The Fault in Our Stats

Noting the Social Aspects of Racial Identity in Genetic Research is Vital to Improving Healthcare

In a recent New York Times article, “Tales of African-American Identity Found in DNA,” Carl Zimmer explains that new genetic research on individuals identifying as African American confirms historical accounts and provides new details about a past that was often not recorded. It’s exciting to see that scientists are following a larger trend that can be observed in any number of fields (from genetics to history to literature), which involves an epidemiological correction, a shifting of the predominant focus of study away from males of European descent as if they were representative of the whole species.

To be clear, what makes this so laudable has nothing to do with “politically correct” sensibility or inclusivity for its own sake. The findings that are emerging, after at last moving away from overreliance on an unrepresentative minority population, are of such crucial medical importance that they help validate inclusivity as the default position for research of nearly any kind. I’d like to suggest, however, that a more deliberately interdisciplinary approach would make this transition to diversifying one’s research focus even more productive and valuable.

Zimmer notes several details that confirm what historians and scholars of African-American literature and culture already know about the experience of people of African descent who were enslaved in the United States (and in other regions of the Americas, for that matter). For example, the higher percentage of DNA from African ancestors in X chromosomes among the population studied is a result of male slave owners forcibly impregnating their female slaves. (This can be determined because fathers pass on either X or Y chromosomes while mothers pass on only X.) That this material evidence of what has been handed down as stories of abuse exists in the genes of living people should give us pause—it asserts the very real influence of past violence through its continued material existence and confirms the story of victims whose experience was not often the official account. It also suggests that fields of study and the different paths of inquiry that they follow are not that dissimilar after all—historians, literary scholars, and geneticists can arrive at the same conclusion by examining different evidence.

Sometimes, however, scholars of varying disciplines differ in their interpretation of information. These conversations can be productive and we should encourage more of them. Zimmer mentions, for example, that this latest study “does not include a historian among its authors” and notes that some disagreement exists between scholars about what conclusions we can draw from its findings. For example, theories about which people left the South and why differ between two scholars Zimmer interviews, Simon Gravel (a geneticist at McGill University) and Alondra Nelson (a sociologist at Columbia University). Geneticists can analyze statistical evidence of biological similarities, but it is difficult to fully explain human behavior based on genetics as it often depends on a variety of factors. We could come to a richer understanding of genetic research by organizing deliberate conversations across disciplines.

Geneticists might also produce richer and more effective research on racial categorization by consulting scholars of literary and cultural studies who focus on race. Indeed, the way information about racial categorization is articulated has significant influence on our perceptions and even on medical practice, as indicated by Kelly Hoffman’s research on pain management at UVA, for example. Scientists, Zimmer notes, hope to improve healthcare with studies that can provide information on how “genes influence … risk for various diseases,” but beliefs about racial categorization and biological differences must also be scrutinized. Significantly, these beliefs are often articulated in language that goes unexamined. For example, a study titled as one on “African-American genetics” could be suggesting correlations that it does not mean to imply simply through its articulation of the topic.

An individual’s genetics and their racial identification are separate. A United States citizen with 20% of their DNA from African ancestors and another United States national with 90% of their DNA from African ancestors could both identify as African American yet have no significant genetic similarities. Conducting a study on the “genetics of those identifying as African American” can avoid a confusion between racial identity and genetic markers, a connection which researchers have found to be a poor indicator of health outcomes or risk.

We know that genetic diversity is often stronger between those who identify as members of the same racial category than it is between those with different identities. We also know that for a long time, males of European descent have been the main researchers and the main research subjects of most fields of inquiry, including genetics. A 2011 report in Nature indicated that an astounding 96% of subjects included in genome-wide association studies were of European descent. This is certainly why studies like the one Zimmer profiles in the New York Times are necessary, timely, and exciting. But we can do an even better job of responding to the inequities present in current scientific research by challenging disciplinary divides at the same time. The language we use to articulate our inquiries often carries in it mechanisms that conceal blind spots. Just think: if we are only now addressing the overwhelming bias in favor of European subjects in genetics, we actually can’t fully say what real influence the origin of our ancestors has on gene behavior and health risk. Let’s not assume causation through inaccurate language before we begin investigating. More deliberate interdisciplinary collaboration can help avoid potential bias in scientific research and medical practice.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone