The ethics of
characterizing difference: guiding principles on using racial
categories in human genetics
SS-J Lee, J Mountain, B Koeing, R
Altman, M Brown, A Camerillo, L Cavalli-Sforza, M Cho, J Eberhardt, M
Feldman, R Ford, H Greely, R King, H Markus, D Satz, M Snipp, C Steele,
Genome Biology 9, 404 (2008)
completion of the Human Genome Project, research focused on human
genetic variation, including differences among groups, has intensified.
This focus has rekindled debates about the connection between genetic
(DNA-level) traits and human ‘racial’ difference. Scholars are divided
on the question of whether racial categorization is an appropriate
means of organizing potentially useful genetic data or a pernicious
reification of historically destructive typologies .... The ‘gene’
remains a powerful icon in the public imagination and is often
misunderstood as deterministic and immutable. Furthermore, history
reminds us that science may easily be used to justify racial
stereotypes and racist policies. [The following statements] resulted in
part from a desire to try to minimize the chances that scientific
research inadvertently contributes either to inequities between groups
or to the abuse of human rights.
Statement 1: We believe that there is
no scientific basis for any
claim that the pattern of human genetic
variation supports hierarchically
organized categories of race and
Statement 2: We recognize that
individuals of two different geographically-defined
are more likely to differ at any given site in the genome than are two
individuals of the same geographically defined population.
Statement 3: We urge those who use
genetic information to reconstruct an individual’s
to present results within the broader context of an individual’s
Statement 4: We recognize that racial
and ethnic categories are created and maintained within sociopolitical
contexts and have shifted in meaning over time.
Statement 5: We caution against
making the naive leap to a genetic explanation for group differences in
complex traits, especially for human behavioral traits such as
scores, tendency towards violence, and degree of athleticism.
Statement 6: We encourage all
researchers who use racial or ethnic categories to describe how
individual samples are assigned category labels, to explain why
with such labels were included in the study, and to state whether the
racial or ethnic categories are research variables.
Statement 7: We discourage the use of
race as a proxy for biological similarity and support efforts to
minimize the use of the categories of race and ethnicity in clinical
medicine, maintaining focus on the individual rather than the group.
Statement 8: We encourage the funding
of interdisciplinary study of human
genetic variation that includes a
broad range of experts in the social sciences, humanities and natural
Statement 9: We urge researchers,
those working in media, and others engaged in the translation of
research results to collaborate on efforts to avoid overstatement of
the contribution of genetic variation to phenotypic variation.
Statement 10: We
the teaching of genetics include historical and social scientific
information on past uses of science to promote racism as well as the
potential impact of future policies; we encourage increased funding for the
development of such teaching materials and programs for secondary and