation," it is funded by nearly $4 million from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation. It will debut in the fall of 2006 and run five years.

Plans call for a 5,000-square- foot traveling science museum exhibit, a Web site, a film, community gatherings tied to local issues, and teaching materials for kindergarten through 12th grade.

"We were good at spreading that [notion of race] all over the world," says Yolanda Moses, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside. "It's important that we update people."

Geneticists at the meeting seemed to agree that our common notions of race have only the most tenuous links to biology.

"We humans are about 99.9 percent identical," says Lynn Jorde, researcher in human genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "We are more homogeneous than, for example, chimps or fruit flies at this most fundamental biological level. That comes as a surprise to a lot of people."

Based on archaeological and genetic evidence, scientists believe that everyone living today descends from the first modern humans, who evolved in Africa. About 100,000 years ago, a small subgroup of those African people ventured off the continent and eventually populated the rest of the world.

If we are 99.9 percent alike, Jorde says, that means all our genetic variation is limited to one in every 1,000 "base-pairs" -- the basic unit of our genetic code. And most of those genes have no influence on our appearance or biochemistry.

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