Races – a relic of the past or scientific reality?

In modern genetics do not you need races?

Recently in the journal Science was published an article on the scientific concept of the human race. The authors of the article, Michael Yudell of the University of Drexel in Philadelphia and his colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania and the Natural History Museum believe that the term “race” has no exact meaning in modern genetics. And if you take into account what problems arose and arise around the races, is it better not to abandon them at all?

Historically, the concept of “race” was introduced to describe and describe the phenotypic differences of different people (skin color and other signs). Nowadays, some biologists continue to view the races as an adequate tool for characterizing the genetic diversity of human populations. In addition, it is necessary to take into account racial differences in clinical research and in practical medicine. But Michael Yudell and his colleagues are convinced that at the current level of development of molecular genetics, the term “race” can not accurately reflect genetic diversity. In their opinion, so we artificially divide humanity into hierarchically organized groups. The race is not a clear biological marker, since the races are heterogeneous, and there are no significant barriers between them.

The authors of the article also object to the use of this term in medicine, since any groups of patients, united on a racial basis, are genetically heterogeneous due to confusion, metisation. In confirmation are some examples from medical genetics. So, hemoglobinopathies (diseases caused by deformation and dysfunction of erythrocytes) are often diagnosed incorrectly because they are considered black diseases.

Cystic fibrosis, on the contrary, “does not carry” in African populations, since it is considered a disease of the whites. Thalassemia also sometimes escapes the attention of doctors who are accustomed to seeing it only in the Mediterranean type. On the other hand, a misunderstanding of the term “race” fuels racist attitudes, to which scientists have to somehow react. So, in 2014 a group of population geneticists on the pages of the New York Times came out with a refutation of the fact that social differences between races are related to genes.

In order to avoid all these problems, instead of the term “race” one could use “ancestry” and “population” to describe groups formed according to the genetic trait. Many authors seem to agree with the authors of the article – in particular, an organization called the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is going to organize a meeting of experts on biology, social and human sciences, instead of “races” find new ways of describing the diversity of mankind, suitable, including for laboratory and clinical studies.

Race is a biological concept, not a social one

Historically, the concept of “race” is introduced to denote and describe phenotypic differences between different people. In scientific reference, the term “race” was introduced by Francois Bernier in 1684, to refer to groups of people living in different regions of the Earth: a single biological species Homo sapiens splits into local groups with a certain geographical distribution, called races (from the Latin razza – tribe).

In the animal world, human species correspond to subspecies. Racial signs are inherited, although they are quickly eroded during direct mixing (metisation) of races with each other. The main subject of disputes among specialists was the connection of certain characteristics with the specific geographic range of each race / population. In the 21st century, this connection is quite weak, but 300-500 years ago it was very good.

In anthropology, traditionally from the end of the XIX century, the concept of race was based, first of all, on its BIOLOGICAL understanding. A reasonable person is a single species, adapting to different environmental conditions in the course of its history. Racial signs are seen as adaptive changes that occur in groups that have been under the influence of various external factors for a long time.

Differences between different populations of people began to appear no earlier than the end of the Palaeolithic period (50-40 thousand years ago), when a person was actively dispersed in new territories, and similar differences arose in response to specific living conditions in modern geographic zones. (In the past, that is, until the end of the Paleolithic, there were no such population differences in people, or we can not say anything about them reliably.) Human populations had to adapt to different amounts of sunlight, different proportions of trace elements in food, to different diets that differed from region to region, and so on. The characteristic features of races / populations, such as skin color or “invisible” biochemical features, were finally fixed in the historical epoch, with the emergence of developed social societies and the transition to the productive system of the economy.

For the formation of races, human populations had to be socially or geographically isolated from each other. But races can change, and their changes are particularly noticeable in the modern era. Over time, the development of technology and the spread of cultural traditions common to large groups of people made geographical and social isolation almost impossible.

It should also be taken into account that the greater part of humanity due to scientific and technological progress is no longer experiencing such a strong influence of environmental factors, so that racial differences due to their impact are gradually eroding. This is quite rightly noted by the authors of the article in Science. However, their further reasoning can not be considered correct, since they generally do not consider a large body of information on adaptive biochemical and physiological differences that are retained by different groups of the Earth’s population today.

These differences are well known even to those who are not connected with science. For example, everyone knows that part of the population of Northeast and East Asia has increased the activity of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme necessary for the utilization of alcohol; and that the adult population of southern and central China (and also a number of groups of people) does not have an enzyme that breaks down the basic milk sugar, lactose.

Let us repeat once again that the concept of race is biological, not social, that it explains the reasons for the differences between different groups of people in the past. So scary of all racism is not related to the scientific content of the concept of “race”, and it is unclear why social science or political ambiguities should suffer from science.

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