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  • Writer's pictureConstance Hilliard

Ancestral Genomics versus Race in Medicine

When a growing number of academics say that "race doesn't exist", are they just trying to be politically correct or do they know something fundamental about human biology that probably needs to be more widely shared among the general public? After all, if I have brown skin and yours is white, those are biological differences. So what does it mean to say that the races don't exist?


The real problem emerges from a confusion of terms. The confounding issue relates to the fact that "genetic diversity" and "ethno-cultural diversity" are diametric opposites, even though researchers sometimes use the terms interchangeably. Ethno-cultural diversity is what Americans try to achieve in bringing minorities into mainstream programs and institutions. Genetic diversity, on the other hand, is a characteristic of the human species that is in some ways shocking, because it is so counter-intuitive. What differentiates humans from one another at the genetic level are gene variants. While all humans share the same 21,000 (or maybe 44,000 depending on how they're counted) genes, each person differs in terms of the numbers and types of genetic variants, often referred to as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced - Snips). So, we might logically think that people who share the same phenotypes or physical characteristics also have more SNPs in common with one another. Thus Kenyans should have more in common with one another than either does with Scandinavians. But this is where the evidence of our visual senses fools us. For, Africans carry the full human ancestral genome because homo sapiens originated on that continent. Non-African populations usually carry half as many, because they represent the branch of humans that left Africa 50,000 or so years ago. Contrary to the differences in the way Swedes and Kenyans look, on a genetic level we will find that the European group is a nested subset of the Africans' genome, meaning that the latter will also carry the gene variants of the former (even if certain of the more visible ones are not expressed because of their low frequency).

In a PBS interview, biological anthropologist, Alan Goodman, once stated:

To understand why the idea of race is a biological myth requires a major paradigm shift, an absolute paradigm shift, a shift in perspective. And for me, it's like seeing, you know, what it must have been like to understand that the world isn't flat. And perhaps I can invite you to a mountain top and you can look out the window and at the horizon and see, "oh what I thought was flat I can see a curve in now," that the world is much more complicated. In fact, that race is not based on biology but race is rather an idea that we ascribe to biology.

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