Episode 31: Race, Genetics, and a “Most Dangerous Myth”

The concept of distinct races came from European naturalists in the 1700s. It’s now recognized as a social construct, rather than a biological classification. Nonetheless, genetics researchers sometimes use race or ethnicity to stand in for ancestry. This practice has been criticized for creating discrete categories where none exist and for underemphasizing the ways that environment and other nongenetic factors can contribute to ill health.

In March, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine weighed in with a consensus report. It documented the problems of using race as a biological category in genetics studies and suggested more appropriate approaches. One of the report’s authors is Ann Morning, a professor of sociology at New York University. Over a decade ago she wrote the book The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference. She spoke with Issues editor Monya Baker about why race is a poor—but persistent—shorthand in genetics studies.

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