by Vivian Chou
figures by Daniel Utter

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been marked by the brewing storms of racial conflicts. A rise in racial incidents ensued in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory in November 2016. Since the beginning of 2017, over 100 bomb threats have been made against Jewish community centers and schools. Trump’s travel ban, signed in late January 2017, initially affected about 90,000 people from seven Middle Eastern countries; 87,000 of those banned were Muslims. Minorities such as American Muslims and black Americans have expressed fears over racial relations under Trump. Undeniably, the topic of race—and racism—has gripped America and the world throughout.

Over the last decade, there have been hopes that the US has become a post-racial society, free of racial prejudice and discrimination. However, the most recent months indicate the contrary: race remains an incendiary issue. Race and racism are not new issues, but in today’s 21st century Trump-era, discussions about race are distinct from those of the past in that they possess an entirely new dimension: that of genetics and DNA.

Race in the new era of human genetics research

In 2003, scientists completed the Human Genome Project, making it finally possible to examine human ancestry with genetics. Scientists have since tackled topics such as human migrations out of Africa and around the world. And it’s not just scientists who are excited about human genetics: widely affordable at-home ancestry test kits are now readily available from companies like 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and Ancestry. For $99—around the price of a romantic dinner or a pair of Nikes—a customer can receive an analysis from 23andMe indicating that they are, for instance, 18.0% Native American, 65.1% European and 6.2% African.

The soaring popularity of ancestry testing bespeaks a widespread perception that we can use these tests to dissect, delineate, and define our ancestral composition. Indeed, social media is teeming with blog posts, and even livestream videos, from excited customers bursting to broadcast their test results and their reactions. Ancestry test kits are the new “it” item—and with their success is the tacit admission of our belief that our DNA can sort us into categories like the “five races:” African, European, Asian, Oceania, and Native American (Figure 1A).

Figure 1. ‘Race’ cannot be biologically defined due to genetic variation among human individuals and populations. (A) The old concept of the “five races:” African, Asian, European, Native American, and Oceanian. According to this view, variation between the races is large, and thus, the each race is a separate category. Additionally, individual races are thought to have a relatively uniform genetic identity. (B) Actual genetic variation in humans. Human populations do roughly cluster into geographical regions. However, variation between different regions is small, thus blurring the lines between populations. Furthermore, variation within a single region is large, and there is no uniform identity.
Figure 1: ‘Race’ cannot be biologically defined due to genetic variation among human individuals and populations. (A) The old concept of the “five races:” African, Asian, European, Native American, and Oceanian. According to this view, variation between the races is large, and thus, the each race is a separate category. Additionally, individual races are thought to have a relatively uniform genetic identity. (B) Actual genetic variation in humans. Human populations do roughly cluster into geographical regions. However, variation between different regions is small, thus blurring the lines between populations. Furthermore, variation within a single region is large, and there is no uniform identity.

New findings in genetics tear down old ideas about race

Estimating our ancestral composition down to 0.1% seem to suggest that there are exact, categorical divisions between human populations. But reality is far less simple. Compared to the general public’s enthusiasm for ancestry testing, the reaction from scientists has been considerably more lukewarm. Research indicates that the concept of “five races” does, to an extent, describe the way human populations are distributed among the continents—but the lines between races are much more blurred than ancestry testing companies would have us believe (Figure 1B).

A landmark 2002 study by Stanford scientists examined the question of human diversity by looking at the distribution across seven major geographical regions of 4,000 alleles. Alleles are the different “flavors” of a gene. For instance, all humans have the same genes that code for hair: the different alleles are why hair comes in all types of colors and textures.

In the Stanford study, over 92% of alleles were found in two or more regions, and almost half of the alleles studied were present in all seven major geographical regions. The observation that the vast majority of the alleles were shared over multiple regions, or even throughout the entire world, points to the fundamental similarity of all people around the world—an idea that has been supported by many other studies (Figure 1B).

If separate racial or ethnic groups actually existed, we would expect to find “trademark” alleles and other genetic features that are characteristic of a single group but not present in any others. However, the 2002 Stanford study found that only 7.4% of over 4000 alleles were specific to one geographical region. Furthermore, even when region-specific alleles did appear, they only occurred in about 1% of the people from that region—hardly enough to be any kind of trademark. Thus, there is no evidence that the groups we commonly call “races” have distinct, unifying genetic identities. In fact, there is ample variation within races (Figure 1B).

Ultimately, there is so much ambiguity between the races, and so much variation within them, that two people of European descent may be more genetically similar to an Asian person than they are to each other (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Case study of genetic variation between three scientists. Left: Schematization of the genetic variation between Drs. James Watson, Craig Venter, and Kim Seong-jin. Colored bars represent genes; different colors represent different alleles, i.e. versions of genes. Some alleles are shared by all three of the men (represented by the dark brown allele that is shared by every person in this image). Besides the universal dark brown allele, Watson and Venter share one other allele (bright blue). However, both share two alleles with Kim (Watson shares red and orange with Kim, Venter shares green and magenta), in addition to the universal allele. Right: There is more similarity between the Kim and Watson and Kim and Venter, than there is between Watson and Venter.
Figure 2: Case study of genetic variation between three scientists. Left: Schematization of the genetic variation between Drs. James Watson, Craig Venter, and Kim Seong-jin. Colored bars represent genes; different colors represent different alleles, i.e. versions of genes. Some alleles are shared by all three of the men (represented by the dark brown allele that is shared by every person in this image). Besides the universal dark brown allele, Watson and Venter share one other allele (bright blue). However, both share two alleles with Kim (Watson shares red and orange with Kim, Venter shares green and magenta), in addition to the universal allele. Right: There is more similarity between the Kim and Watson and Kim and Venter, than there is between Watson and Venter.

Does “race” still mean something?

The divisions between races are doubtlessly blurred, but does this necessarily mean that race is a myth—a mere social construct and biologically meaningless? As with other race-related questions, the answer is multi-dimensional and may well depend on whom you ask.

In the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute. Today, scientists prefer to use the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity (Figure 3). “Ancestry” reflects the fact that human variations do have a connection to the geographical origins of our ancestors—with enough information about a person’s DNA, scientists can make a reasonable guess about their ancestry. However, unlike the term “race,” it focuses on understanding how a person’s history unfolded, not how they fit into one category and not another. In a clinical setting, for instance, scientists would say that diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are common in those of “sub-Saharan African” or “Northern European” descent, respectively, rather than in those who are “black” or “white”.

Figure 3. Race versus ancestry. (A) The classification of people into different races is typically based on observable physical features, with skin color being the most prominently used characteristic. Racial classifications also draw upon non-biological characteristics such as culture, language, history, religion, and socioeconomic status. Thus, “race” is a term that lacks clear definition. (B) In contrast to race, “ancestry” emphasizes the geographical origins of one’s ancestors (parents, grandparents, and beyond). Unlike “race,” the concept of “ancestry” does not focus on the static categorization of humans into groups, but rather on the process by which a person’s history unfolded.
Figure 3: Race versus ancestry. (A) The classification of people into different races is typically based on observable physical features, with skin color being the most prominently used characteristic. Racial classifications also draw upon non-biological characteristics such as culture, language, history, religion, and socioeconomic status. Thus, “race” is a term that lacks clear definition. (B) In contrast to race, “ancestry” emphasizes the geographical origins of one’s ancestors (parents, grandparents, and beyond). Unlike “race,” the concept of “ancestry” does not focus on the static categorization of humans into groups, but rather on the process by which a person’s history unfolded.

However, even if scientists agree that race is, at most, a social construct, any cursory search of the internet reveals that the broader public is not convinced of this. After all, if an Asian person looks so different from a European, how could they not be from distinct groups? Even if most scientists reject the concept of “race” as a biological concept, race exists, undeniably, as a social and political concept.

The popular classifications of race are based chiefly on skin color, with other relevant features including height, eyes, and hair. Though these physical differences may appear, on a superficial level, to be very dramatic, they are determined by only a minute portion of the genome: we as a species have been estimated to share 99.9% of our DNA with each other. The few differences that do exist reflect differences in environments and external factors, not core biology.

Importantly, the evolution of skin color occurred independently, and did not influence other traits such as mental abilities and behavior. In fact, science has yet to find evidence that there are genetic differences in intelligence  between populations. Ultimately, while there certainly are some biological differences between different populations, these differences are few and superficial. The traits that we do share are far more profound

Science and genetics: Instruments of modern racism

Despite the scientific consensus that humanity is more alike than unlike, the long history of racism is a somber reminder that throughout human history, a mere 0.1% of variation has been sufficient justification for committing all manner of discriminations and atrocities. The advances in human genetics and the evidence of negligible differences between races might be expected to halt racist arguments. But, in fact, genetics has been used to further racist and ethnocentric arguments—as in the case of the alt-right, which promotes far-right ideologies, including white nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Considered a fringe movement for years, the alt-right gained considerable attention and relevance during Trump’s presidential campaign. Indeed, Steve Bannon, the current senior counselor and chief strategist to President Trump and the former chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign, has notable ties to the alt-right. Once relegated to obscure internet forums, the alt-right’s newest pulpit is the White House.

Members of the alt-right are enthusiastic proponents of ancestry testing as a way to prove their “pure” white heritage (with Scandinavian and Germanic ancestry being among the most desirable) and to rule out undesired descent from any other groups (including, unsurprisingly, Africans and the Ashkenazi Jews, but even certain European groups, such as Italians and Armenians). The belief in white superiority, and the need to preserve it, drives the alt-right movement—and genetics is both the weapon and battle standard of this new, supposedly “scientific” racism.

Those who disagree with alt-right ideologies may assume that the alt-right is merely spewing ignorant nonsense. This is certainly true for some of the alt-right. What is perhaps a more difficult truth is that many of the alt-right do, in fact, understand biology and genetics to an impressive extent, even if this understanding is flawed.

For instance, alt-right proponents have stated, correctly, that many people with European and Asian descent have inherited 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals ancestors, and those of African descent do not have Neanderthal heritage. They are similarly correct that Neanderthals had larger skulls than humans. Based on these facts, some within the alt-right have claimed that Europeans and Asians have superior intelligence because they have inherited larger brains from their Neanderthal ancestors.

However, this claim ignores that while there is evidence for the effect of Neanderthal DNA on certain traits, there has been no evidence for its effect on intelligence. Furthermore, scientific research indicates that the Neanderthals were not necessarily more intelligent simply because they had larger skulls. Unsurprisingly, the alt-right tends cherry-pick the ideas that align with their preconceived notions of racial hierarchies, ignoring the broader context of the field of human genetics.

Fighting racism with understanding

Just as the alt-right is no longer an easily dismissed fringe group, their arguments have some factual basis, and cannot be swept aside as the babbling of the scientific illiterate. The alt-right is not clumsy in their use of science and genetics in their battle for their “ideals.” Those who oppose the alt-right, and other racist entities, must arm themselves with the same weapons: education, namely scientific and genetic literacy.

Mounting scientific evidence has shown that humans are fundamentally more similar than different from each other. Nonetheless, racism has persisted. Scientific findings are often ignored, or otherwise actively misinterpreted and misused to further racist agendas of extreme political groups. Opponents of these forces must, through their own education and awareness, combat these misleading interpretations and representations of scientific findings.

Today, the question of “race” is no longer merely a political and social issue: as science has rapidly advanced, it has become irrevocably intertwined. The genome contains powerful insights about our biology that could unite us as a species, but which could also be dangerous and divisive if used without understanding. As we look forward to 2017 and onwards, it becomes ever more important to understand what our DNA says about what it means to be human.

Vivian Chou is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard Medical School.

For more information:

The Atlantic “Will the alt-right promote a new kind of racist genetics?” (December 2016)

Harvard Magazine “Race in a genetic world” (2008)

Livescience “Genetic ancestry tests mostly hype, scientists say” (2007)

Science “The science and business of genetic ancestry testing” (2007; original paper cited in the Livescience article above)

Nature Genetics “Implications of biogeography of human populations for ‘race’ and medicine” (November 2004)

544 thoughts on “How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century

  1. It is disingenuous for these scientists to state there is no race, but there is an obviousness factor about the whole thing they are glossing over or simply refusing to admit. People have developed over the eons as very distinct and different yet genetically compatible races. Race is simply the word we use to identify one group of genetically more similar people with ever so slight physical differences.

    Like any word, race is used, as others have said, identify people to hate. I do not see it that way though, I see race as something that we use to reflect the obvious difference we see every day between people, like the blonde guy who saved that woman, or that black woman who was instrumental in the Apollo missions to the moon. Any word can be used in bad ways, and that does not mean we eliminate the word from the dictionary.

    1. Only recently have I learned that belief in race is considered inherently racist. I grew up believing that it was acknowledgement of human diversity and that some twisted it into hierarchical thinking. Greater and lesser races.

      This article is not alone, I’m sure, in setting the question of race in Trumpism. I am fairly sickened by politics as a whole but terrified of Trump’s overt disdain for democracy. I vote blue if with less enthusiasm than I once did. I also marched against the Iraq war under Bush.

      I get the idea that there is little or no racial “purity.” And it does not worry me any.

      A lot of it seems like semantics. If race doesn’t exist, what do we call it? Sometimes those determined to render race an unword sound as though they’re confusing race with species. As with different breeds of dogs, all can parent offspring with each other which in itself speaks to their genetic compatability.

      While race isn’t species, it’s more than adaptation in an individual. Skin color can adapt based on sun exposure, but two pure bred German shepherds will not produce basset hound puppies, and two Asians will not give birth to a caucasian.

      On the minimal genetic difference between races, or perhaps peoples, chimpanzees are said to be 98 percent similar to humans genetically. Unlike race, that fraction of a difference is enough that we are not the same species. I wonder to what extent this is all spin on the altar of woke politics.

      1. When race was actually originally invented to give “superiority” to the inventors, and to justify oppressing/killing/enslaving certain other groups, they are inextricably entwined, you can’t separate them. Just “believing in races” is always going to resurrect the “superior/inferior” attitude, even if we don’t intend it to. I know there are those who sincerely don’t choose to see it that way, but the fact that they do tend to pat themselves on the back for it, that they do make a distinction between the racists and themselves who “just believe in race” (I’m not like those white supremists-I think all races are alright) just shows that the two go hand in hand and particular mention has to be made that , “I’m not racist.” It is so common to hear “white” people say, “he/she is black, BUT…they were real nice/he did a good job/ she was smart.” And then they wonder why people see them as racist. We have lived so long with this completely false and destructive idea that we feel somehow at a loss as to how to categorize other human beings anymore. Its a shame, because we want race to be our “go to” to categorize each other, we don’t want to use our own brains to start the process of categorizing people by other qualities. Its so easy to just say, “that white dude”, or “the black teacher”. And every time we do, a whole host of connotations trail after that one little race word, if not in the speaker, then very possibly in the one spoken to. What if we just saw each other as people? What is wrong with, “that tall lady with the green shirt”, or “that little boy carrying his backpack”? Or, “I met my new neighbor and he welcomed me to the neighborhood, he was very friendly”, without mentioning what color he is? Takes just a bit of thought, doesn’t it? These descriptions are actually more accurate, but we prefer the easy “white” or “black”, even when these colors can be so varied as to be confusing. They don’t even make sense because no one is truly “white” or “black”, no matter how pale or dark their skin is. We have, racist or not, developed a certain comfort with being able to put people in these boxes, but its a comfort zone we need to get out of because it is still causing a world of injustice.

  2. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that humans have evolved or that Neanderthals existed. We all have a mixture of melanin; which is dominant depends on our parents, grandparents, etc.. Just family traits.
    As a lifeguard, by summer’s end I was browner than many who say they are black. The following winter I lightened. I guess some of you think I changed races.
    Race is a social prejudice, not scientific at all.

    1. You make an excellent point. Melanin is what determines our color-skin, hair, eyes. And melanin protects-we’re meant to have it. No one likes to hear this, but “white” people-people who only burn in the sun, lack the ability to produce melanin. And this is caused by a genetic defect. Yes, that makes people mad and offended-what doesn’t these days? But its easy to look up, tons of medical/scientific research to back a simple problem that comes in varying degrees-albinism. If you can’t tan in the sun, you have a variation of albinism-you are an albino and you have a genetic defect. Melanin is made in the body to protect us, period. It is not connected to intelligence, our value as a human being, or any of that “inferior/superior” nonsense. If anything, you’re going to be healthier if you have it. Skin cancer among “white” people runs high when they live in very sunny places, like South Africa, Israel, Australia, etc. The only reason we don’t look at this simple fact and stop the racist nonsense is because the world if full of people who would rather DIE than not be able to look down on somebody. The people who benefit from racism will never let the truth fix the problem.

      1. No one (apart from albinos etc.) “lack the ability to produce melanin”. Some races manufacturer less than others because it improves survivability in high latitudes by allowing low sunlight to penetrate light skin to produce vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D has health repercussions for those with dark skin at high latitudes.
        You can counter survivability at low latitudes with more melanin in the skin to protect it skin from cancer. So light and dark skin affects survivability (thus evolution) in all skin tones.
        Evidence shows that skin tone has changed via different genetic paths, so while the difference in skin tone between European and East Asian races can be virtually imperceptible to the human eye the actual evolved genetic change is recordable
        Eye colour is also thought to have possible evolutionary advantage in that preliminary tests have shown that blue eyes can better perceive objects in the low light levels that occur in northern winters.

        1. White people are a result of albinism. There is varying degrees of albinism. What do you think blue eyes and blonde hair are? It’s albinism in the eyes and hair.

          I’m surprised you people don’t know there are different types of albinism.

          1. Albinos are the result of albinism – white or black (“white” or “black” are not races).
            There are plenty of people (you might call black) who are albinos. Just google image search ‘black albinos’.
            “I’m surprised you people don’t know” albinism isn’t found in just one race.

  3. This comment section is rather toxic. Not sure a forced response is the way to go with a discussion.

  4. If there is not a genetic difference , then life in America will verify the failure of the black race is a choice by the black race. If there is no difference in intelligence , living in poverty like a wild animals is a Choice , also , they must like it. I remember when i was under 5 years old watching a chicken dance ,,, which taught me that , almost anyone or anything can be taught something of value to feed themselves . Should that not be a measurement of success or failure of an individual or race ? Has America been using the wrong tools to elevate those that are behind? an , 2 yew Dr chou – visit the real world , it has taken 1000s of years of blacks behaving like , well blacks , for them to be recognized as the troubled group they are. Stop feeding parasites and the hosts will have a better life……enuf

    1. When you build your your white identity on a toxic, weak foundation of lies, delusions, unlimited genocife and violence, you can’t be surprised when it’s so easy to fracture & undermine. You are easy to get a rise out of and break down and crack b/c you’re pathetic, PALE imitations of the real thing (aka original humans). You’ll never measure up & you know it.

    2. Let’s be real, full body albinism – eyes, hair, and skin – is genetically recessive.
      We have (unequal) “Black neighborhoods” & “white neighborhoods” for a reason. Mixed neighborhoods & intermarriage rates scare whites b/c they would take their whiteness away, even if their genes would be passed down to the next generations – which is actually the point of the Darwinist reproduction. White ppl’s obsession w/ trying to create white clone children is abnormal to humans. Humans are 99.9% alike. Of the 0.1% genetic difference btwn any two random ppl only about 7% represents ethnic groups that have “traditionally” been viewed as distinct races. Fruit flies are more genetically diverse than humans. If racism was “natural”, none of this would be true.

      *There’s been a 60% drop in white Western men’s spermatozoa rates the last 40 years & global white birth rates are below-replacement level.* Humans may be closely related but whites extremely closely related to the point of it being deleterious. Whites irrationally won’t accept inbreeding leads to sterility. If they want to survive, they need to admit who & what they are & stop w/ the lying, narcissism, brutality & genocide they’ve been using to overcompensate for their inferiority complexes, irrationality, & paranoia surrounding their skin color. Or they can continue & go down w/ the pathetic “white skin is superior” Titanic they’re on right now.

    3. You are ignorant by choice . So ignorant that my superior genes will not comment . If you were so superior why would you still be trying to prove it 400 hundred years later? Critical thinking is your friend . Play by the rules and let’s see how it goes . I’ll sit back on my upper middle class home and watch more willfully inhumane animal behavior initiated by USA and hope that you find out who you really are , as it is unfolding from every corner of history exactly where we stand . I feel sympathy for you rather than anger I don’t feel the needs to engage further because I know who I am , perhaps that’s choice as welll

    4. Damn, I don’t who the hell you are, but you fucking suck and so do your writing skills. Hopefully you realized that now in the last two years and changed both of those issues lol.

      I could probably guess where you were on January 6th, 2021.

      Man, you are cracking me up, thanks for the laugh.

      – A Black Harvard Undergrad

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *