Genetics and Race: Will New Technologies Reopen the Old Book of Racial Inequality?

Tim WelchBy Tim Welch

In 1883, Sir Francis Galton—a cousin of Charles Darwin—released his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, in which the term "eugenics" is used for the first time.  In his book, Galton advocates the need for a term that "takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had."  In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi party in Germany used eugenic principles as a basis for systematically exterminating millions of people.  In the United States, racial segregation was permitted and practiced until the 1960s.  In South Africa, legally enforced racial segregation lasted until 1994.

Over the past century, civil rights activists have successfully challenged claims that natural or inherent differences between races can be used to justify unequal treatment of certain ethnic and minority groups.  In many countries, racial equality has improved by a vast degree.  The days of attempting to justify racial hierarchies on scientific grounds seem to be in the past.  However, new applications of genetic technologies could come dangerously close to reopening a chapter of human history that many would rather leave closed.

On February 2, 2009, the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) released the report Playing the Gene Card? to coincide with the beginning of Black History Month.  The report addresses the risks that the increasing number of DNA-based products may pose to efforts towards racial justice.  According to the report, many DNA-based products have important benefits, however, three biotech products may have particular risks for minority groups:  race-specific drugs, genetic ancestry tests, and DNA forensics.  In a press release related to the report, CGS warns that some applications of DNA-based products could distort or oversimplify the "complex and discordant relationship between race, population, and genes" and "give undue legitimacy to the idea that social categories of race reflect discrete biological differences."

Genetic technologies hold great promise for the futures of science, medicine, and law.  However, careful attention must be paid to the risks that advances in genetics and biotechnology pose to racial and ethnic minorities.  According to the CGS report, there is evidence that social categories of race may loosely reflect actual patterns of genetic variation.  This information could serve important social or medical goals.  However, it is extremely important that, as we begin to understand the small genetic variations that may exist between different races, we do not use this knowledge in an attempt to re-justify the antiquated notions of racial superiority and inferiority. 

Many societies around the world have progressed a long way in the arena of racial equality in the 126 years since Sir Francis Galton coined the term "eugenics."  We must ensure that genetic technologies do not undermine the level of racial equality we have achieved thus far.

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