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10.1B: Race and Genetics

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    Racial groups are sociologically, rather than biologically, different; that is to say, there is no “race” gene or set of genes.

    Learning Objectives

    • Recall what recent discoveries in genetics has revealed about the concept of race

    Key Points

    • Genetic studies reveal that the existence of geographic ancestral origin is more valid than a claim that socially-defined categories of races each have a distinct biological basis.
    • While a person’s race can generally be visually determined, different racial groups do not in fact differ biologically in substantial ways.
    • The significance of race is social, meaning that defining race in in biological terms is a product of cultural socialization.

    Key Terms

    • race: A large group of people distinguished from others on the basis of a common heritage or common physical characteristics, such as skin color and hair type.
    • endogamy: The practice of marrying or being required to marry within one’s own ethnic, religious, or social group.
    • allele: One of a number of alternative forms of the same gene occupying a given position on a chromosome.

    People’s understanding of “race” emerged long before we knew anything about genetics. There are very few biological differences between the races and there is no “race” gene or set of genes to speak of.

    Scientific Studies on Race and Genetics

    The relationship between race and genetics has relevance for the ongoing controversies regarding race.

    Ongoing genetic research has investigated how ancestral human populations migrated in the ancestral geographic environment into different geographic areas. Today it is possible to determine, by genetic analysis, the geographic ancestry of a person and the degree of ancestry from each region. Such analysis can pinpoint the migrational history of a person’s ancestors with a high degree of accuracy. Often, due to practices of group endogamy, allele frequencies cluster locally around kin groups and lineages, or by national, cultural, or linguistic boundaries – giving a detailed degree of correlation between genetic clusters and population groups when considering many alleles simultaneously.

    Recent discoveries in genetics offer a means of categorizing race which is distinct from past methods, which were often based on very broad criteria corresponding to physical characteristics, such as skin color, and which do not correlate reliably with geographic ancestry. Some anthropologists, particularly those working with forensics, consider race to be a useful biological category as it is often possible to determine the racial category of a person by examining physical remains, although what is actually being identified is the geographical phenotype.

    While a person’s race can generally be visually determined, different racial groups do not in fact differ biologically in substantial ways. In a December, 2003, Scientific American article, Bamshad and Olson, two geneticists working on mapping the human genome, concluded that “race” does not exist genetically. Rather, race is a social construct and a product of culture, not biology.

    10.1B: Race and Genetics is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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