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, P Underhill

Genome Biology 9, 404 (2008)

    Since the 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 ethnicity.

Statement 2: We recognize that individuals of two different geographically-defined human populations 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 geographic ancestry to present results within the broader context of an individual’s overall ancestry.

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 IQ 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 samples 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 sciences.

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 recommend that 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 undergraduate education.