Is There A Biological Basis For Race? The 2010 census form has a box to check for race, but what do the categories mean? Some scientists say there’s no biological basis for dividing people into races. Others say race can be an important marker for disease. Ira Flatow and guests look at the science of race.
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Is There A Biological Basis For Race?

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Is There A Biological Basis For Race?

Is There A Biological Basis For Race?

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. When you get your census form this year, pay particular attention to question number nine. I think it's going to stand out because it asks you to put a checkmark next to your race.

Well, you don't get, like, three choices. You get 14 choices to pick from, including white, black, Native-American, Samoan, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Pilipino. I mean, who thought all these people, different peoples, were races?

You can check as many boxes as you want to, or if none of these choices work, you can just check other, and you can fill in something of your own if you'd like, and another question on the form asks you to check if you're Hispanic, Latino or Spanish. Depending on who you are, things can get very complicated pretty fast. Do you decide based on how you look or where you came from, or does any of this correlate with what's in your DNA? Is your race how you define is it defined as part of your DNA? Can someone take a sample of your DNA and tell what race you are?

Some researchers say we should be studying the genetics of race because it might mean better health care for some people. We know some diseases seem to occur more in some racial groups, or are they more in ethnic groups, or what are we talking about? Are the missing out on the valuable information if we ignore some of these things?

That's what we'll be talking about this hour. I invite you to give us a call if you would like to get in on the discussion, 1800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guests. Dr. Esteban Gonzalez Burchard is an MD. He's associate professor in pulmonary and critical care medicine and clinical pharmacology in the Departments of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences and Medicine and the University of California, San Francisco. Thanks for being with us, Dr.�Burchard.

Dr.�ESTEBAN GONZALEZ BURCHARD (Associate Professor, Departments of Bioengineering, Therapeutic Sciences and Medicine, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Pilar Ossorio is an associate professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin School of Law and School of Medicine, Madison. She joins us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr.�Ossorio.

Dr.�PILAR OSSORIO (Associate Professor of Law and Bioethics, School of Law and School of Medicine, University of Wisconsin, Madison): Hello, thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Alan Goodman is past president of the American Anthropological Association. He's co-chair of the association's project called Race: Are We So Different? The project includes a traveling museum exhibit on race, which opens at the Missouri History Museum. Was that today or tomorrow? Tomorrow, I think. Mr.�Goodman is also vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He joins us from WFCR in Amherst. Thanks for being with us today.

Mr.�Alan Goodman (Past President, American Anthropological Association; Co-director, The Race Project, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of Faculty, Hampshire College): Thank you for having us, Ira.

(Soundbite of coughing)

FLATOW: Excuse me. You're all welcome. Let's see if we can try to define race, and I want to go back to that I think, Pilar, back to that census form. What's in the census, you check a box. Where do these labels come from? I mean, is somebody sitting there making these up, or do we believe is this something the government makes up on its own?

Dr.�OSSORIO: Well, the government doesn't make it up on its own. The government goes out and asks people how they think about themselves racially, and that's where they come up with these categories.

So for instance, people who describe themselves as Hispanic are also the most likely to check other on the box for race. So there's actually been a kind of long, ongoing set of kind of tug-of-war between the government and the people out there in the world because the government wants Hispanic people to self-identify as having a particular race, but Hispanic people often don't think of themselves as white or black or any other particular race. And so they'll just put down nothing. They'll put down other, right.

So what the government is trying to do is to give people the categories that make sense to them and then also figure out how to keep track of data longitudinally, from year to year and decade to decade.

FLATOW: So if you're from Mexico, you don't think of yourself as having any race, do you?

Dr.�OSSORIO: Well, you may, right? You may think of yourself as being white or European-descended. You may think of yourself as mestizo or mixed, or you may think of yourself as some Native American or Indian ancestry if you're from Mexico.

FLATOW: So what is the difference between race and ethnicity, then? Because it would seem like some of these questions are more ethnic questions than they are racial questions.

Dr.�OSSORIO: Right. Well, anthropologists have some very specific definitions. In reality, I think both sort of in common sense, common language, those two terms are often interchanged, and they're often interchanged by biomedical scientists, as well.

FLATOW: Alan Goodman, Dr.�Goodman, how do anthropologists define race?

Mr.�GOODMAN: Well, let me first say that an additional issue here that Pilar alludes to very well is that there is a kind of a folk idea of race and ethnicity is and how individuals define themselves, and that changes constantly from time to time and place to place, and that's basically what the census is focused on.

And then there is an effort to try to get out a scientific definition of race or one that's true universally, and that's where the race really falls down as a category is that it's hard to make any sort of universal definition of race. And this also tracks your question of how anthropologists begin to think of race. At one point, they thought that we could arrive at some sort of universal definition of race that would be true for all time and all place, and then we slowly began to realize that simply wasn't true, that race or ideas about race and race, in fact, is an idea change from time to time and place to place.

And on top of that, it had a fundamental ambiguity to it in that it conflated or mixed together ideas about genetics with ideas about how people are perceived and how they actually live and are treated and define themselves. So that genetic aspect of race kind of molds into the questions of sort of the social, historical aspects of race, and that became problematic.

FLATOW: You can be born one race and die another.

Mr.�GOODMAN: Well, exactly, and there's a very famous showed that showed, in fact, Native Americans who were born Native American, had Native American on their death certificate, 44 percent of them died white. So this also gets to I think a really important issue, which is that one of the really important things about race and ethnicity is tracking differences in health care. But if we have this aspect of unreliability, then that becomes problematic, too.

FLATOW: Esteban Burchard?

Dr.�BURCHARD: Sure. Well, again as the two previous speakers had alluded to, it depends on who you're talking to. So the U.S. government is trying to categorize persons by forcing them into a box or a bin, and that is one of the reflections of a social definition of race.

When we talk about epidemiology, we try to use terms that everyone can understand. So that's why everyone continues to fall back on this idea of race, which most epidemiologists would believe that consists of five major groups: African, Asian, Caucasian, Native-American and Pacific Islanders.

Now from a biomedical point of view, we tend to believe that race is a complex definition or a complex construct that does capture some social and environmental aspects but also that it does correlate with biologic or genetic factors. And I think that who's speaking really reflects the confusion in the definition.

But as a physician, we do recognize that, as I mentioned, social and environmental factors go hand in hand with racial categorizations, particularly in the United States. As a scientist, we also recognize that there are genetic factors that are specific to one race versus another race.

One thing that was touched upon but not made very clear is that the U.S. census views the population as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic, and that's their definition of ethnicity. Within that Hispanic and non-Hispanic category, individuals can self-identify as, say, being African, Chinese or Asian, Native-American and so forth.

So you can be a Hispanic Asian, and that's where some of the confusion might come into the difference between race and ethnicity.

FLATOW: There are some doctors, that will argue that knowing that race is important to know for a doctor because patients have different genetic make-ups, and some drugs and therapies may work better on people of different races. Would you agree with that?

Dr.�BURCHARD: Definitely. Medicine is an iterative process. So we try to use every clue that's available to us. Race just happens to be one clue. So for example, we know that sickle-cell anemia is more prevalent in African-Americans than in - almost nearly absent, if not absent, in Caucasians. So we would use African-American ancestry as a clue to help us figure out whether or not someone has sickle-cell disease, which is African-specific, versus cystic fibrosis, which is Caucasian-specific.

Now, sickle-cell disease does occur in other populations, particularly North African populations or Mediterranean. So it's not 100 percent, but it is a good clue. At the end of the day, where we're going probably in a few years is that we'll genetically test everybody. And so we'll be able to bypass these proxy variables such as self-identified race and ethnicity.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Pilar, would you agree with this?

Dr. OSSORIO: Well, I think I wouldn't entirely agree. And in fact, even in that answer I felt like there was some ambiguity because Esteban, on the one hand, said, well, certain alleles or certain gene variants are African-specific, for instance. But then in the next breath said, well, yes, but of course this same allele is found and the same disease is found in people of the Mediterranean, also in some people from India, people from Greece. Also some portions of Greece have very high rates of sickle cell, for instance.

So I think we have to be careful here in talking about a gene variant as being specific to some population or another. There are also parts of Africa where sickle cell alleles are very, very rare. And likewise, cystic fibrosis, although many doctors think of it as a quote, unquote, "white disease," is actually found in all populations, not as frequently as it's found among people of Northern European descent, but it is found among all populations.

And here in Wisconsin, where we do neo-natal screening for cystic fibrosis, the people who seemed to have benefited the most from that are African-American kids who otherwise often would not be picked up so early by their pediatrician and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, perhaps in part because pediatricians get this idea that cystic fibrosis is a white disease.

So one of the problems with this idea of using race to guide diagnoses is that there are probabilistic events, it's probably the case that, you know, certain symptoms could be sickle cell in an African-American more likely than they would be in somebody of other ancestries, but not always the case. And it's very hard to sort of translate the probabilistic information into good, clinically useful diagnostic information. But I think...

FLATOW: Let me get an answer from Esteban.

Dr. BURCHARD: Sure. So that - Dr. Ossorio's completely right. But what the subtlety here is that I said it's an integrated process, so we try to use every tool in our tool box to make a clinical decision. So it's more likely that if a person has symptoms that are consistent with sickle cell, that it's likely that they'd be African-American, less likely to be Caucasian.

That is not the only clue that we will rely on. We would rely on blood tests and so forth. Now, until we get to the point where we're genetically testing everybody, we have to use these clues to help us make a clinical decision. And it's very clear that there are genetic risk factors that are population specific, and the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, is acting on that.

So for example, one of the most prominent ones is the recent treatments for epilepsies that we know that there are genetic mutations that are specific to Asian populations. And in fact there's an FDA black box warning, if you're going to get medication for epilepsy and you're Asian, you need to be genetically tested to see whether not you have this particular mutation.

FLATOW: All right. Let me interrupt and say that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. And so the...

Dr. GOODMAN: So the one - the last thing that I wanted to say about the sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis, where Dr. Pilar Ossorio mentioned that African-Americans are benefiting - what this really reflects is that today, 2010, we are looking at a cross section of time of how we view race. With an increased appreciation of interracial marriages, what we call admixture, we're seeing that more European genes are coming into the African-American population to highlight Dr. Ossorio's example.

And so, yes, she's right that in Wisconsin, the population that benefit the most from cystic fibrosis testing were African-Americans, is because they are part European, so to speak. And therefore, as those genes come in to the African-American population, we are going to see genes that are more prevalent in European populations popping up in the African-American population.

And that is the beauty of our changing population. We can leverage the mixture in these populations to scientific advantage, particularly recently mixed populations - African-Americans, Latino Americans, Filipino Americans, and what we know about race today in 2010 is not going to be same what we know about race in 100 years from now. It's a dynamic process.

FLATOW: Dr. Ossorio, did you want to jump in there?

Dr. OSSORIO: Oh, well, sure. I - so I think part of what happens is that when scientists say something like a gene is - or an allele, a version of a gene is specific to a certain racial group of people, sort of non-experts might think that that means that gene just isn't present in anybody else in any other racial group, and that it might - people might infer that, well, it's always present in people, say, of Asian ancestry, if we say a gene is - if someone says a gene is specific for that group. That's not really what scientists mean. So it means that that version of a gene may or may not be in an Asian person. And in fact, it maybe in people of other races exactly because - of course races aren't really separate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So we just created...

Dr. OSSORIO: And people are intermarrying...

FLATOW: So we created convenient hook.

Dr. OSSORIO:'s just that we found it.

FLATOW: Yeah...

Dr. OSSORIO: Exactly.

FLATOW: It's just a convenient hook to talk about.

Dr. OSSORIO: And it's partly because...


Dr. OSSORIO: ...we're looking at gene variants that arise at a particular time and place in human history. And so perhaps a gene variant arose somewhere on the Asian continent, it's spreading there. It's more common there. We found it there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. OSSORIO: But that doesn't mean that it's not in people of other races ever.

FLATOW: Quick comment, Dr. Goodman?

Dr. GOODMAN: Yeah. Well, your idea of the convenient hook is - or races being a tool makes some sense. But it's also a very old tool or hook, and it's one that - maybe that was the only things we had to us 150 years ago when we looked out and we saw that it really did see him like there were three, four or five people that work very, very different. But now we know that there are subtle, gradual variations from person to person. And as Dr. Burchard said, you know, races - the mix of race is constantly changing. And so the problem is that we then make some sort of generalization about race, but it's based on a notion of race that no longer exists anymore. It might have existed 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.

And so to go back to the idea of the toolkit, I just think we have much, much better tools right now. And race remains important because there are huge racial differences in health, and we need to understand those. But the problem is that right now, by just saying race, we're not sure if they're due to genetics or some aspect of lived experience. And I think that's where the science of the next decade really needs to step up.

FLATOW: All right. Speaking of science, we have to take a break on SCIENCE FRIDAY, come back. We'll talk more with Dr. Esteban Gonzalez, Pilar Ossorio, and Alan Goodman. Stay with us. 1-800-989-8255. Also twittering at scifri. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about race, genetics, medicine. My guests are Dr. Esteban Gonzales Burchard, Dr. Pilar N. Ossorio, and Dr. Alan Goodman. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Steve in Oakland. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi there. I never heard anybody answer Ira's question of who picks these categories. I mean, why is that one can be a Chinese race or Japanese race but not a Croatian race or an Italian race or a Swedish race? And I mean, isnt that racist on the part of the census bureau to lump all these European categories into white. And my response, and what I would encourage to do, for everybody to do, is to check some other race and write American into that panel.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. Any answer to that? Who wants to take a - Alan, you want to take a stab at that?

Dr. GOODMAN: Well, I wouldnt call it - just simply the use a racial terminology racist. I'd want to be a little bit clearer about that. But I think the caller makes a good point, is that there is, you know, a confusing mix of how the census interviews a number of individuals ahead of time, about how they self-identify. There are aspects of political power associated with the categories and things of that sort.

And so that's why, in fact, the census categories have not remained stable but have changed through time and space. One other thing that I'll mention, which is kind of interesting, is that the pamphlet that instructs on how to use race is the Office of Management and Budget Directive 15. And one of the things it says quite clearly in there is that these categories are neither anthropological no scientific.

STEVE: Can I add to that?

FLATOW: Sure. Go ahead.

STEVE: Well, when we define races, we tend to think of continental groups, so African, European or Caucasian, Asian, Native American and Pacific Islanders. Those tend to be more large categorical definitions. When we talk about ethnicity, we talk about within continental groups, so Italians from French, Japanese from Chinese. Those are the distinctions that we make. So it's not necessarily being racist, but it's trying to get it to a finer level of differentiation.

FLATOW: But how did something like Hispanic come about, Latina? I mean, why would you lump people from Mexico, you know, and Spain in the same sort of groups, you know, in Latin America? I just don't understand that.

Dr. GOODMAN: Well, I mean, that's partly historical. Hispanic - contemporary Latin American populations are really the formulation of three major continental groups - European, African, Native American. And that was relatively recent. 1492 is the beginning of that. And each country has a different reflection of historical migrations that came into those populations.

And that's fascinating because it provides not only Hispanics but any group that's recently mixed, from a biomedical point of view, provides leverage to identify genes or risk factors that may have been population-specific. So for example, one of the most common genetic risk factors for breast cancer in Mexicans is Ashkenazi mutation for breast cancer.

FLATOW: Ashkenazi do mutate.


FLATOW: And they're a Mexican population too.

Dr. GOODMAN: Yes. And that just reflects the history of Europeans from -initiated by Christopher Columbus coming to the New World and intermarrying or intermixing with Native American populations who were here and then bringing in subsequent African populations.

FLATOW: Well, we had a huge number of Italians and Irish and Jews, all these people coming over, but we dont single them out as, you know, as much as we do Hispanic populations. It's interesting.

Dr. BURCHARD: Well, it's also contextual. And one of the things that Dr. Goodman had alluded to was that it's time-dependent. So...


Dr. BURCHARD: ...during Jim Crowe era, we defined race based upon the one drop rule, that if you had one drop of African ancestry, you were considered African-American or black at that time. Well, that has changed, and now we're beginning to appreciate that there are differences between racial groups. In Mexico at that time, there were 16 racial categories. And that was partly enforced by - for political - majorly political reasons as well as religious reasons.

FLATOW: Alan Goodman, you helped develop a project called "Race, Are We So Different?" That's a traveling exhibit that opens tomorrow at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. What's the goal of that? To help explain some of this stuff?

Dr. GOODMAN: Well, the goal is both, in some sense, to explain but also to complexify and to get individuals to see how race can be viewed through multiple different lenses. So what the exhibit does, and it's - I have to say it's a fabulous exhibit. And a second copy of it is going to be opening at the Liberty - the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley later this month.

But it takes a look at race from three perspectives: One is understanding the history of race and how the idea of race really came about and the history of race relations, particularly in the United States. The second is the diverse lived experiences that individuals have with race in multiracial and some of the things that have been talked about on the show that changed in the census form. And then, the third is to bring in the science of human variation. And here, I say the science of human variation and not the science of race because part of what the exhibit does well, I think, is show that race was an idea that doesn't really explain human variation very well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Pilar, there are these places that you can send a sample of DNA and they'll have it analyzed and it will tell you something about where your ancestors come from. Do you believe in that?

DR. OSSORIO: Well, believe in is kind of not, perhaps, the right way of putting it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Will they give you an accurate...

DR. OSSORIO: I don't think its magic.

FLATOW: Will they give you an accurate answer?

DR. OSSORIO: You know, it's not even clear what accuracy means in that context, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So then why are we sending away for these things? Why do they advertise...

DR. OSSORIO: Because people find it fascinating and interesting. And, you know, there's - in some ways, nothing wrong with that. I think people ought to take the results with something of a grain of salt, especially...

Dr. BURCHARD: Can I add to that?

DR. OSSORIO: a commercial context where the - well, you know, where the number of genetic markers that are being looked at may not be very large and where there are lots of inferences and assumptions that go into the final information that somebody wish to expect.

So there has been one study where some people sent the same samples to different ancestry testing companies and got back different results. That shouldn't totally surprise us because they're probably looking at different genetic markers. They're using slightly different statistical limits on their tests. So, I mean, I just think that people ought to take these results with a grain of salt and not assume that these results are necessarily any more authoritative than what they already know about their genealogy or their ancestors.

FLATOW: Dr. Burchard, do you want to jump in?

Dr. BURCHARD: So, yes. Many people are using these companies. And one of the -probably, the leading company out there right now is a company called 23andMe. And Dr. Ossorio is right that in the past, people sent DNA samples to different labs and got different results. But the technology is changing faster than science can keep up with it in that now we can genetically test someone for, say, a million markers or we can do sequencing and read your entire genetic code. And what's neat about that is that we can capture the genetic variation that exits within contemporary populations and leverage that to a medical advantage.

So, for example, there's a beautiful study that was funded by the National Institutes of Health on multiple sclerosis. And multiple sclerosis, traditionally, is considered to be a disease of Northern Europeans, rare in Africa, but African-Americans do have multiple sclerosis. And so, what they did is they used the variation of African-Americans, which were an average 80 percent African, 20 percent European, to identify novel risk factors for multiple sclerosis in African-Americans. And that served to benefit not only African-Americans with multiple sclerosis but everybody with multiple sclerosis.

So the science is definitely changing. And rather than try to run from this idea of being overly politically correct, we should embrace the diversity that not only exists within populations but within the genomes of each individual.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-9...

Dr. OSSORIO: If I can - could I respond to that?

FLATOW: Sure. Sure. Go ahead.

Dr. OSSORIO: I think we - I agree with Esteban that the technology is amazing. And what we're doing with research though is not always the same thing that what the consumer genomes companies are offering. And so we ought to make that distinction that what researchers look at is not always what the companies are looking at. And the claims that the companies make are sometimes somewhat overblown. And so the Federal Trade Commission, for instance, did a study in the early 2000s looking at the claims that companies were making and found that they were making either excessive claims in many cases or unjustified claims or claims that were so vague that they were completely unhelpful.

So I just I think we ought to keep that distinction clear that there are lots of things that we do in research that have to do with ancestry or that take advantage of what we can tell about the genetics of ancestry. That's different than what's being offered to consumers in many cases.

Dr. GOODMAN: And can I make another distinction as well?

FLATOW: Please.

Dr. GOODMAN: Yeah. Which is that we can identify where individuals may have come from geographically or ethnically is different from the idea of race. And it's much more - it tends to be much more precise. And so it's - what we are looking at is geographic variation, not necessarily racial variation. And, you know, to go back to the idea of looking at tools or, you know, that this is a much, much more precise and useful tool than something (unintelligible)...

Dr. BURCHARD: And here's where the definition is very important.

Dr. GOODMAN: ... groups.

Dr. BURCHARD: The definition is very important. If you're talking about the OMB(ph), the - or the census, they have a definition that fits them. If you're talking to epidemiologists, they have a different definition even though they may use the same term, race. And when you're talking to physicians or physician/scientists, we may also use the term race but we're more likely to use biogeographical ancestry. But oftentimes, people go back to the center and use race because that's the term that most people can understand easily even though it may be imprecise.

FLATOW: That's also...

Dr. OSSORIO: Well, and that imprecision also creates problems because different people are using it in different ways and they dont...

Dr. BURCHARD: I agree.

Dr. OSSORIO: ...necessarily understand that they're using it in different ways.

FLATOW: Well, I think they do - I think, they - when people refer to race sometimes, it's a hot-button issue.


FLATOW: It creates a black and white, so to speak, no pun intended, you know, situation, polarizing situation.

Dr. BURCHARD: And it is definitely political. Look, President Obama, even though he is gone and made great strides to say that he's not a black president, the media has classified him as a black president. He has made it very clear that he's half Caucasian and half African. Yet we, in the media, have attributed him as being the first black president.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GOODMAN: And so in one sense that one-drop rule still exists.

Dr. OSSORIO: And if I could follow up too.

FLATOW: Well, let me just well, let me get into before you get into, let me remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. And this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Dr. OSSORIO: So if I could follow up too. I think, one of the reasons this is a hot-button issue in science and medicine is because there really has been a history in the 19th and 20th centuries, well-documented, of science and medicine using racial categories...


Dr. OSSORIO: research to support very racist and oppressive policies of the majority. And so, people who are concerned about minority and underrepresented and oppressed populations, on the one hand, want the best scientific information that we can get. But on the other hand, our concern that by using these same categories, it's entirely possible that scientists will reinforce or recreate negative stereotypes and do it inappropriately. And it's very hard to use these categories well in research.

I think, as Dr. Goodman pointed out, you know, we see lots of health disparities. Lots of differences in the amount of disease or severity of disease between different racial groups, but explaining why those differences occur is very difficult, and we're only beginning to tease those things apart. And the problem is that when we use the racial categories, many people will jump to the conclusion that genetics must be the explanation when, in fact, quite often the explanation has to do with things like access to health care or the quality of health care that people are getting, different diets and et cetera. And so teasing all of those things apart when often those things are correlated with race, its very, very difficult to use race well in scientific research.

Dr. BURCHARD: I agree with you. And I think that most physicians and most physician/scientists would be would say that the biggest determinant of health is probably socioeconomic status and lifestyle. That's below that are going to come other factors, biologic factors and so forth.

Going back to your other point about the letting the genie out of the bodies, body or bottles, so to speak...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BURCHARD:'re right. Someone is always going to use race to their peculiar advantage. And this happened in World War II, and it happened subsequent to that. But we cannot bury our head in the sand for fear of what someone might do. Look at nuclear energy. It created the atom bomb, but yet we continue to use, but we have safeguards in place to make sure that no one could misuse it, the same thing with stem cell research. We need these particular safeguards when we have scientific discussions on ancestry or race, and so to speak.

FLATOW: What kind of safeguards would you mean in particular?

Dr. BURCHARD: Well, Dr. Ossorio is one of those. She's is a is making sure that when we have discussions on race, when we use it in a scientific context, that we have dialogue from bioethicists, from community members, from scientific members, as well as clinical members.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. OSSORIO: Esteban, are you saying that you are the atom bomb?

(Soundbite of laughter)


FLATOW: So we all agree though that as we get as genetics begins to mature, we'll start looking a little bit more, not at race, but at our genetic make-up and making decisions that way?

Dr. BURCHARD: On ancestry. But as Dr. Ossorio mentioned, it's not just that. It's biology is one component to disease but social factors are a big component as well. We study asthma, and curiously in the United States the population with the highest asthma prevalence and death rates are Puerto Ricans, and the group with the lowest are Mexicans. And here and that's somewhat paradoxical because the U.S. Census defines them as being Hispanic.

Now, we know on an ancestry level that they differ dramatically by ancestry on average. And so one of the questions that we and others around the country are trying to identify are what are those biologic factors, if any, are playing a role in risk of disease. But we also recognize that one of the biggest determinants of asthma is environmental factors.

FLATOW: And we have to drop it there. We'll have to pick it up again. It's a very, very interesting discussion. And as this census here goes on, well, we'll keep track of it. I'd like to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. Esteban Gonzalez Burchard is associate professor in pulmonary and critical care medicine and clinical pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco. Pilar Ossorio is an associate professor of law and bioethics. And Dr. Ossorio is also at the University of Wisconsin, School of Law and School of Medicine. Dr. Alan Goodman co-chair of the Practical RACE: Are We So Different? for the American Anthropological Association, also vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. So have a great weekend.

Dr. BURCHARD: Thanks very much.

Dr. GOODMAN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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