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Race and Reification in Science

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Science  18 Feb 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5712, pp. 1050-1051
DOI: 10.1126/science.1110303

Alfred North Whitehead warned many years ago about “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” [HN1] (1), by which he meant the tendency to assume that categories of thought coincide with the obdurate character of the empirical world. If we think of a shoe as “really a shoe,” then we are not likely to use it as a hammer (when no hammer is around). Whitehead's insight about misplaced concreteness is also known as the fallacy of reification [HN2]. Recent research in medicine and genetics makes it even more crucial to resist actively the temptation to deploy racial categories as if immutable in nature and society.

Hypertension and Heart Disease

In the last two decades, there has been extensive publication on the differences in hypertension and heart disease between Americans of European descent and Americans of African descent (24). Racial designations are frequently used in efforts to assess the respective influences of environmental and genetic factors.

In November, a study was published regarding a combination of isosorbide dinitrate and hydralazine (BiDil) [HN3] that was originally found to be ineffective in treating heart disease in the general population but was then shown to work in a 3-year trial of a group of 1050 individuals designated as African Americans (5). BiDil is likely to get FDA approval this year and has been labeled “the first ethnic drug,” although in medical practice, this becomes “the first racial drug.” In presenting their justification for FDA approval of an ethnic/race-specific drug, the company (NitroMed) [HN4] announced, “The African American community is affected at a greater rate by heart failure than that of the corresponding Caucasian population. African Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 are 2.5 times more likely to die from heart failure than Caucasians in the same age range” (6).

However, both age and survey population complicate this picture. The age group 45 to 64 only accounts for about 6% of heart failure mortality, and for those over 65, the statistical differences between “African Americans and Caucasians” nearly completely disappear (7). Researchers recently published a study that was explicitly designed to compare racial differences, by sampling whites from eight surveys completed in Europe, the United States, and Canada and contrasting these results with those of a sample of three surveys among blacks from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States (8). Hypertension rates were measured in 85,000 subjects. The data from Brazil, Trinidad, and Cuba show a significantly smaller racial disparity in blood pressure than is found in North America (8).[HN5]

Even within the category African American, the highly variable phenotype of skin color complicates the hypertension and race thesis. A classic epidemiological study on the topic also found differences within the African American population—with darker-skinned blacks generally having higher mean blood pressure than lighter-skinned blacks. The authors concluded that it was not the color of the skin that produced a direct causal outcome in hypertension, but that darker skin color in the United States is associated with less access to scarce and valued resources of the society. There is a complex feedback loop and interaction effect between phenotype and social practices related to that phenotype (4, 9).

Others have voiced concerns about the pitfalls of using race as anything but a temporary proxy: As the geneticist David Goldstein [HN6] observed, “Race for prescription is only an interim solution to carry us through a period of ignorance until we find the underlying causes” (10). There is every evidence that these underlying causes interact with each other. However, race is such a dominant category in the cognitive field that the “interim solution” can leave its own indelible mark once given even the temporary imprimatur of scientific legitimacy by molecular genetics.

Studies of Human Genetic Diversity

The procedures for answering any inquiry into the empirical world determine the scientific legitimacy of claims to validity and reliable knowledge, but the prior question will always be: Why that particular question? The first principle of knowledge construction is, therefore, which question gets asked in the research enterprise.

A paper published in this week's issue of Science [HN7] (11) is well-intentioned, well-crafted, and designed to help better understand the molecular basis of disease. The researchers were searching for and found patterns of SNPs [HN8] differentially distributed in three population groups, formed from a total of 71 persons who were Americans of African, European, or Han Chinese descent.

Why was the question raised in this manner? The answer is a scientific Catch-22. This and other similar efforts (12) to create linkage disequilibrium and haplotype maps have a logic for choosing to study people from disparate geographic regions of the world. The purpose is to generate maps that can indicate subtle differences in the patterning or structuring of human genetic diversity across the globe. [HN9] An increased understanding of these patterns of genetic diversity will help scientists doing gene-association studies by identifying new variants and reducing the likelihood of false-positive associations. The hope is that it may aid scientists to identify medically relevant genes for diseases

However, the particular groups of individuals chosen to represent each region of the world are often chosen because of their convenience and accessibility. Cell and tissue repositories are created to decrease the cost and difficulty of obtaining samples, and the archived samples will be extensively characterized and frequently utilized. Sample collections from repositories may be treated as populations in the narrow sense of the term, even when there is little evidence that they represent a geographically localized, reproductively isolated group. These samples are often subtly portrayed as representing racially categorized populations. Finding a higher frequency of some alleles in one population versus another is a guaranteed outcome of modern technology, even for two randomly chosen populations. When the boundaries of those populations coincide with the social definition of race, a delicate tightrope needs to be better navigated between: (i) acknowledging race as a stratifying practice in societies that can lead to different frequencies of alleles in different modern populations but also to different access to health-related resources, and (ii) reifying race as having genetically sufficiently distinctive features, i.e., with “distinctive gene pathways,” which are used to explain health disparities between racially categorized populations.

If we fall into the trap of accepting the categories of stored data sets, then it can be an easy slide down the slope to the misconceptions of “black” or “white” diseases. By accepting the prefabricated racial designations of stored samples and then reporting patterns of differences in SNPs between those categories, misplaced genetic concreteness is nearly inevitable.

SNP Patterns and Searches for a Biological Basis for Criminal Behavior

Several countries now have national DNA databases (13). [HN10] Although I use the U.S. criminal justice system as an example, I have no doubt that the principles being considered are universal ones.

It is now relatively common for scholars to acknowledge the considerable and documented racial and ethnic bias in the criminal justice system, from police procedures, prosecutorial discretion, jury selection, and sentencing practices—of which racial profiling is but the tip of an iceberg (1416). If the FBI's DNA database is primarily composed of those who have been touched by the criminal justice system and that system has engaged in practices that routinely select more from one group, there will be an obvious skew or bias toward this group in this database.

If we turn the clock back just 60 years, whites constituted about 77% of all prisoners in America, while blacks were only 22% (17). In just six decades, the incarceration rate of African Americans in relation to whites has gone up in a striking manner. In 1933, blacks were incarcerated at a rate about three times that of whites (18). In 1950, the ratio had increased to about four times; in 1970, it was six times; and in 1990, it was seven times that of whites.

Among humans, gene pools and SNP patterns cannot change much in 60 years, but economic conditions and the practices of the criminal justice system demonstrably do. The comparative explanatory power of SNP patterns surely pales before the analytic utility of examining shifting institutional practices and economic conditions. However, given the body of “ethnic-estimation” research being published on behalf of forensic applications (19, 20) and the exponential growth of national DNA databases (21, 22), it is not at all unreasonable to expect that a project that proposed to search for SNP profiles among sex offenders and felons convicted of violent crimes would meet with some success, both for funding and for finding “something.” This could begin with the phenotype of “three populations,” as in the study cited above (11), because that is the way these data are collected by the FBI and the contributing states. We must maintain vigilance to prevent SNP profiling from providing the thin veneer of neutral scientific investigation, while reinscribing the racial taxonomies of already collected data. [HN11]


As I have tried to show, a set of assumptions about race has animated the development of BiDil, genetic diversity analyses, “ethnic estimation” research, and the siren's call to do SNP research on the ever-expanding databases of DNA from the incarcerated. These elements are poised to exert a cascading effect—reinscribing taxonomies of race across a broad range of scientific practices and fields. Biomedical research must resist setting off the cascade and, while still moving forward in their efforts to identify the molecular correlates of disease, climb back on the tightrope to address racial disparities in health, in all their biosocial complexity.

The ability to use genomic knowledge to deliver effective pharmaceuticals more safely to special subpopulations that have some functional genetic markers holds promise. Thus, if the FDA approves BiDil, it should do so only under the condition that further research be conducted to find the markers that have the actual functional association with drug responsiveness—thus assuring that the drug be approved for everyone with those markers, regardless of their ancestry, or even of their ancestral informative markers.

The technology will be increasingly available to provide SNP profiles of populations. When the phenotype distinguishing these populations is race, the likelihood of committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, in science, is nearly overwhelming. For this reason, when geneticists report population data, they should always attach a caveat or warning label that could read something like this, “allelic frequencies vary between any selected human groups—to assume that those variations reflect ‘racial categories’ is unwarranted.” Whereas this will not completely block the tendency to reify race, it will be an appropriately cautious intervention that tries to prevent science from unwittingly joining the current march toward a biological reinscription of the concept.

HyperNotes Related Resources on the World Wide Web

General Hypernotes

Dictionaries and Glossaries

The Talking Glossary of Genetic Terms is made available by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

A genome glossary is provided by the Human Genome Project Information Web site.

Web Collections, References, and Resource Lists

MedlinePlus from the U.S. National Library of Medicine provides links to news and Internet resources on medical topics.

The library of the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, provides collections of Internet resources on genetics.

The Public Health Genetics Unit, funded by the UK Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust, provides a collection of Internet links.

The Human Genome Project Information Web site provides a resource page on minorities, race, and genomics.

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) provides a list of online bioethics resources.

For an anthropology course on race and racism in the modern world, P. Willoughby, Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, offers links to related Internet resources.

Online Texts and Lecture Notes

The Rediscovering Biology Web site includes a textbook chapter and other resources on genomics.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) provides a science primer on genetics and genomics.

DNA Interactive from the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory includes a section on DNA applications.

The Human Genome is an educational presentation of the Wellcome Trust. A section on genetics and society is included.

The University of Montréal's HumGen Web site deals with the social, ethical, and legal aspects of human genetics. The FAQ includes a section on human population genetics issues.

The History of Race in Science Web site is a resource for scholars and students interested in the history of “race” in science, medicine, and technology.

Molecular Genetics is a tutorial provided by U. Melcher, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Oklahoma State University.

R. L. Miesfeld, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, University of Arizona, provides lecture notes for a course on applied molecular genetics. Lecture notes on DNA forensics and pharmacogenomics are included.

General Reports and Articles

The 14 June 1997 issue of BMJ had an article by R. Bhopal titled “Is research into ethnicity and health racist, unsound, or important science?”

NHGRI provides links to the series of articles on “Genes, race and psychology in the genome era” that appeared in the January 2005 issue of the American Psychologist.

V. Randall, Institute on Race, Health Care and the Law, University of Dayton School of Law, makes available an article by S. S.-J. Lee, J. Mountain, and B. Koenig titled “The reification of race in health research,” which was adapted from a Spring 2001 article (available in PDF format) in the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics.

The November 1998 issue of Hypertension had an article by R. S. Cooper and J. S. Kaufman titled “Race and hypertension: Science and nescience” (3).

The 24 October 2003 issue of Science was a special issue on genomic medicine. Included was a News article by C. Holden titled “Race and medicine.”

The 15 November 2002 issue of Science had an Enhanced Perspective by P. Sankar and M. K. Cho titled “Toward a new vocabulary of human genetic variation.”

The November 2004 issue of Nature Genetics had a special supplement titled “Genetics for the human race.”

Numbered Hypernotes

1. Alfred North Whitehead. Biographical information about Alfred North Whitehead is provided by the Columbia Encyclopedia and the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on Alfred North Whitehead with a discussion of his “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

2. Reification is defined by the Principia Cybernetica Web. Wikipedia has an entry on reification.

3. The BiDil drug study. The 11 November 2004 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine had an article by A. L. Taylor, J. N. Cohn et al. (for the African-American Heart Failure Trial Investigators) titled “Combination of isosorbide dinitrate and hydralazine in Blacks with heart failure” (5); the issue included a related editorial (“Nitroso-redox balance in the cardiovascular system” by J. M. Hare) and a perspective (“Race-based therapeutics” by M. G. Bloche). The University of Minnesota Academic Health Center issued an 8 November 2004 press release titled “First African American Heart Failure Trial shows 43 percent increase in survival.” The 6 December 2004 issue of American Medical News had an article by S. J. Landers titled “New drug combo intensifies race-based medicine debate.” Cardiology Online makes available an 11 November 2004 news article about the research. ClinicalTrails.gov provides information on the African-American Heart Failure Trial. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder makes available a 24 November 2004 article by L. Boyce titled “BiDil controversy raises specter of racial profiling in medicine.”

4. NitroMed offers a presentation about BiDil and makes available press releases about BiDil dated 1 November 2004 and 8 November 2004, as well as a 3 February 2005 press release titled “FDA accepts NitroMed's new drug application resubmission for BiDil.”

5. Recent study of race and hypertension. BMC Medicine had an 5 January 2005 article by R. S. Cooper et al. titled “An international comparative study of blood pressure in populations of European vs. African descent” (8). BMC Medicine had a 7 January 2005 article by J. Tomson and G. Y. H. Lip titled “Blood pressure demographics: Nature or nurture … genes or environment?” that includes a discussion of Cooper et al.'s research.

6. David B. Goldstein is in the Department of Biology, University College London. Goldstein is quoted in a 29 October 2004 Bio-IT World article by K. Davies titled “Scientists debate race, genetics, and ‘ethnic medicine’” (10). The November 2004 Nature Genetics Supplement had an article by S. K. Tate and D. B. Goldstein titled “Will tomorrow's medicines work for everyone?”

7. Paper in this issue of Science. The Research Article in this issue by D. A. Hinds et al. is titled “Whole genome patterns of common DNA variation in three human populations” (11). The article authors David A. Hinds, Laura L. Stuve, Geoffrey B. Nilsen, Dennis G. Ballinger, Kelly A. Frazer, and David R. Cox are at Perlegen Sciences, Inc., Mountain View, CA; Eran Halperin is at the International Computer Science Institute, Berkeley, CA; and Eleazar Eskin is in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of California, San Diego. Also in this issue of Science is a related Perspective by D. Altshuler and A. G. Clark titled “Harvesting medical information from the human family tree.”

8. SNPs. NHGRI's Talking Glossary of Genetic Terms defines SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms); an extended audio definition is also provided. The Wellcome Trust's Human Genome Web site provides an introduction to single nucleotide polymorphisms. The SNP Consortium provides an introduction to SNP markers. The NCBI's Science Primer includes a presentation on SNPs. A SNP fact sheet is provided by the Human Genome Project Information Web site. BioTechniques had a June 2002 supplement titled “SNPs: Discovery of markers for disease.” Perlegen Sciences, Inc. offers an introduction to SNPs and genetic variation.

9. Human genetic diversity and the HapMap Project. D. O'Neil, Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, CA, provides a tutorial on human variation as part of a collection of physical anthropology tutorials. The Genome News Network offers a presentation titled “Human genome variations.” Rediscovering Biology offers an introduction to genetic variation within species and SNPs. The International HapMap Project is a international partnership of scientists and funding agencies to develop a public resource to identify genes associated with human disease and response to pharmaceuticals; the project makes available in PDF format the 18 December 2003 Nature article titled “The International HapMap Project” (12). The 30 April 2004 issue of Science had a News Focus article by J. Couzin titled “Consensus emerges on HapMap strategy.” NHGRI provides a resource page about the HapMap project; a 7 February 2005 press release titled “International HapMap Consortium expands mapping effort” is made available.

10. National DNA databases. The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities makes available a December 2002 report titled “Population-based large-scale collections of DNA samples and databases of genetic information.” M. A. Jobling, Department of Genetics, University of Leicester, UK, makes available in PDF format an October 2004 Nature Reviews Genetics article by M. A. Jobling and P. Gill titled “Encoded evidence: DNA in forensic analysis” (13). The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation provides the text of Congressional testimony on the FBI DNA database program and information on the Combined DNA Index System. The March-April 2004 issue of GeneWatch had an article by T. Simoncelli titled “Retreating justice: Proposed expansion of federal DNA database threatens civil liberties” (22). A November 2004 report titled “Genetic information and crime investigation: Social, ethical and public policy aspects of the establishment, expansion and police use of the National DNA Database” by R. Williams, P. Johnson, and P. Martin is available in PDF format from the authors at the School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Durham, UK. GeneWatch UK makes available a briefing and a press release about its January 2005 report titled “The Police National DNA Database: Balancing crime detection, human rights and privacy.” The UK Forensic Science Service provides a collection of fact sheets, including one on the UK National DNA database. The National DNA Data Bank of Canada provides a FAQ.

11. Race, genes, and the criminal justice system. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service makes available in PDF format the September 2004 summary report titled “Disproportionate minority confinement: 2002 update,” issued by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and other publications on minority overrepresentation. T. Duster makes available in PDF format a chapter titled “Selective arrests, an ever-expanding DNA forensic database, and the specter of an early-twenty-first-century equivalent of phrenology.” The Human Genome Project Information Web site makes available a November-December 1999 Judicature special issue on genes and justice. The June 2004 issue of Genomics & Proteomics had an article by A. Dove titled “Molecular cops: Forensic genomics harnessed for the law.” DNAPrint genomics, Inc. makes available a 13 August 2002 article on forensic science (from Australian Biotechnology News) by M. Trudinger titled “From the textbooks to the courts.” Forensic Bioinformatics makes available the presentations from its August 2004 conference (“DNA from crime scene to court room: An expert forum”); included is a presentation (PowerPoint, with relevant articles provided in PDF format) by T. Kessis titled “Racial identification and future application of SNPs.”

12. Troy Duster is at the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge and in the Department of Sociology, New York University.

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