Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Recently the discussion about whether avoiding the word 'race' in discussing human genetic differences is appropriate flared up again in blog-land.  One argument is that the word has an exact biological definition and that, even if some uneducated people use it as an expression of racism, biologists ought not change the scientific usage of the word.  I agree that the scientific usage does not need to change, and that hand-wringing about being accused of racism for using the word 'race' is inappropriate.

The problem is that it's not just some uneducated people who misuse the word 'race'.  Across a good swath of the western world---granted I only have personal experience with the U.S., Poland, and France---people want to classify others into 'races' in order to make arguments about their ethical standards, personal motivations, intelligence, patriotism, and numerous other measures of human worth.  Many of the people who want to make these assignments are well educated and wealthy, some of them are not.  Their assignments are based on: 1) skin color; and 2) accent.  They are not interested in what the biologists think about the word 'race'.

This use of the word 'race' is much more common than the current biological definition and it predates the current correct scientific usage.  Whether we like it or not, the historical usage of the word 'race' in science aligned much better with the current colloquial usage rather than the current scientific usage.

In that context, as biologists who would like to communicate effectively, we will have to explain what we mean by the word 'race' every time we use it in public.  Do we have much to gain in communication with the public by using the word 'race'?  Maybe if we want to educate them about the concept of biological races, but I don't see that as one of the big challenges.  In most other circumstances we are better off talking about human genetic differences in more useful terms---more on this soon.

I do want the public to understand and adopt the biologist's notion of human races but, as a biologist, I have better things to do.

My recent inspiration on the topic:
  1. Human races, from Larry Moran
  2. The problem of race... again, from Larry Moran
  3. Confusion about human races, from Richard Lewontin
  4. Global Distribution of Genomic diversity..., from Adam Auton et al.
The last is a journal article (free pdf), and it contains a less historically encumbered view of human genetic diversity.

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