Modern genomics and race

Another little thing from that Anne Wojcicki interview that I linked last week -- she fielded a question about race:

Q: 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? AC
A: 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 doesnt 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 individuals genome. Some customers have complex patterns depending on where their ancestors originated. These reference populations arent races; theyre 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.

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...

The points she starts with -- both true -- are that human populations aren't isolated ("pure races"), and you shouldn't rank them ("inherently superior"). But those ideas conflict with the process, since the software commonly used in human genetics (like STRUCTURE and other programs) assumes a model in which originally isolated groups (otherwise known as pure races) mix together.

There are two problems here. One is technical -- geneticists use software that makes simplistic assumptions, because the results are easy to use and interpret. One is social -- we want results that are easy to use and interpret. It's hard enough to market the simplistic information, how are you going to sell people on more complicated models?

These are exactly the same problems that drove biological anthropologists thinking about race in the early twentieth century (for example, Ernest Hooton's "Plain Statements on Race"). The word "race" has become odious, but the same models of ancestry are still in use.

More on related topics:

Skip Gates discovers that genetic tests don't mean what he thought they meant.

Ashley Montagu on recent evolution

Disagreeing with Hillary Clinton on human genetic differences

Unintended consequences of genetic ancestry tests