The myth that we are 99.9% the same.

Finding said to show “race isn’t real” scrapped.

Sept. 3, 2007
Special to World Science .

 A re­nowned sci­ent­ist has backed off a find­ing that he, joined by oth­ers, long touted as ev­i­dence for what they called a prov­en fact: that ra­cial dif­fer­ences among peo­ple are im­ag­i­nary.That idea—en­trenched to­day in ac­a­dem­ia, and of­ten used to cast­i­gate schol­ars who study race—has drawn much of its sci­en­tif­ic back­ing from a find­ing that all peo­ple are 99.9 per­cent ge­net­ic­ally alike.

But ge­net­icist Craig Ven­ter, head of a re­search team that re­ported that fig­ure in 2001, backed off it in an an­nounce­ment this week. He said hu­man varia­t­ion now turns out to be over sev­en times great­er than was thought, though he’s not chang­ing his po­si­tion on race.

Some oth­er sci­ent­ists have dis­put­ed the ear­li­er fi­gure for years as un­der­est­i­mat­ing hu­man va­ri­ation. Ven­ter, in­stead, has cit­ed the num­ber as key ev­i­dence that race is im­ag­i­nary. He once de­clared that “no se­ri­ous schol­ar” doubts that, though again, some re­cent stud­ies have con­tra­dicted it.

Ge­net­i­cist Ar­mand Ma­rie Leroi of Im­pe­ri­al Col­lege Lon­don wrote re­cently that a rec­og­ni­tion of race could in the fu­ture help so­ci­e­ty pro­tect en­dan­gered rac­es. The more com­mon past prac­tice was for so­cie­ties to op­press other races, which is large­ly what led some to try to ban­ish any rec­og­ni­tion of race al­to­geth­er.

Thus, views like Leroi’s have been largely marginal­ized. The race-is­n’t-real doc­trine pre­vails, typ­ic­ally por­trayed by back­ers as set­tled fact that only racists or their dupes could ques­tion. It “can be some­thing close to pro­fes­sion­al sui­cide” for re­search­ers to even sug­gest race ex­ists, psy­chi­a­trist Sa­lly Sa­tel wrote in the Dec. 2001-Jan. 2002 is­sue of the mag­a­zine Pol­i­cy Re­view.

Ven­ter did­n’t orig­i­nate the no­tion that race is­n’t real. But his sup­port of it has car­ried great weight be­cause he is some­thing of a star, thanks to his key role in the high-profile Hu­man Ge­nome Proj­ect, com­plet­ed in 2003.

In a tele­con­fer­ence on Mon­day, Ven­ter and col­leagues an­nounced their re­vised as­sess­ment of hu­man di­vers­ity, based on a study of Ven­ter’s own DNA. It was the first “diploid” ge­nome pub­lished to date, said Ven­ter and mem­bers of his re­search team at the J. Craig Ven­ter In­sti­tute in Rock­ville, Md. This means it was the first list­ing of the se­quence of let­ters of ge­net­ic code from both of a per­son’s chro­mo­some sets, the genes in­her­it­ed from the moth­er and the fa­ther.

The find­ings re­veal “hu­man-to-hu­man varia­t­ion is more than sev­en-fold great­er than ear­li­er es­ti­mates, prov­ing that we are in fact very un­ique in­di­vid­u­als at the ge­net­ic lev­el,” Ven­ter said. The 99.9 fi­gure might need to be lowered to about 99, he added. The find­ings are to ap­pear in the Oc­to­ber is­sue of the on­line re­search jour­nal PLoS Bi­ol­o­gy. Ven­ter added that the cost of se­quenc­ing an in­di­vid­ual per­son’s ge­nome is rap­idly drop­ping, and that a dec­ade from now, “thou­sands or tens of thou­sands” will have their DNA code writ­ten out.

He said the new find­ings were a pleas­ant sur­prise, as they show we’re not all “clones” as the pre­vious re­sults sug­gested.

The orig­i­nal es­ti­mate show­ing near-zero vari­abil­ity in the ge­nome, a prod­uct of the Hu­man Ge­nome Proj­ect, was a re­sult of the dif­fer­ent tech­nol­o­gy used for that work, said a col­league of Ven­ter’s, Ste­phen Scherer of the Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren in To­ron­to.

The tech­nique orig­i­nally used, Scherer said, could read the se­quence of let­ters of a ge­net­ic code. But it could­n’t de­tect repe­ti­tions of some parts of the code, which al­so oc­cur. Dif­fer­ences in the num­ber of these repe­ti­tions, called copy num­ber vari­ants, have since turned out to ac­count for much of the varia­t­ion in a species’ DNA. Anoth­er type of varia­t­ion re­cently found to be im­por­tant is called insertion-deletion vari­ants, snip­pets of code that are ei­ther ex­tra or mis­sing in some ge­nomes com­pared to oth­ers.

Some re­search­ers said that now that Ven­ter has dropped the 99.9 per­cent claim, he should al­so ad­mit race might exist. De­nial of that “ob­vi­ous” fact is “an ex­treme man­i­festa­t­ion of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” wrote Rich­ard Lynn, a psy­chol­o­gist who has pro­posed links be­tween race and in­tel­li­gence, in an email. Lynn, of the Un­ivers­ity of Ul­ster in Ire­land, added that he thinks Ven­ter has un­fairly ma­ligned sci­ent­ists who be­lieve race ex­ists.

Ven­ter stuck to his guns. Race-isn’t-real pro­po­nents have other arg­u­ments be­side the 99.9 per­cent­age, though these are de­bated also. Ven­ter re­marked that even though vari­abil­ity is much great­er than once thought, hu­man popula­t­ions and traits blend to­geth­er every­where. That means each per­son could ar­bi­trarily di­vide hu­man­ity in­to a dif­fer­ent group of rac­es, if he so chose. Thus “race is a so­cial con­cept, not a sci­en­tif­ic one,” Ven­ter said, re­peat­ing a com­mon dic­tum.

Neil Risch of the University of California at San Francisco—who has led re­search chal­leng­ing that view—said he doesn’t feel ma­ligned by Venter’s state­ments on race and re­search­ers of it. But the data behind those claims really gave little new in­sight into po­pu­la­tion dif­fer­ences, and “I have always felt it is best to avoid en­tang­ling ge­ne­tics with po­li­tics,” Risch wrote in an e­mail.

I’m being lazy, and can’t be bothered to type in great long blog entries at the moment. I thought this was worth the space, as I keep seeing that same nonsensical ‘99.9% the same’ statistic knocking about. It’s ludicrous, because they still aren’t sure how many genes make up a human, so where they got that number from I don’t know.

 

 

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