Can Race Be Reduced to a Matter of Genes?

Is race a social construct or a biological fact? Ed Gordon talks with Dr. Joseph Graves, Jr., professor of biology and dean of university studies at North Carolina A&T State University.

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ED GORDON, host:

Now with us, Dr. Joseph Graves, Jr. He's a professor of biology and dean of university studies at North Carolina A&T State University. Dr. Graves joins us from the studios of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill. Doctor, welcome.

Dr. JOSEPH GRAVES, JR. (Biology, North Carolina AT&T State University): Nice to be here, Ed.

GORDON: Let me ask you this question, if I might. I wonder if you pick up on the age-old question of race being a social construct or biological fact? We're seeing so much change over the last decade or so in terms of research. What do you think about that question?

Dr. GRAVES: Well, I think that we have clearly settled the question of the existence of biological races in the human species. In other words, human beings don't have biological races the way we define them in other species, and in fact we have been working on this problem - and other biologists and naturalists have been working on this problem - for a good 300 years.

So I think the book is actually closed on what scientists understand about the nature of human genetic variation, and how different that is from the socially constructed notion of race used in popular society.

And the problem, however, is that many biomedical researchers don't know, do not appreciate this rich history of the discussion of human variation, or variation in general, in species. And the last speaker, I think, is an example of someone who while doing very valuable research, doesn't have that grounding in understanding the discussion of what race is and what it isn't.

And the way that these reports end up in the popular media just makes the problem even greater in terms of confusing people. Go ahead.

GORDON: Yeah. Isn't it also problematic when non-medical people take a spin of it? I mean I think back to the Tuskegee experiments, which were conducted on African-Americans to see if in fact their immune systems reacted differently to syphilis than it would with an Anglo.

But when you marry the two - and laymen tried to explain and marry the two often - the argument, the discussion, gets totally lost.

Dr. GRAVES: Yeah. I mean it's part of the general problem of science literacy in the United States. The lay public, including professional journalists, have a really hard time understanding the results from high-level scientific papers like this one.

But also on the other hand, the scientists themselves who are writing these papers aren't making it any easier for the layperson. For example, if you take the title of Dr. Freedman's paper, it says admixture mapping identifies 8Q24 as a prostate cancer risk locus in African-American men.

Well it turns out, based upon the results of his study and of earlier studies, in fact, I would've titled this paper, Admixture Mapping Identifies 8Q24 as a Prostate Cancer Risk Locus, period. Because there are results and the results of other researchers in the field also show that this locus plays a role in prostate cancer risks in all of the populations they examined. So, therefore, why use the term in African-American men?

There's a hidden assumption there, in that this locus, or the products of this locus or the allele or the genetic variant of that locus, is likely to be most responsible for the differential in prostate cancer risk.

Now there's no evidence of that in these studies. What they've succeeded in doing is using a particular technique called admixture mapping analysis, which, you know, has been validated many times, in demonstrating the existence of the locus and that genetic variation in the locus is important in prostate cancer risk.

What they've been able to do is show that an allelic variant, most likely associated with western Africans, may in fact, be playing a role in the case of African-American men. But then the question is, well, what causes the differential in prostate cancer risk? Is it the genetic variant itself? Or is it something acting on the genetic variant that is differentially located in different populations of men.

And without addressing that question, it becomes very difficult to understand how much you're looking at in disease results from a genetic source, and how much comes from the differential, social, and physical environments that African-Americans inhabit in the United States.

So the last ten years, I've been trying to make it very clear that on the available evidence addressing health disparity, it is very clear that it's most likely the differently social environment…

GORDON: And the debate…

Dr. GRAVES: Yes.

GORDON: I was just going to say and the debate rages, Doctor. Doctor Joseph Graves, Jr., professor of biology and dean of university studies at North Carolina A&T State University. Thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Dr. GRAVES: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up a reality television show mixes race with a cutthroat competition. We'll see what that means on our roundtable.

This is NPR News.

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