Why race will matter after we all get our full sequences

By Razib Khan | February 9, 2011 10:55 am

In my post “Health care costs and ancestry”, a commenter says:
“Race” is a concept that should have died with disco. I imagine it will soon be feasible for every patient to have their genome analysis included in their medical file and the various risk and other pertinent factors explicated.

The chart to the left shows how race is a social construct. It’s a bar plot which partitions ancestry, and as you can see, the Asian children are a mix of European and Asian. How does that happen? Because in 1980 the US Census included people of South Asian origin as “Asian Americans.” In contrast, those of Middle Eastern origin remain “non-Hispanic white” (this not totally crazy, think Ralph Nader or Marlo Thomas). But it means that an ethnic Baloch from Pakistan is “Asian,” and an ethnic Baloch from Iran is a “non-Hispanic white.”


Only a government bureaucrat would be happy with this situation. Obvious more fine-grained genomic analyses are necessary at least to force us to acknowledge the stupidity of these bureaucratic quirks. I am chagrined to realize that I’ve put “Asian” as my race quite often on medical related forms (or, my parents have done so), when the reality is that my genetic background is very distinctive from someone who is from East Asia (and, West Asia).

But, this more detailed look at a genomic sequence does not necessarily obviate the need for higher level categories, such as race. One might conceive of a genotype as conferring a set of transparent risks contingent upon a particular variant at a specific location. But by and large we’ve run into limits in this endeavor. And even when we know much more, there will likely be subtle interactions and networks which will simply not fall out of a raw sequence. That’s because populations have histories, and their identity as members of a population is telling you something about that aggregate history. That history shapes a “genetic background,” the sum total of genotypes across the genome, in which a specific genetic variant expresses itself. For example, the ancestors of Amerindians were isolated from the populations of Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania, for at least 10,000 years. Their genomes today are then the outcome in part of this particular special history.

When genomics becomes like physics (or perhaps more accurately the physics of linear systems?) history will not matter. Until then, history will matter. Classification will matter. More generally, that is why taxonomy matters in biology so much. Phylogenetic relationships are “information for free.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, Genomics, Race
  • Zachary Kurtz

    Race may not completely be a social construct, but the reason they matter on government forms is sociopolitical.

    Meaningly a Boloch from the India or Iran will probably have different social experiences based on origin, but not necessarily “race” (which is a less superficial concept than skin color or culture).

  • dan

    is the commenter offended by dog breed names as well? there are large enough differences in the genotype and *especially* phenotypes of each race to warrant using categories to describe the differences. What’s important is that the commenter found a way to feel morally superior about his pretentious political correctness and science denialism.

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    If the highly polygenic message of GWAS research is to be believed, then the kind of individualized genome analysis the commenter mentions may be impossible, let alone amenable to feasible pharmaceutical manufacturing without nanobots. Therefore, serious race-based drugs may be the wave of the future, frauds like BiDil notwithstanding.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #3, can you say more? this would not apply to something light height obviously, right, where so little of the variance is partitioned across groups?

  • AG

    In term of racial identity (even genetic one), it is always tough for people living in the middle of euroasia continent. In other words, it is so easy for people living at very ends of it.

  • James

    I haven’t seen a post in what race actually is on this blog. Apparently we’re all 99.9% identical, does the race sit in that 0.1%? That’s 6 million nucleotides difference right?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    james, of the dna markers which vary within human populations, on average 15% of the variation occurs between continental “races.” there are correlated patterns of variation within these markers which are reflections of the distinctive history of geographically constrained population groups.

  • http://theunsilencedscience.blogspot.com/ nooffensebut

    Well, society is becoming more diverse. Rates of interracial marriage are actually decreasing for Asians and Hispanics probably due to critical mass. Statistical analyses don’t require homogeneity, anyway. It may help if companies analyze with the addition of mixed population categories. Meanwhile, the early consequences of genetics research will be identification of group differences. Pharmaceutical companies have huge financial incentives to salvage disapproved drugs for subgroup approval, if they can stand the political heat, which may lessen in the future. They face financial obstacles to truly individualized drug development. The group differences only need to be statistically compelling, not absolute. Once a drug is approved for a subgroup, doctors can prescribe off-label, and individualized medicine can take place at the level of the clinic through trial-and-error, as it always has been. Look at how vigorously doctors disagree about hormone replacement therapy. Subtly differing statistical analyses receive black-and-white government judgments. Of course, group height differences show tremendous overlap, but are those differences resulting only from hormone levels, or is it more complicated? Dr. Albain found group differences in sex-hormone cancer mortality. We can’t just ignore the fact that young black women are less like to have but more likely to die from breast cancer. We know of racial estrogen level differences and androgen receptor differences. Who knows how complicated it may be? Race-based drugs will be more feasible than ethnicity-based drugs because there is an efficacy-profit trade-off in making one’s target population too small.

  • Insightful

    …the ancestors of Amerindians were isolated from the populations of Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania, for at least 10,000 years. Their genomes today are then the outcome in part of this particular special history.

    According to Dienekes, the two most distant persons on earth are a Melanesian from the Pacific islands and a san Bushman from southern Africa. This is the citation link for that statement from Dienekes:
    http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2010/12/is-multi-regional-evolution-dead.html

    Anyway, in America they would both be classified as black.

    By the way Razib, I was surprised to find out (from Dienekes no less) that Yorubans are genetically closer to Chinese than they are to san bushman. Here is the citation link for what Dienekes said:
    http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2010/12/is-multi-regional-evolution-dead.html

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    a Melanesian from the Pacific islands and a san Bushman from southern Africa…in America they would both be classified as black.

    I don’t think so – the former would be classified as “Pacific Islander“.

  • Insightful

    @Ziel, In the link I provided citing the most divergent groups of people on earth, Dienekes specifically said “Papuan”, which is a Melanesian. Papuans in particular resemble this gentleman who is one of them:
    http://faculty.kutztown.edu/friehauf/indonesia/people/ertsberg_people_15.jpg

    In America, the gentleman would be referred to as ‘black’ on the street by many. Ziel, the picture of the Pacific Islander in your link was that of a Polynesian. Papuans and Polynesians are Pacific Islanders but only Papuans are Melanesians.

  • Perahu

    In my opinion these are the major genetic subgroups of humanity:

    West Eurasian
    East Eurasian
    South Eurasian
    West Central African
    East African
    Paleo African (think Bushmen)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    In my opinion

    famous last words? :-) i would encourage readers of this weblog to download ADMIXTURE and EIGENSOFT and “play around” so as to test their intuitions and inductions.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Insightful:
    “I was surprised to find out (from Dienekes no less) that Yorubans are genetically closer to Chinese than they are to san bushman”
    Greg Cochran mentioned that at GNXP classic.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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