Race in Biological and Biomedical Research

Race in Biological and Biomedical Research

Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine
Volume 3, Issue 11 (November 2013)
10 pages
DOI: 10.1101/cshperspect.a008573

Richard S. Cooper, Anthony B. Traub Professor of Community and Family Medicine
Loyola University Medical School

The concept of race has had a significant influence on research in human biology since the early 19th century. But race was given its meaning and social impact in the political sphere and subsequently intervened in science as a foreign concept, not grounded in the dominant empiricism of modern biology. The uses of race in science were therefore often disruptive and controversial; at times, science had to be retrofitted to accommodate race, and science in turn was often used to explain and justify race. This relationship was unstable in large part because race was about a phenomenon that could not be observed directly, being based on claims about the structure and function of genomic DNA. Over time, this relationship has been characterized by distinct phases, evolving from the inference of genetic effects based on the observed phenotype to the measurement of base-pair variation in DNA. Despite this fundamental advance in methodology, liabilities imposed by the dual political-empirical origins of race persist. On the one hand, an optimistic prediction can be made that just as geology made it possible to overturn the myth of the recent creation of the earth and evolution told us where the living world came from, molecular genetics will end the use of race in biology. At the same time, because race is fundamentally a political and not a scientific idea, it is possible that only a political intervention will relieve us of the burden of race.

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that he cannot close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris in front of him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin
Theses on the Philosophy of History


We rarely appreciate the presence of history in our day-to-day experience. The quotidian is a mixture of the repetitive and the predictable, carried forward by habit and punctuated by random events that we regard as either good or bad fortune. But in a more reflective mood, we have to acknowledge the relentless force of history that holds us in its grasp and accept that it creates the possibilities we use to negotiate with the future. The imposition of racial categories on human populations has been one of the most enduring historical forces that sets limits on opportunity and thereby shapes our life trajectory. As a projection of the underlying power relationships onto individuals, racial categories are used to structure social inequality. These power relationships are manifested both in the belief system that rank orders intrinsic human qualities according to group membership and the social institutions that enforce this hierarchy by restricting access to wealth, education, and other social goods. This daily reality is central to the history of all modern societies.

The racial structuring of society also has pervasive influence on biological research and the patterns of health and disease. Enormous effort has been expended to describe human demographic history through reference to an ever-changing array of constructs and categories, all of which include a hierarchical arrangement—either explicit or implicit. In the United States, most prominently, public health has embraced racial/ethnic categories as fundamental structural elements. Clinical medicine has similarly evoked racial categories to explain causation and outcomes across the entire spectrum of diseases. At the same time, race has met some of the strongest challenges to its legitimacy in biology and biomedicine. All of biology is grounded in the theory of descent from a common ancestor. The belief in racial categories was one of the most powerful liabilities of pre-modern biology and lent credence to the established view of divine creation. Indeed, it has recently been argued that the challenge to race brought by the abolitionist movement was a key factor behind Darwin’s transformative insight that the biological world—on the evolutionary time scale—is a single indivisible whole (Desmond and Moore 2009). Biomedicine still grapples with the implications of that insight for our species, yet substantial progress—uneven, tentative, and ultimately disappointing—has been made. In the current era, genomic science has opened new vistas onto previously unobserved dimensions of biology, and that proportion of the concept of race that has been attributed to genetics can finally be subjected to empirical scrutiny. Integrating this new knowledge into practice and focusing the technology on socially productive work, as always, remains our most difficult challenge.

The narrative of race therefore wanders the border territory between what we call science and what we recognize as history and politics. In the pre-genomic era, there was no requirement—indeed, no opportunity—to validate the authority of race with molecular evidence; causal inferences were made on the basis of phenotype, in its broadest possible sense, from disease to accumulated material wealth to social graces. The primary purpose of the race concept was to serve as a shortcut, an organizing tool that allowed post-enlightenment Europe to explain—and thereby justify—how imperialism had reshaped the world. Consequently, for both the social and biological sciences, race felt like the rude cousin whose claim on our affection was based on obligation, not choice. In every historical period, an incremental struggle has been waged to overcome the disruption that this unwelcome intruder has caused within empirical scientific disciplines.

In its origins, race was a “label of convenience” that biologists used interchangeably with the construct of “varieties” as they tried to create taxonomic categories below the level of the species (Cooper 1984). Writers from across the intellectual spectrum of literature and politics also felt free to make use of the idea. Thus, Baudelaire spoke of the “race of Abel” and the “race of Cain” when describing the polarization of 19th-century French society, and Marx characterized the English working class as a “race of peculiar commodity owners” (Baudelaire 1857; Marx 1957) (“Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market.” [p. 172]). Malleability continues to be an essential quality of race, although it is now primarily used as a label for the temporary and often random aggregation of population subgroups, usually tied in some rough way to the perceived continent of origin (Kaufman and Cooper 1996). In its contemporary sense, biological race has now come to signify the inherited qualities of a population group hidden inside the DNA molecule…

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