Human genetics accused of furthering white supremacy and racism—today

May 6, 2021 • 11:00 am

All geneticists know, and knew decades ago, that we had a shameful period in our history, particularly human genetics. (This was not predominant, but a blind alley.) Some geneticists, like Galton and Davenport, were explicit “negative eugenicists”, urging sterilization or discouraged breeding of the “inferior”, including not only those who were deemed mentally deficient or of lower class but also those of other races. This history has been reemphasized recently with the rise of anti-racism, and it’s good that we’re constantly cognizant of our past history and its racist (and classist) underpinnings. In fact, this history is already widely taught, but there’s no harm in learning about it—as we should learn the entire history of our field.

What bothers me, though, is the complete neglect of the movement against eugenics that was widespread in America, a history exemplified by articles like these (I’ll try to find links online later). This, too, is part of our history:

and this

and this, the Presidential Address at the American Society of Human Genetics in 1961

You never see this pushback mentioned in the histrionic accusations, like the one below by Lea Davis in the increasingly woke Scientific American, that human genetics in America and the UK not only has a racist past (partly true) but also a racist, white-supremacist present (not true). Lea K. Davis is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

Now it’s true that in a few places prisoners have been offered completely voluntary sterilization in return for lighter sentences, but this rarely happens. And it’s execrable. But the accusation that human genetics is ridden with racism and complicit with white supremacy is simply false. These are performative accusations, like those John McWhorter mentioned yesterday.

Davis makes a number of overheated statements and at least one contradictory one. The latter involves the existence of “races”. As I’ve written ad infinitum, there are no discrete and easily distinguishable populations that can be classified as “races”, but we do have populations, distinguished by genetic ancestry, that can, if you use many genes, be almost absolutely identified as to self-identified ethnicity as well as geographical location.

Davis argues that “race” is a social construct, a misleading statement that needs considerable explanation, which she neglects to provide.

Together, could we dispel the myth of biological race? Again, we cannot do this alone, as most of us are ill-equipped to confront the rhetorical science misinformation bombarding society on a daily basis. Engaging experts in strategic science communication, along-side of social scientists and geneticists, is mission critical to meaningfully de-biologizing race.

Let’s ditch the loaded term “race” and just use “ancestry” or “ethnicity”, recognizing that there is substantial genetic information in one’s genome that not only tells you what your self-identified race is with substantial accuracy, but also gives you a good idea of your ancestry and geographic origins. “Race” may be a social construct, but “genetic differentiation of populations” is not.  And Davis makes the mistake of saying that “race” (let’s use “ethnicity”) is something completely different from ancestry:

Others routinely, if naïvely, perpetuate the scientifically inappropriate conflation of race and ancestry. The trouble is that most human geneticists know very little about race. Scholars in sociology, anthropology, critical race theory, gender studies, etc. who have a far more sophisticated understanding of the origins of race and racism, have so much to teach us.

She’s dead wrong here. I’d rather talk about “race” (“ethnicity”) with people like John Novembre or Graham Coop, well known human geneticists, than with critical race theorists or gender studies people, who have no training in genetics, an ideological commitment, and, I’d aver, lack a “far more sophisticated understanding of the origins of race.” Ancestry has everything to do with “race” (read “ethnicity”: it’s differential ancestry that results in geographic populations being genetically different!

But the contradiction is when Davis claims that clinical studies of genes that map near disease genes have largely been conducted on white populations—a form of racism. I don’t think it’s really racism, because white populations are what’s largely available to clinicians (at least locally, as they draw participant from their local universities in Europe and the US), but I’ll grant her that we need to do such studies in people of different ethnicities. But if race is a social construct, on what basis can we do “ethnicity-based” genetic analysis of disease propensity? If ethnicity or race are social constructs that have nothing to do with biology, working on one group is as good as another. That’s not the case, of course: groups differ in their genes and their propensity to get different diseases (cultural differences surely also play a role). You need to IDENTIFY ethnicity to do such work!

Note how she throws in the accusation of explicit and systemic racism for this concentration on focal populations:

Lack of diversity in available genetic data is not an accident; it is an inevitable consequence of systemic racism in biomedical research. The difficulty in recruiting non-European populations into genetic research today is a direct result of our history of white centering, gatekeeping by white academics and decades of human rights abuses suffered at the hands of white researchers. White centering is still so embedded in human genetics that even though we recognize these problems, millions of dollars are being invested in programs to capitalize on Eurocentric genetic scores and tests that are primarily effective for people of European descent, potentially leaving communities of color behind in precision medicine advancements.

If we are to do these tests, we must label people by their ethnicities, for we’ll otherwise have no data. In fact, this is being done right now, so Davis is exaggerating.  She simply must recognize a finite number of ethnicities to do this work, for otherwise it’s of no value. (Furthermore, to have full representation, studies should be done in Africa, but white doctors attempting to collect African data are at risk of being accused of racism and colonialism.

Beyond that, we have the multiple Kendi-an accusatons that all human geneticists are complicit in racism and white supremacy. A few samples:

How do we teach and talk about this incredibly problematic history? Despite the many scholarly texts available, there is rarely an open and frank acknowledgement that the very foundations of our field were rooted in the false and dangerous beliefs of biological race and human racial hierarchies. Today, there is an effort to distance modern genetics from the harms of eugenics. This shameful aspect of our shared history is often separated from the primary curriculum for human genetics trainees, relegated to classes in “ELSI” (ethical, legal and social issues), which are usually electives—or, worse, just one day of training. In large part, we are failing to disclose this startling racist legacy to young scientists entering the field; a sad irony for a discipline devoted to human inheritance. Our failure to acknowledge the racist origins of modern genetics also has repercussions in our (in)ability to attract and retain members of underrepresented communities in genetics and other STEM training programs. Thus, as time marches on, the knowledge of our harmful racist history is fading while the culture of whiteness continues to dominate.

No, there is an effort to teach people about the history of our field. But that should not include the accusation that STEM is racist, for every school I know of is trying to “diversify” STEM as hard as we can. The issue is a “pipeline problem”: few minority candidates have reached the Ph.D. stage. That itself reflects older racism, but not racism imbuing human genetics, for scientists are pretty much anti-racists.

Further, the “very foundations of our field were not rooted in racism”. Yes, some famous geneticists believed that, but by no means all. Was the monk Gregor Mendel a racist? Were the re-discoverers of Mendelism, Hugo DeVries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak, determined to imbue the field with racism? Not that I know of. How about the popularizers of modern genetics: people like T. H. Morgan, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Alfred Sturtevant, Calvin Bridges, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane? Nope. You can mention Ronald Fisher in support of racism, but his eugenics was based on poverty, not race, and at any rate never got purchase. No, our field is not founded on racism.

And here’s how we’re still racist:

When we identify white supremacy as the paramount problem in our field’s history, it becomes clear that it is still our problem today. Lack of diversity in available genetic data is not an accident; it is an inevitable consequence of systemic racism in biomedical research.

and this; note the reference to structural violence and our complete complicity (my emphasis). The last sentence might has well come from the pen of Ibram Kendi:

Human genetics is a science that I love, a science to which I have devoted my life, and a science that I believe could be a powerful force against racist ideas in medicine and society. But this potential can only be reached if we are willing to reckon with our role, collectively and individually, past and present, in upholding white supremacy and structural violence in science and academia. As educator and author Catrice M. Jackson has observed, “If you don’t have an antiracism plan, you plan to be racist.”

It is ludicrous to claim that if we don’t have an antiracism plan, we plan be racist. Colleges are already doing their best to get women and minorities into STEM by various programs. That is our antiracism plan, and Davis cannot ask more. Society needs a plan that widens the pipeline, allowing equal opportunity for all to pursue their interests, but this has nothing to do with the supposed ongoing racism in human genetics.

An antiracism plan will require challenging everything from the speed to the priorities of human genetics research, but if we are serious about reducing health disparities through precision medicine we must push back on the culture of whiteness in medicine and research. We can begin by explaining that equitable translation of genetic medicine will be a slow process because of the inequity that our field has already created. Efforts to increase diversity among scientists are desperately needed, and unless we are committed to dismantling inherently racist structures and ideas in science, we will never achieve real equity.

We can empower ourselves and each other to acknowledge our own complicity and call on our funding institutions, our professional societies and our departments to make antiracist action a priority in our daily research practices. The long-overdue awakening emerging in American consciousness is incongruent with business as usual in our field, and it is past time to call in the revolution. Human genetics needs an antiracism plan now, otherwise, we must admit we plan to be racist.

I reject her claim that I’m complicit in racism, even though I’m a fly geneticist. Is Davis unaware of what is being done now? I find it hard to believe her claims, for she raising as a new challenge what is largely a problem already being rectified. As for the “calling in the revolution”, that’s like “sending in the clowns”: “Don’t bother, they’re here.”

As for human genetics being inhabited by figures in pointy hats and white robes, Davis is dead wrong. Genetics was not founded on white supremacy, and although we had racists and bigoted episodes that had some serious consequences, they are largely gone, nor do I see them returning. We are not engaged now in propping up white supremacy.

35 thoughts on “Human genetics accused of furthering white supremacy and racism—today

  1. ‘As for the “calling in the revolution”, that’s like “sending in the clowns”: “Don’t bother, they’re here.” ‘ – Indeed they are. A nicely argued post.

    1. Spot the typo?

      “It is ludicrous to claim that if we don’t have an antiracism plan, we plan [to] be racist.”

  2. ‘The difficulty in recruiting non-European populations into genetic research today is a direct result of our history of white centering, gatekeeping ……’

    Surely the biggest difficulty in getting non-European populations into genetic research conducted in London, Berlin, Paris etc is the expense of flying in people from outside Europe to take part in the study.

    Who can afford that kind of funding?
    Research done in Europe tends to be carried out on people living in Europe. Not because of racism. but because of geography.

    1. Historically people certainly used the subjects close at hand. But now you don’t need the person, a few ml of blood is enough. There are a number of huge multiethnic mulitcenterd studies ongoing collecting samples from many locations around the planet. Yes, it’s expensive to go out and collect and document samples, but FedEx or DHL back to a central sequencing facility is cheaper than an airline ticket. Probably worth noting that the vast majority of human genetic diversity is in Africa (where or species originated), so regional studies in that continent are recognized as particularly important.

      1. Less curated data is collected this way by private corporations all the time. Buy a $70 Ancestry kit, spit in tube, seal and send back (then wait 4-6 weeks for results).

      2. Why do you need many locations around the planet? Why are Europeans not multiethnic enough for you? Do you really regard Black people living in Europe as not European?

        1. The question, as I’m sure you are aware, is about ancestry, not about current affiliation. People of African ancestry make up most (about 90%) of human genetic diversity (as I noted). So, a western European and a Native American are likely more genetically similar than two random Africans. However, Africa is a huge continent and it would not be true to say that two people from a similar region are likely to be that different. Historically most people of African ancestry living in the Western Hemisphere could trace their ancestry back to similar regions of West Africa. So, no, Black people living in the US and Europe, where colonial connections will skew the population, are unlikely to be representative of the diversity seen across the African continent.

          1. Of course, it is simply not true that most people of African heritage in Europe come from West Africa. Most come from North Africa

            Davis , in an allegedly ‘antiracist’ article used ‘European’ as a synonym for ‘white’.

            Which is racist, because it claims Black people cannot be Europeans.

            And. of course, it is simply not true that most people of African heritage in Europe come from West Africa. Most come from North Africa

            1. Surely it depends where you are. In France maybe. Not in the UK. Here many came from the West Indies. Mire recently Nigeria, but lots of other sub-Saharan countries. If you have evidence otherwise – perhaps from the statistics offices of various countries, or Wikipedia, it would be interesting to see that.

      3. 23andme has an active and very productive research collaboration program. They solicit proposals for research by outside academics to use the 23andme database. The company collects data on ethnicity and many other self-reported traits provided by clients (along with spit in the tube). It’s fantastic data. And as Eric says total uncurated – lots of selection bias in who the clients are, but no bias on the part of researchers.

        1. lots of selection bias in who the clients are

          On the order of $200/ £150 bias per client. (I’m using vague memories of reported prices. I’ve never felt a need to price such data myself.)

  3. I’m going to hazard a hasty analogy here ;

    Scientists/science and doctors/medicine have been curing/helping patients with cancer for decades. Yet, cancer still kills millions of people. Why is this? Do scientists and doctors need to stop cancer where it is generated? As it is generated? Before it shows up in the clinics, in the hospitals, as a serious threat?

    … is it really the role of scientists and doctors to stop cancer in every person before it starts? At some point, they cannot be there every time to prevent some long term exposure to a hazardous condition that only some people experience. They can help, as everyone should, but to demand them to fix it all – effectively, to be held _accountable_ – is unreasonable. But more to the point, it seems so easy to claim scientists and doctors are part of a great reckoning for cancer. So with geneticists, with the very close relationship of genes and populations with civil society.

  4. Human genetics needs an antiracism plan now, otherwise, we must admit we plan to be racist.

    But in terms of human genetic data, the plan is right in front of you: collect data from more nonwhite people.

    It almost seems like she’s making the problem harder than it has to be. But my cynical side says none of the far left want a scientific answer to the problem. They want more talk therapy, not folks in lab coats collecting more DNA samples.

    1. The last time I looked, the far left (my Trotskyist and Marxist friends, for example, and the Stalinsts whom my mother-in-law votes for when they’re allowed to stand) were interested in questions of economics, and not this sort of stupidity.
      There is a small aspect of economics in it, I suppose. Wishing to perpetuate the tools by which slavery (economic, chattel, domestic) has worked for so long does associate with one of the “wings” of politics. But it’s the right wing, not the left wing.
      Unless the meaning of these English words are different in American – which is quite possible. They are rapidly diverging languages, after all.

  5. It’s crap like this, found in a magazine I used to enjoy thoroughly, that pushes me to the far side of misanthrope and on into pan-antipathy. MCU’s Thanos was only half right.

  6. I’m intrigued by how these people regard racial disparities in disease incidence and progression.

    In my own field African American men have more, and more aggressive prostate cancer than their European and Asian counterparts. There is a similar story in breast cancer. Some of this is environmental, the Japanese, Japanese-Hawaiian and Japanese-mainland American breast cancer studies being perhaps the classic example where the cancer risk increased as people moved east across the Pacific, showing the effects of environment (and confirming a role for genetics).

    Racial disparities research to understand the basis for racial differences in disease (especially cancer) incidence and progression is an active field. And good genetics/genomics is key to identifying candidate culprits and therapeutic targets.

    1. Some of this is environmental? All of it is environmental. Genes are shaped by the environment by a process called natural selection.

        1. Cancer results from natural selection among cells, with a huge number of cell generations within an individual human life. Environmental factors can cause mutations that reduce apoptosis, thus increasing fitness in the cells that bear those mutations.

  7. “Lack of diversity in available genetic data is not an accident.”

    The 1000 Genomes Project was all about racial & ethnic diversity: only five of the 26 human ethnic groups (and a small minority of the 1092 individuals whose genome were sequenced) were European or white people; all of the others were African, Asian, or of mixed ethnicity from many places in the Americas.

    In the UK, the 100,000 Genomes Project is focused on the genetic basis for diseases (especially cancers), and the project is explicitly trying to recruit British people of African and Caribbean descent, but can’t get enough Black people to participate.

    The researchers can’t win: Black people won’t participate (or at least not in the numbers hoped for); and activists like Lea Davis blame the researchers for not being inclusive.

  8. I’ve finally come around to accepting the general idea of “social constructs”, and it has taken me a surprisingly long time to really understand what is meant by that. What is meant by that term is that when others see you, you are quickly identified by how you dress, your presented gender, and your apparent age and race. The viewer will then apply certain expectations about you in terms of how you are expected to talk, what you like and dislike, your education, interests, and abilities. If you don’t fit those expectations then more obtuse sorts of people may then react with confusion, surprise and sometimes hostility. The whole idea of social constructs is rather interesting, really.
    So race as a social construct in that sense is basically a real thing in that it is what others project upon you based on their expectations.
    Meanwhile, there is the other meaning of race, which is its an admittedly flawed approximation of your phenotype which in turn is based on the geographic origins of your lineage.

  9. “Lack of diversity in available genetic data is not an accident; it is an inevitable consequence of systemic racism in biomedical research.”

    Or perhaps the overheated responses to ‘The Bell Curve’ and similar works have put many scientists off seeking wider genetic information? There are still many people who deny that there can be any genetic differences between ‘races’ as a matter of ideology or through other ways of knowing.

    1. No, I don’t think there’s any hesitancy on the part of science. As other people of noted, the current problem is is probably more ‘lack of volunteers.’

      Now one can legitimately argue that that’s a result of historical racism; minorities less willing to trust the scientific establishment with such personal information than white people, due to historical abuses such as eugenics or past colonialism. So we lack volunteers because we burned these volunteer groups in the past. But whatever the reason for the current situation, I don’t think scientists today are racist-ly ignoring other ethnic groups when collecting data.

    1. Yes, Davenport was a sterilizer, while Galton was of the Fisherian stripe: urging more breeding of the “higher” classes and less of the lower. I’ve fixed the text to make that clearer, I hope.

  10. I’m not religious, however, I’d like to point out here that the main movement AGAINST eugenics came from Christians and other religious followers. Regardless of our inherited biological and geneticly related tendencies, our world view is influenced by the society we are surrounded with and the morals we learn as a child. Most Christians believe that all humans, including those with Down’s syndrome, Phocomelia, and Cystic Fibrosis, have inherent value/virtue. A deep look back at history will show that an African man with unusual characteristics (sharp teeth and build) was kept in the Bronx zoo as a spectacle, and that the founder of Planned Parenthood was actually a eugenicist. Thankfully, the shock and public outrage of the pious actually helped to create humanitarian changes. Here’s an interesting documentary related to the topic:

    I won’t deny here that it’s probably to society’s benefit that those who carry Cystic Fibrosis or genes for other debilitating genetic disorders should probably refrain from passing those genes on, and that it’s probably in society’s best interest that those with Down’s syndrome don’t have their own children. That being said, I it is important that agnostics/atheists should welcome the free expression of all kinds of ideas. Science not put into perspective can be destructive. The idea here is not to deny that there are inherited differences between people, but to understand and to use the knowledge in order to further humanitarian ideals.

    1. I’m not sure exactly what you’re talking about when you say “agnostics/atheists should welcome the free expression of all kinds of ideas.” Please be explicit. And remember, it’s fine to express ideas, but no idea, including ones that prospective mothers have rights, too, should be immune from vigorous debate and criticism.

      The movement against abortion, assisted suicide, and in favor of capital punishment also come largely from Christians. I guess the inherent value of humans includes our right to inflict suffering on them, or to make people suffer. Remember Hitchens’s anecdote about Mother Teresa and the cancer sufferer.

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