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Bioethics Breakfast Club: Genetics and Race

January 25, 2019

Human geneticists should take responsibility for engaging in nuanced conversations regarding the relationship between their research and race. That’s the conclusion reached by more than twenty interdisciplinary ASU students, faculty, staff, and community members during October’s Life Science Ethics Program Bioethics Breakfast Club.

 To prepare for the discussion led by Melissa Wilson Sayres (twitter) and Karin Ellison, participants were asked to read Ian Holmes “What Happens When Geneticists Talk Sloppily About Race” (in The Atlantic, April 25, 2018). Holmes’ article responds to a NYT op-ed by Harvard professor David Reich. Reich claims to have “deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism.” But he argues “that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’”

 In reply, Holmes notes that “the actual science in [Reich’s op-ed] is remarkably uncontroversial.” However, Reich’s poor communication and ignorance of semantics make genetics “susceptible to being exploited for political and pseudoscientific ends.”

 Those in attendance at Bioethics Breakfast Club shared Holmes concerns. They acknowledged real genetic differences among populations due to their different ancestries. But, participants emphasized ancestral differences are not hierarchical and, further, ancestral histories do not reliably map onto our social constructions of race. “Race” and “ancestry” are importantly different concepts, and as Holmes says, “Biological races are not a current scientific concept and often reinforce historical biases.”  Further, the group concluded human geneticists should participate in broad public conversations about these topics and acknowledge and articulate the distinction between ancestry and race.

 We hope you’ll join us for the February 13, 2019, Bioethics Breakfast Club, in which we will continue with the theme of genetics and society in a conversation facilitated by Stuart Newfeld and Karin Ellison.

 More information and RSVP for Spring events at Life Science Ethics Program

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