Playing the Gene Card? A Report on Race and Human Biotechnology

Playing the Gene Card? A Report on Race and Human Biotechnology

Center for Genetics and Society
95 pages

Osagie K. Obasogie, Associate Professor of Law
University of California, San Francisco
Also: Senior Fellow
Center for Genetics and Society

Preface by:

Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology; Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights
University of Pennsylvania

Executive Summary

Race has become a prominent focus for human biotechnology. Despite often good intentions, genetic technologies are being applied in a manner that may provide new justification for thinking about racial difference and racial disparities in biological terms—as if social categories of race reflect natural or inherent group differences.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) and subsequent research showed that there is less than 1% genetic variation among all humans. Patterns of mating and geographic isolation over thousands of years have conferred genetic signatures to certain populations. Yet scientists have found little evidence to support lay understandings that social categories of race reflect discrete groups of human difference. While HGP findings initially led many to conclude that race (as it is commonly conceived and used) is not genetically significant, the hope that science would promote racial healing has largely not materialized.

In fact, trends in life science research have shifted the other way. There are increasing efforts to demonstrate the genetic relevance of race by mapping this less than 1% of variation onto social categories of race to find genetic explanations for racial disparities and differences.

From page 21
Figure 2: The essentialist and population concepts of race contrasted with the actual patterns of genetic variation (simplified to three geographic categories). Based on the work of Dr. Jeffrey Long at the University of Michigan and depictions created by the Race—Are We So Different? project of the American Anthropological Association.
A Essentialist concepts of race that were popular throughout the 19th and early 20th century held that the human species was divided into several mutually exclusive yet tangentially overlapping groups based largely upon physical features such as skin color and facial features.
B Population approaches treat race as clusters of local populations that differ genetically from one another, whereby each group is considered a race. As depicted, this concept suggests an outer periphery of unshared distinctiveness as well as substantial genetic similarity that is highlighted by the overlapping regions.
C Contemporary data on human diversity supports a “nested subset” approach to race. This reflects the fact that “people have lived in Africa far longer than anywhere else, which has allowed the population in Africa to accumulate more of the small mutations that make up [human] genetic variation. Because only a part of the African population migrated out of Africa, only part of Africa’s genetic variation moved with them. For this reason, most genetic variation found in people living outside Africa is a subset of that found among Africans.”

Many celebrate these developments as an opportunity to learn more about who we are and why certain groups are sicker than others. Yet some are struck by the extent to which these new conversations aimed at benefiting minority communities communities echo past discussions in which the science of biological difference was used to justify racial hierarchies.

Although this new research is rapidly evolving and is fraught with controversy, it is being used to develop several commercial and forensic applications that may give new credence to biological understandings of racial difference—often with more certainty than is supported by the available evidence. This unrestrained rush to market race-specific applications and to use DNA technologies in law enforcement can have significant implications for racial minorities:

  • Race-based medicines have been promoted as a way to reduce inequities in healthcare and health outcomes. Yet the methodological assumptions behind them raise as many issues as the questionable market incentives leading to their development.
  • Genetic ancestry tests rely on incomplete scientific methods that may lead to overstated claims. The companies that sell them often suggest that biotechnology can authoritatively tell us who we are and where we come from.
  • DNA forensics have been used to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted and can provide important tools for law enforcement. However, some forensic applications of genetic technologies might undermine civil rights—especially in minority communities.

While each of these applications has been examined individually, this report looks at them together to highlight a fundamental concern: that commercial incentives and other pressures may distort or oversimplify the complex and discordant relationship between race, population, and genes. Applications based on such distortions or oversimplifications may give undue legitimacy to the idea that social categories of race reflect discrete biological differences.

The concerns raised in this report should not be read as impugning all genetic research that implicates social categories of race. There is evidence that socially constructed notions of race may loosely reflect patterns of genetic variation created by evolutionary forces, and that knowledge about them may ultimately serve important social or medical goals. Yet, given our unfortunate history of linking biological understandings of racial difference to notions of racial superiority and inferiority, it would be unwise to ignore the possibility that 21st century technologies may be used to revive long discredited 19th century theories of race.

Advances in human biotechnology hold great promise. But if they are to benefit all of us, closer attention should be paid to the social risks they entail and their particular impacts on minority communities.


  • Executive Summary
  • About the Author
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface by Dorothy Roberts, Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law, Northwestern Law School
  • Race Cards and Gene Cards: A Note About the Report’s Title
  • Introduction | Are 21st Century Technologies Reviving 19th Century
    • Theories of Race?
    • How Have New Genetic Theories of Racial Difference Developed?
    • Context: After the Human Genome Project
    • Key Concern: Will Commercial and Forensic Applications Revive Biological Theories of Race?
    • In This Report
    • Sidebar: What Does It Mean to Say that Race Is Not Biologically Significant or that It Is a Social Construction?
  • Chapter 1 | Race-Based Medicine: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?
    • Pharmacogenomics: The Concept Behind Race-Based Medicine
    • First on the Scene: BiDil
    • Concerns about BiDil
    • Addressing Disparities in Health Through Race-Specific Pharmaceuticals
    • Conclusion: Evaluating Race-Based Medicine
    • Recommendations
    • Sidebars: Major Projects on Human Genetic Variation
      • Why Genetic Variations Matter
      • Top-Down Marketing to the Black Community
      • Historical Theories of Race
      • Are More Race-Based Medicines Around the Corner?
      • The Slavery Hypothesis
  • Chapter 2 | Ancestry Tests: Back to the Future?
    • African American Ancestry
    • Context: Population Genetics
    • From Groups and Populations to Individuals
    • Techniques Used by Ancestry Tests
    • Concerns about the Genetic Ancestry Industry
    • Conclusion: Resisting Racial Typologies
    • Recommendations 30
    • Sidebars: Native Americans and Ancestry Tests
      • Race, Intelligence, and James Watson
      • Bioprospecting and Biopiracy
      • From Race to Population and Back
      • The Business of DNA Ancestry Testing
      • Special Types of DNA
      • Human Genetic Variation—A Work in Progress
  • Chapter 3 | Race and DNA Forensics in the Criminal Justice System
    • How Does It Work?
    • How Reliable Are DNA Forensic Technologies?
    • DNA Databases
    • Cold Hits and Partial Matches
    • Whose DNA Is in These Databases?
    • Sifting DNA Databases to Catch Family Members
    • Predicting Criminality
    • Using DNA to Build Racial Profiles
    • Conclusion: Effects on Minority Communities
    • Recommendations
    • Sidebars: DNA Entrapment?
      • The Scandal in Houston
      • The Innocence Project
      • “The Informer in Your Blood”
      • Juking Stats
      • “The Birthday Problem” and the Limits of Forensic Database Matches
      • Minority Communities and the War on Drugs
      • Civil Liberties and DNA Databases
      • Phrenology, a Classic Pseudo-Science
  • Conclusion
    • Racial Categories in Human Biotechnology Research
    • Race Impact Assessments
    • Responsible Regulation
  • Endnotes
  • About the Center for Genetics and Society

Read the entire report here.

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