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Does it matter where your genes come from?

23 Sep, 2011

The Progress Educational Trust (PET) project ‘Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?’ was conceived as a response to the increasing prominence of controversies concerning genetics and ‘race’, and of direct-to-consumer genetic tests which (purportedly) reveal where one’s ancestors come from. In 2007, Nobel Laureate and genetics pioneer Professor James Watson was prohibited from speaking at London’s Science Museum, after reportedly saying that black people were less intelligent than whites. In 2009, Channel 4 broadcast a season of programmes under the heading ‘Race: Science’s Last Taboo’.

Also in 2009, anthropologist Morris Foster argued in a paper entitled ‘Looking for race in all the wrong places: analysing the lack of productivity in the ongoing debate about race and genetics‘ that ‘scientific proponents of the biological meaning of racial and other social categories and social critics of the use of racial and other social categories in biological research are talking past one another’. And in July this year, PET’s BioNews publication reported on a team of US geneticists who were arguing that a Euro-centric approach to genetic research has led to a neglect of the rare genetic diseases particular to ethnic and racial minorities.

PET sought to address these issues by holding three public debates in 2011, with contrasting perspectives from experts in different disciplines. ‘Is There a Place for Race in Biology?‘ examined the relationship between genes, race, ethnicity and identity. Whereas race has traditionally been defined either by skin colour and facial features or by geography, it is now becoming possible to search for the meaning of race at the molecular level. For example, it has been claimed that Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry can be traced back three centuries, to one woman.

Will Pharmacogenetics Lead to Colour-Coded Medicine?‘ examined how genetic variation relates to the effectiveness of drugs. Although pharmacogenetics is predicated not on race, but on the unique genetic differences between individuals – a very different concept – it nonetheless has important implications for the concept of race.

The final event, ‘Genetic Medalling‘, examined the relationship between genetics, sport and race, and what the consequences of this relationship might be for the imminent 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Research to determine the role of genetics in athletic prowess is currently underway, but is controversial because it could bolster arguments that performance is dependent upon race or is different between races, thereby perpetuating racial stereotypes.

As part of the feedback from each event, PET asked audience members to suggest questions which they wanted to see put to the public in an online poll. Six questions were chosen from these audience suggestions, and the poll is currently open at www.bionews.org.uk/racepoll and takes only a few minutes to complete (all responses will be anonymous). Please visit the poll and help PET to gauge public and professional understanding of the connection – or lack of connection – between race and genetics.

Sarah Norcross, Director, Progress Educational Trust

Take part in the poll here.

‘Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?’ is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award

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