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.