Race Has a Place in Human Genetics Research, Philosopher Argues

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Some scientists have argued that bringing race into the field of medical genetics research is problematic or even damaging. But Penn philosopher Quayshawn Spencer has a different view, one based on nuanced concepts of semantics and language, which says there is a racial classification that’s medically useful to reliably sample human genetic diversity. He published his work in the journal Philosophical Studies.

As an example, Spencer brings up a random sampling of the United States population to look for links between alleles and traits within the human genome. If racial distribution were irrelevant, he argues, the resulting proportion of Pacific Islanders from pulling such a sample—less than 1 percent—wouldn’t matter. But in actuality, Pacific Islanders have extensive genetic diversity so such a sample should really include about 20 percent of this group.

“There have been arguments that suggest it’s a mistake to think about race based on genetics in any way,” Spencer says. “What I show is that you can’t account for the meanings of some of the racial terms we use if you don’t think about some races as ancestry groups in the way that population genetics tells you they are.”

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