Rooting out Flawed Genetic Classifications—and the Racial Bias Behind Them

Despite numerous studies debunking the belief that race is biologically determined, scientists continue to use race as a tool for genetic classification. But two Penn Integrates Knowledge professors—one a sociologist and legal scholar, the other an anthropologist and genomic scientist—have joined together to find a more accurate, inclusive way to study human genetic variation.

George A. Weiss University Professor Dorothy Roberts

George A. Weiss University Professor Dorothy Roberts

George A. Weiss University Professor Dorothy Roberts, who holds appointments in Penn Law and the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), is a leader in transforming public thinking and policy on reproductive health, child welfare, and bioethics. 

David and Lyn Silfen University Professor Sarah A. Tishkoff, who holds appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine and SAS, created the world’s largest database of African diversity, addressing disparities in human genomic studies and advancing knowledge about modern human evolutionary history.

Out with the Old Categories, In with the New Technology

David and Lyn Silfen University Professor Sarah A. Tishkoff

David and Lyn Silfen University Professor Sarah A. Tishkoff

Roberts says that the prevailing view of “race” as a genetically determined category gives false credence to the idea that human beings are naturally divided into a handful of groups that embody fundamental biological differences. Besides being scientifically incorrect, the belief reinforces a politicized view of race that continues to treat social inequalities as if they were biologically determined, helping to bolster unjust institutions and policies. This view of race is also manipulated by white supremacists to support their claims of racial purity.

Tishkoff, who has been contacted by a number of journalists researching such claims, suggests that new technologies being used in genomics could soon make such race-based classifications obsolete—because they empower researchers to draw useful inferences based on raw genetic data, without needing to create artificial means of classifying people.

The Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Roberts points out another reason that such classifications are inherently problematic, and that is their subjectivity: Scientists may think about race as if it were a self-evident biological category when, as sociologists know, it can have different meanings for different people.

“And conversely, if sociologists don’t engage with the science that biologists are investigating, we might not be able to explain our social perspective to them, so for researchers, both perspectives are really important,” she says.

Overcoming Racial Bias in Genomics Research

In addition to utilizing erroneous genetic classifications that bias against people of color, minority populations are grossly underrepresented in human genomics research. According to Tishkoff, only one to two percent of all genomic and medical genetic research represent diverse populations.

“It was shocking,” she says of her initial response to discovering this.

Also shocking is why, despite considerable attention to racial disparities in health, there hasn’t been more improvement.

“Part of it is because the old ways of doing science have continued,” says Roberts, noting that the old conceptions of racial difference don’t fully take into account the myriad ways in which social inequities affect health and genes and lived environments impact each other.

It is a problem that can be traced—culturally and politically—all the way back to the slave ships that brought captive African men, women, and children to America. Whether it can be traced back that far genetically is another story.

African American Ancestry Testing

According to Roberts, many African Americans have turned to ancestry testing companies in an effort to make up for the loss, disconnect, and rupture caused by the slave trade.

“I personally believe that African Americans’ identity is rooted more in a common struggle for racial equality; [more] cultural, social, and political factors [than biological ones],” she says. “But I do understand how many people see these technologies as providing a lost part of their identities.”

Both Roberts and Tishkoff have voiced concerns publicly about the scientific flaws and limitations of current genetic testing technology.

Tishkoff says that she has received numerous emails from people in the African American community who’ve told her that different ancestry testing companies gave them different answers about their heritage.

“‘Which one of them is true?’ they ask me. The truth is, you can have more variation amongst two ethnic groups in Africa that you have between someone from East Asia and someone from Europe,” she says, “[which] blows apart any idea of an African race.”

Going Forward

Tishkoff’s and Roberts’ joint research is among the latest—and most convincing—to show that the whole concept of biological race was, in fact, invented by scientists.

“It’s an example of how combining good genomic research and sociological understandings of race can finally help to do away with these false groupings of human beings that end up being used to support dangerous views about human inequality,” says Roberts, emphasizing that, in order to combat racism on a national scale, “it’s important for the public to understand the science of human genetic variation as well as the politics of it.”

Read Full Transcription of Audio Files

Homepage photo: Wharton Business Radio host Dan Loney interviews Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professors Sarah Tishkoff (middle) and Dorothy Roberts (right) about their collaborative research on race and human genetic variation.

Photo at top: PIK professors Dorothy Roberts (left) and Sarah Tishkoff (right) with host Dan Loney in SiriusXM's Studio for Business Radio powered by the Wharton School.

  • Text by Christina Cook
  • Photos by Scott Spitzer