Research Brief: Ancestry, Race and Genealogy

  • Bolnick, Deborah A., Duana Fullwiley, Troy Duster, Richard S. Cooper, Joan H. Fujimura, Jonathan Kahn, Jay S. Kaufman et al. “The science and business of genetic ancestry testing.” SCIENCE-NEW YORK THEN WASHINGTON- 318, no. 5849 (2007): 399. Abstract: Commercially available tests of genetic ancestry have significant scientific limitations, but are serious matters for many test-takers. (OA)
  • Kramer, Anne-Marie. “Mediatizing memory: History, affect and identity in Who Do You Think You Are?.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (2011): 428-445. Abstract: Along with Australia, Canada and the USA, contemporary British society is immersed in a seemingly unprecedented boom in the family heritage industry. Drawing on recent work in memory studies which attends to the relationship between individual and collective historical experiences, this article analyses the celebrity genealogy BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, as well as viewers’ and critics’ reception of it, to problematize genealogy as a form of mediated or mediatized memory practice which mobilizes traces of the past through the idiom of family. It asks: what is the role of genealogy in facilitating the relationship between identity and memory, both for celebrity participants and viewers? How does television make memories remotely accessible, and how do viewers engage with such modes of accessing the past? (locked)
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Bio Science Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry.” Social Studies of Science 38, no. 5 (2008): 759-783. Abstract: This paper considers the extent to which the geneticization of `race’ and ethnicity is the prevailing outcome of genetic testing for genealogical purposes. The decoding of the human genome precipitated a change of paradigms in genetics research, from an emphasis on genetic similarity to a focus on molecular-level differences among individuals and groups. This shift from lumping to splitting spurred ongoing disagreements among scholars about the significance of `race’ and ethnicity in the genetics era. I characterize these divergent perspectives as `pragmatism’ and `naturalism’. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, I argue that neither position fully accounts for how understandings of `race’ and ethnicity are being transformed with genetic genealogy testing. While there is some acquiescence to genetic thinking about ancestry, and by implication, `race’, among African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, test-takers also adjudicate between sources of genealogical information and from these construct meaningful biographical narratives. Consumers engage in highly situated `objective’ and `affiliative’ self-fashioning, interpreting genetic test results in the context of their `genealogical aspirations’. I conclude that issues of site, scale, and subjectification must be attended to if scholars are to understand whether and to what extent social identities are being transformed by recent developments in genetic science. (locked)
  • Tyler, Katharine. “The genealogical imagination: the inheritance of interracial identities.” The Sociological Review 53, no. 3 (2005): 476-494. Abstract: The aim of this article is to examine ethnographically how ideas of descent, biology and culture mediate ideas about the inheritance of racial identities. To do this, the article draws upon interviews with the members of interracial families from Leicester, a city situated in the East Midlands region of England. The article focuses upon the genealogical narratives of the female members of interracial families who live in an ethnically diverse inner-city area of Leicester. Attention is paid to the ways in which the women mobilise and intersect ideas about kinship, ancestry, descent, belonging, place, biology and culture when they think about the inheritance of their own and/or their children’s interracial identities. The article’s emphasis upon the constitution of interracial identities contributes to the sociological study of race and genealogy by exploring the racialised fragmentation of ideas of inheritance and descent across racial categories and generations. (locked)
  • TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of race and indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 412-424. Abstract: In its quest to sample 100,000 “indigenous and traditional peoples,” the Genographic Project deploys five problematic narratives: (1) that “we are all African”; (2) that “genetic science can end racism”; (3) that “indigenous peoples are vanishing”; (4) that “we are all related”; and (5) that Genographic “collaborates” with indigenous peoples. In so doing, Genographic perpetuates much critiqued, yet longstanding notions of race and colonial scientific practice. (OA)
  • Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. “Your DNA is our history.” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S233-S245. Abstract: During the nineteenth century, the American School of Anthropology enfolded Native peoples into their histories, claiming knowledge about and artifacts of these cultures as their rightful inheritance and property. Drawing both on the Genographic Project and the recent struggles between Arizona State University and the Havasupai Tribe over the use of Havasupai DNA, in this essay we describe how similar enfoldments continue today—despite most contemporary human scientists’ explicit rejection of hierarchical ideas of race. We seek to bring greater clarity and visibility to these constitutive links between whiteness, property, and the human sciences in order that the fields of biological anthropology and population genetics might work to move toward their stated commitments to antiracism (a goal, we argue, that the fields’ antiracialism impedes). Specifically, we reflect on how these links can inform extralegal strategies to address tensions between U.S. and other indigenous peoples and genome scientists and their facilitators (ethicists, lawyers, and policy makers). We conclude by suggesting changes to scientific education and professional standards that might improve relations between indigenous peoples and those who study them, and we introduce mechanisms for networking between indigenous peoples, scholars, and policy makers concerned with expanding indigenous governance of science and technology. (OA)
  • Wagner, Jennifer K., and Kenneth M. Weiss. “Attitudes on DNA ancestry tests.”Human genetics 131, no. 1 (2012): 41-56. Abstract: The DNA ancestry testing industry is more than a decade old, yet details about it remain a mystery: there remain no reliable, empirical data on the number, motivations, and attitudes of customers to date, the number of products available and their characteristics, or the industry customs and standard practices that have emerged in the absence of specific governmental regulations. Here, we provide preliminary data collected in 2009 through indirect and direct participant observation, namely blog post analysis, generalized survey analysis, and targeted survey analysis. The attitudes include the first available data on attitudes of those of individuals who have and have not had their own DNA ancestry tested as well as individuals who are members of DNA ancestry-related social networking groups. In a new and fluid landscape, the results highlight the need for empirical data to guide policy discussions and should be interpreted collectively as an invitation for additional investigation of (1) the opinions of individuals purchasing these tests, individuals obtaining these tests through research participation, and individuals not obtaining these tests; (2) the psychosocial and behavioral reactions of individuals obtaining their DNA ancestry information with attention given both to expectations prior to testing and the sociotechnical architecture of the test used; and (3) the applications of DNA ancestry information in varying contexts. (locked)
  • Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the unsettled past: The collision of DNA, race, and history. Rutgers University Press, 2012.GeneticsUnsettledPast


    Abstract: Genetics and the Unsettled Past considers the alignment of genetic science with commercial genealogy, with legal and forensic developments, and with pharmaceutical innovation to examine how these trends lend renewed authority to biological understandings of race and history. This unique collection brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines—biology, history, cultural studies, law, medicine, anthropology, ethnic studies, sociology—to explore the emerging and often contested connections among race, DNA, and history. Written for a general audience, the book’s essays touch upon a variety of topics, including the rise and implications of DNA in genealogy, law, and other fields; the cultural and political uses and misuses of genetic information; the way in which DNA testing is reshaping understandings of group identity for French Canadians, Native Americans, South Africans, and many others within and across cultural and national boundaries; and the sweeping implications of genetics for society today. (locked)

This brief review just barely scratches the surface of this area of research but gives you some key names in the field to continue reading. Would you like to see your research featured in an upcoming research brief? Drop a note using the contact form.

Happy reading! 😉

IQ and the Nativist Movement: Richwine’s Report

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low IQ of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.

Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions about “race,” immigration, and the link between IQ and genetics. Even a neophyte in matters of genetics/genomics can see the gaping holes in Richwine’s logic. One would have expected his advisors, Professors George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks to have been more cognizant of the complex nature of terms such as “race”, “Hispanic,” and “white,” as well as their tenuous links to genetics (assuming they actually read the dissertation). Richwine claimed in his Harvard dissertation that “the material environment and genes probably make the greatest contributions to IQ differences” (p. 4) and that “today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives” (p. 134).

There are three basic points that have to be made to remind these scholars that such shoddy work should not easily pass at the doctoral level– or any level for that matter. One is the basic idea that “Hispanics” can be of any race (a concept that Richwine references in passing in his dissertation), so that it is not possible to simply oppose “Hispanic” and “white” as if they were mutually exclusive categories (a dichotomy that is crucial to his argument). In fact, Pope Francis is Hispanic; so is Rigoberta Menchu. The term is a politically- and socially-constructed category that has been shaped through historical ties between the US, Latin America, and the Iberian peninsula. There is nothing inherent, natural, or ‘genetic’ in the category of “Hispanic.” There are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but there are also many of Amerindian origins, African descent, and a vast majority whose origins are a mix of ethnicities, including East Asian, Jewish, Arab, and practically every other group in the world (I myself, for example, am of Aymara, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese origin).

The primitive binary taxonomy of “black vs. white” (emanating from the US one-drop rule) that has somehow become transformed into a spurious “white vs. non-white” Manichean logic is untenable. Not only has racial admixture always been the case (since, as work by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us, there were many ‘white races’ — not just one– at previous historical times), but ‘racial’ mixing has become even more prevalent even in the US in the last five decades as a result of the rapid rise of non-European migration. Even for those who consider “Hispanic” a race, the understanding of this term is cultural and historical, not genetic (for example, in the ideas of the eminent Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos). Race is not a dichotomous variable. The Latin American experience shows us this, and the US would do well to heed that lesson to break down its dualistic racial paradigm.

The second point to be made is that the genetics and genomics revolution of the last two decades or so does have implications for what we understand as ‘race,’ but not in the way that people like Richwine want to argue. Our workshop examined the idea of ‘race’ in light of recent genetics and genomic research in order to see whether it has consequences for our conceptualization of ‘racial’ identities and categories, and also for policies related to health disparities. These are complex and as of yet unresolved questions, but they certainly do not buttress the idea that there are such things as natural entities called ‘’races’’ and that they are rooted in genetic grounds. Recent research shows that humans share about 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans (an animal beloved by visitors to this blog). It also tells us that orangutans are more genetically diverse among themselves than are humans. In other words, people are more alike, across regional populations, than we are different.

And even within the small areas of difference, no evidence exists that such differences make for strictly separate human categories that are essentially discrete. It may be true that some populations share some genetic markers among themselves more than with others, but these differences are minimal. As epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of McGill has argued, the more we learn about the human genome, the closer we are to individuated genetic understanding, not to the construction of broad, essentially-unchangeable human groups. Richwine’s error is to think that IQ is a stable phenotype that reflects universal intelligence. Yes, we should take the genomics revolution as a challenge to simple social-constructivist views of race, but we cannot make the error of thinking that it validates a reification of the complex sociopolitical categories that we call ‘races.’

The last point is that the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. Besides the problems noted above, we can underscore that even IQ test results are culturally-shaped, and not some measure of a primordial, biological mental ability. Rather, they reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts. They are not measures of pure intelligence (a dubious concept as well). What we ought to be advocating is not some sort of eugenics-based retrograde Nativist policy that reminds us of the 19th century, but improved educational access for all, and a fair, uniform immigration policy that minimizes discrimination, not enhances it.

It is both morally and intellectually disingenuous to propose what Borjas et al. have been advocating for years now. To claim to favor more immigration of those with “higher IQ’s” or more human capital flies in the face of the fact that low-human capital immigrants contribute profoundly to US economic growth due to their low wages in key industries such as construction, agriculture, and also the service sector. In manufacturing, Hispanics are underpaid relative to their economic value, as sociologist Arthur Sakamoto has shown. Ethically, it is unacceptable for a modern liberal-democratic state to promote high-IQ selectivity in immigration, for this policy advocates unequal treatment rather than uniform standards for all (in this light, Canadian immigration policy, which makes distinctions based on human capital, may be suspect as well, owing to the brain drain that it induces in poorer nations).

As educators, we have a special responsibility to provide non-superficial answers to complex questions. The idea of race is a fraught one. As the Kennedy School is my alma mater, I must say that it is time that policy questions not be treated as merely quantitative or mechanical issues. Public policy schools must also provide coursework that deepens analyses, no thins them down. “Race” is a concept that involves normative, political, historical, cultural, economic, and social forces in a complex interplay. It cannot be bandied about willy-nilly with no sensitivity to them. This idea applies to all racial categories, but it is perhaps most salient for the term “Hispanic,” owing to the rich diversity of ethnic origins that have gone into its making over a long historical period. It is befuddling that no one on Richwine’s committee seems to have been aware of this (in particular Jencks, who has written on these issues in the past).

It is time for antediluvian academics to step aside and give more space to the new generations of scholars that are able to engage in a critique of the all-too-dominant idea that race is merely a social construct but without falling into an antiquated racial essentialism. It is time for a real national dialogue on race that will start new conversations. Our classrooms are a good place to begin these discussions.

Diego A. von Vacano is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Hispanic/Latin American Political Thought (Oxford UP) and is writing a new book on immigrant identities.

Babies with Bias?

Sundays are for relaxing and avoiding any real critical thinking beyond which outdated sweatpants to wear, right? I would normally agree, but a 60 Minutes episode airing on CBS on November 18, 2012, one of the last remaining venues of real journalism within the U.S. market broke the silence in my mind. A piece entitled, Born Good? Babies Help Unlock the Origins of Morality, evoked my lazy carb induced Sunday evening mind to contemplate. Leslie Stahl sought to answer the questions if we as humans are born to be good or bad? Do we start out in life with a sense of morality, selfish, and or oppressive? Or as many have over time believed, such as B.F. Skinner simply blank slates which are in need of guidance from society to fill the voids?

Scholars from Yale University’s Infant Cognition Lab (“the baby lab”) were interviewed to answer these questions. Researchers such as Karen Wynn, Director of the Infant Cognition Lab that is within the psychology department, used babies as young as three to five months old to prove babies have a predilection for persons who exhibit nice behaviors and a disdain for those who illustrate antisocial behaviors. Their findings were first published within nature (2007) within an article entitled, “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” In addition, they have also gone on within subsequent years to show babies have an elementary understanding of justice. Paul Bloom, also a professor of psychology at Yale, has noted babies are “creatures of sophistication and subtle knowledge.” Within the 60 Minute interviews he stated

there is a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of right and wrong are part of our biological nature.

In terms of what some may call “evil,” the findings from the lab have pointed to evidence which proves that babies are born with a sense of bias and preference for individuals who have similar traits and characteristics that they as babies possess. Simply, babies are predisposed to divide and categorize the world up into groups. But the research that proved babies prefer individuals who harm others unlike them was the point within the televised show which pushed me to sit up and take real notice. If one believes in the findings, on one hand we are essentially we are genetically wired to know and value justice and equity, but on the other we have a calling to protect our own through the means of dividing and conquering.

Even though people such as Dr. James Anderson have argued that the term race and acts of racism did not emerge until the 18th century, Bloom noted that “evolution” dedicates at least the need for humans to categorize individuals and thus be weary of those unlike them was necessary in order to survive. This he feels is the key to understanding how to exterminate racism and bigotry that is acted upon throughout the world. Moreover, the call for society and positive nurture is needed to combat these biological callings. This was shown in the 60 Minutes piece to be true as researchers worked with older children (9 to 10 years of age) and proved categorized evil traits of humanity could be tempered due to education and positive inculcation. Even though the Wynn and Bloom’s research initially argues that babies and young children are genetically predisposed, on an elementary basis, to prefer others like them, while at the same time punishing others unlike them, the researchers also illustrated that the feelings that drive these actions can be corrected to a large degree with positive societal and family guidance.

What are the true sociological implications? I feel that attention and research is needed to the possible linkages of “evolution” and public policies. A better picture as to why historical and contemporary policies that oppressed and or harmed specific marginalized populations throughout the world can thusly be created. The implications of said research can also explain why racial persecution continues today within the 21st century. In addition, scholars within the field would be able to add another layer of explanation as to the motivation for the precursors to said policies.

Next, by investigating the nurturing aspect of specific people and or groups responsible for the oppression of others could lead to a better understanding into the actions of man. Moreover, by applying the findings of Yale’s baby lab, researchers are able to explain the differences in our social, economic, and educational realms. Most importantly, I feel it also sways a large degree of responsibility back, not only onto the self in regard of self-control and rectification, but also onto those within our individual environments.

I know history is full of examples of man’s innate sense, and consequential actions to protect and favor those like themselves while oppressing other. But this still gives me some sense of hope. Some…

Racist Eugenics: Alive and Well in NC

Scholars have long drawn parallels between laws banning interracial and same-sex marriage. The conversation came full circle Monday morning when Jodie Brunstetter, wife of North Carolina Senator Peter Brunstetter (R), explained that her husband co-authored a recent piece of anti-same-sex marriage legislation to “protect the Caucasian race.” Brunstetter continued, “The reason my husband wrote Amendment 1 was because the Caucasian race is diminishing and we need to uh, reproduce.” Placing “race reproduction” at the center of her argument, Brunstetter advocates for a positive eugenics program, a central element of traditional anti-miscegenation statues.


Jodie and Peter Brunstetter

Faced with increasing interracial contact in the late 19th century, whites turned to the pseudo-science of eugenics to justify racial segregation. Eugenicists argued that both the physical and character traits of individuals are biologically determined, and thus the genetic quality of society can be made better or worse through artificial selection. Whites were attracted to eugenics because they assumed the superiority of the white race and the importance of racial separation, but they feared, and eugenics proved “proof,” that interracial sex would result in future generations dominated by “inferior” racial characteristics. Thus, a positive eugenics program was required to guarantee the longevity of the white race. Central to this program, was legislating the prohibition of interracial intimacy. One of the most notable pieces of anti-miscegenation legislation is Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Desiring to maintain the “racial integrity” of the nation as well as their dominant position, white Virginians once passed the Racial Integrity Act, a law forbidding whites from marrying anyone of another race. Limiting marriage to persons of the same race, the Virginia law sough to ensure the reproduction of the white race and prevent the “deplorable evil” of interracial sex.

Specifically, “racial integrity” laws were concerned with preventing biracial children. As Justice Brown argued in Scott v. State (1869):

The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observation shows us, that the offspring of these unnatural connections are generally sickly and effeminate, and that they are inferior in physical development and strength to the full-blood of either race. It is sometimes urged that such marriages should be encouraged, for the purpose of elevating the inferior races. The reply is, that such connections never elevate the inferior race to the position of the superior, but they bring down the superior to that of the inferior. They are productive of evil, and evil only.

This except from Justice Brown’s opinion is indicative of the eugenicist ideology dominating the courts of this time. Primarily concerned with “reproducing the race” and maintaining the “racial integrity of the nation,” anti-miscegenation laws presented a positive eugenics program much like that advocated by Brunstetter. However, such laws also had a damning impact on white women… confining them to the one role of mother.

Fueled by eugenicist rhetoric, whites argued against education and careers outside the home for white women, charged them to reproducing the race. According to eugenicists, changes in traditional gender roles equates to racial suicide and thus women were should be confined to their “birthing duties.” As historian Lisa Linquist Dorr [[]] explains, “social stability depended on the controlling of women’s sexuality as a means of assuring they were virtuous enough to raise virtuous children.” Dorr continues:

Eugenic supporters of the Racial Integrity Act articulated a central concern: women, intoxicated by the exciting adventures of youth, might ignore the opinions of their elders, their traditions, and, ultimately, their racial pride, which, because of women’s reproductive capacity, was especially important.

Framing white motherhood as a matter of racial pride, eugenicists sought limited white women to the role of mother. Women desiring interracial sexual contact were often met with forced sterilization by white doctors seeking to “protect the white race.”

Reflecting on the eugenicists rhetoric motivating anti-miscegenation law, there are parallels between anti-interracial and anti-same-sex marriage advocates such as Brunstetter. Arguing America was “founded by whites,” Brunstetter is establishing America’s racial genealogy which must be “preserved” through guaranteeing white procreating. Because gay and lesbian couples lack this ability, Brunstetter deems their relationships null and void. Situating reproduction at the center of her argument, Brunstetter also confines white women to their “birthing duties” advocated by eugenicists

Since making the original comments, Brunstetter has insisted her comment “wasn’t anything race related” and “they [democrats] have made it a racial issue when it is not.” However, Brunstetter has not been able to explain her use of explicitly racial rhetoric in an allegedly non-racial conversation. Placing Brunstetter’s comments within a larger sociohistorical context, her arguments against same sex marriage heavily coincide with those used against interracial marriage.

Infant Mortality & The Stresses of Everyday Racism

I think that the national discussion about racism and health care reform gets so abstract sometimes that we forget that when we’re talking about health, we’re talking about people’s lives. And, as this short clip (about 4 minutes) demonstrates very powerfully, leading researchers contend that racism plays an important role in infant mortality among African American women, even when controlling for income and education. This clip, from Episode 2, “When the Bough Breaks,” in the video series “Unnatural Causes,” (2007), features UCLA obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Michael Lu. Lu believes that for many women of color, racism over a life time, not just during the nine months of pregnancy, increases the risk of preterm delivery, one of the leading risk factors for early infant death:

And, in an interesting piece of research by one of the experts featured in the full episode, Dr. Camara Jones, concludes that: “being classified by others as White is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status, no matter how one self-identifies.” So, there’s a very real, somatic level at which racism both takes a toll on some and provides an advantage to others.

I think we should keep this in mind as the health care debate rages on. What kind of society do we want to create?

Is White Racism Skin Deep?

Blue nevus (3 of 4)
Creative Commons License photo credit: euthman

NPR just did an interesting story on research on melanin and skin color shifts over relatively short evolutionary time, just a few thousand years. Those of us with darker skins may well have had ancestors just 2500 or so years ago who were much lighter in skin color, and those of us with lighter skin may have had much darker recent ancestors. The new research suggests that human evolution does not need thousands of years to change something as superficial as skin color. Given that reality, it is amazing and sad that we humans make so much of our thinking and social organization hinge on something as superficial as melanin variation and dark/light skin color.

Here is an interesting map (NPR, George Chaplin) of where darker-skinned people now live on the planet. Notice how skin color generally follows the levels of ultraviolet radiation (sun intensity) on the planet.

The NPR story quotes Anthropology Professor Nina Jablonski at Penn State, who argues that your current skin color

is very probably not the color your ancient ancestors had — even if you think your family has been the same color for a long, long time. … Skin has changed color in human lineages much faster than scientists had previously supposed, even without intermarriage, Jablonski says. …By creating genetic “clocks,” scientists can make fairly careful guesses about when particular groups became the color they are today. And with the help of paleontologists and anthropologists, scientists can go further: They can wind the clock back and see what colors these populations were going back tens of thousands of years, says Jablonski. She says that for many families on the planet, if we look back only 100 or 200 generations (that’s as few as 2,500 years), “almost all of us were in a different place and we had a different color.” … “People living now in southern parts of India [and Sri Lanka] are extremely darkly pigmented,” Jablonski says. But their great, great ancestors lived much farther north, and when they migrated south, their pigmentation redarkened.

Of course, we are all Africans if we go back about 100,000 years, and thus we all come from people who were once likely quite dark-skinned, given that we originated Africa
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hitchster

in equatorial Africa where the levels of ultraviolet light were, and are quite high. Melanin is a type of skin molecule that makes

skin lighter or darker. Kind of like a Venetian blind, it can let UV light in or keep it out. . .. .Humans have had it for a long, long time and what Jablonski and others have learned is that when early humans migrated from the equator, their melanin levels changed.

And skin color can change much faster than earlier estimates suggested:

“Our original estimates were that [skin color changes] occurred perhaps at a more stately pace,” Jablonski says. But now they’re finding that a population can be one color (light or dark) and 100 generations later — with no intermarriage — be a very different color. Figuring 25 years per generation (which is generous, since early humans walked naked through the world — clothes slow down the rate), that’s an astonishingly short interval.

One thing that the NPR story does not deal with is that there is some significant variation in the map, with some far-north peoples having darker skin color than those somewhat to their south. One reason for this, a science blogger suggests, is that of nutrition and agricultural development:

The deleterious consequences of switching many non-agricultural populations to the starch rich diet are well known (obesity, diabetes, etc.). Selection happens, and it seems likely that a genetic revolution was ushered in by the radically altered nutritional universe of the farmer. … Frank W. Sweet published an essay in 2002 which offered that the feasibility of a farming lifestyle at very high latitudes in Europe due to peculiar climatological conditions served to drive Europeans to develop light skins over the last 10,000 years. In short, Sweet argues that the diets of pre-farming peoples were richer in meats and fish which provided sufficient Vitamin D so that skin color was likely light brown as opposed to pink. But with the spread of agriculture Vitamin D disappeared from the diets of northern European peoples and so only by reducing their melanin levels could they produce sufficient amounts of this nutrient to keep at bay the deleterious consequences of deficiencies. This explains why the Sami, who [live far north on the planet] never adopted agriculture, remained darker.

So, sociological factors loom large as well, in this case shifts in agriculture and food eaten. There are other environmental and genetic diversity factors as well, such as timing in evolution and genetic diversity in the initial population. And one must be careful about arguing from biological research on melanin to broader sociological issues.

Still, it never ceases to amaze me that melanin variation is such a powerful factor in the social construction of “race” among human beings, so much so that young people like Mr. Grant are now deceased because of melanin variation’s perception in some white person’s mind. How irrational is that?
Continue reading…

Race and Medicine

We seem to be pursuing a theme here today, albeit an unintentional one, with race and medicine. In the medical field, there’s something that’s referred to as “personalized medicine.” This is the idea that doctors will (some day) be able to individually tailor medical care to the patient’s needs based on an individual-level analysis of the individual’s genome. Now, some are suggesting that this “personalized medicine” should replace racial classification. Sharon Begley writing in “LabNotes” for Newsweek, says:

…a new paper published online this week by the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, .. concludes that classifying people by the crude category of race—as in, of African, Asian or European ancestry—for medical purposes, as some people want to do, is really, really stupid.

The article Begley refers to, “Individual Genomes Instead of Race for Personalized Medicine,” reports on the results of the sequencing of the genes of two white guys – Craig Venter and James Watson (yes, the same Watson) – to see how they metabolize six different drugs. The results were revealing.

What they found is that these two men, ostensibly of the “same race,” in fact have very different genetic make-ups when it comes to how their bodies process certain drugs. What these geneticists conclude is consistent with what social scientists have been saying for some time: “race” is social category, not a meaningful biological category. In the words of the authors of the study:

…race/ethnicity should be considered only a makeshift solution for personalized genomics because it is too approximate; known differences may occur within a defined category. …The label “African” or “African-American” is therefore insufficient to determine whether an individual comes from a population with a high frequency of the *17 allele. Even if an individual is known to be, for example, Ethiopian rather than Zimbabwean, the ancestry is less relevant than the true genotype, which could be easily resolved with today’s technology. Even the term “Caucasian” can be deceptive. If a self-identified Caucasian originates from a founder population in which certain disease-specific alleles occur at higher frequencies (e.g., Quebec French Canadians or Ashkenazi Jews), his or her doctor may miss an important aspect of the patient’s medical history. One’s ethnicity/race is, at best, a probabilistic guess at one’s true genetic makeup.

I have to say, I feel quite vindicated, given the little dust-up back in November 2007 (see the comments) with guys who wanted to argue that the “reality of race is genetic.” Still, it’s deeply ironic that this news should come from Venter and Watson, not known for their forward thinking on race (see my earlier posts about both of them here and here). But hey, I’ll take it.