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Genetics and Race:
Current Research and Societal Impact

Fifty years ago, the understanding of genetics drastically expanded when James Watson and Francis Crick determined the precise molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The desire for a better understanding of the human body, combined with this discovery, eventually led to the creation of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 1990—an endeavor that maps the exact composition, structure, and function of every genetic sequence in the human body. Numerous advantages and disadvantages arise from this and the resulting scientific research projects, many of which have implications on the understanding and applications of the concept of race.

Historically, the definition of race has encompassed both one's physical appearance and cultural values and beliefs. Many studies in the 1800s and early 1900s, by scientists such as Francis Galton and Charles Davenport, used this principle to "prove" that one race was superior to others in intelligence or physical abilities. However, recent discoveries in genetic research, including the HGP, have led most scientists to challenge these past findings. Many argue that race is, in fact, a social construct which cannot be genetically defined, since there are more genetic variations within a racial or ethnic group than among different groups. They point out that the scarcity of genetic differences does not correlate with the extensiveness of social and behavioral differences among racial and ethnic groups. On the other hand, there are researchers who rely on a genetic basis for race in their judgements and research. These scientists are investigating groupings of DNA, such as base pairs and haplotypes, that possibly makeup one's physical aspects and medical conditions, and/or may control behavioral features including talent and personality.

In spite of this increased understanding of genetic information, the societal definition of race continues to focus on physical aspects—leaving many experts concerned that the continued study of genetic functions will bear profound consequences for reinforcing or disproving racial, or even gender, stereotypes. For example, the prevalence of medical conditions within respective minority communities has led to the assumption that certain races may be more genetically susceptible to specific diseases, which could, therefore, be treated by tailored medications or treatments. Unfortunately, these inferences, though not yet scientifically proven, have led society to discount the influence of environmental factors, such as stress from racism or poor health care and diet, which render tailored treatments virtually useless. In addition to the implications for stereotypes and health care, some fear that genetic research will also have profound implications for individuals’ concept of self and personal identity—raising fundamental questions about how one defines oneself and one’s role in society.

To begin to address the societal implications of genetic research and the aforementioned concerns, Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (ELSI) programs have been created in the US by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy. Among the many projects currently underway, several have addressed the specific effects of genetic information on minority communities through working with and educating minority community leaders. Despite the efforts of ELSI programs and other educational programs, new discoveries will continue to raise additional questions and concerns about the implications of genetic research.

The discovery of DNA has provided a powerful tool for better understanding the genetic makeup of humans, including a greater insight into evolution, an improved perception of human diversity, and a better understanding of diseases. However, there remain many other questions and components of the human genome to be answered and explored. In essence, as the field of genetics moves forward, it could develop into the primary indicator of race and potentially divide population groups further, or possibly continue to disprove itself and eliminate this type of categorization of humans all together.

-Submitted by: Silvia Hou, 2003 Summer Intern