As I’ve written before, the field of human genetics has a diversity problem. Too many study cohorts consists of Europeans and Americans of European descent. This means that we’re mainly learning about genetic risk factors for whites, and thus African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans won’t benefit as much from advances in genetically informed medicine.
The solution is to do genetic studies on more diverse cohorts. But when you do that, you run into another problem: people assume that genetic studies of non-whites are motivated by … bad stereotypes, if not outright racism.
A case in point: Dylan Matthews tweeted out a PLOS Genetics paper, with the admittedly striking finding that some African Americans carry a genetic variant linked with an increased preference for menthol cigarettes:
To be clear, I’m not at all suggesting Matthews himself was impugning the authors’ motives. But the replies mocked the study and suggested that this was somehow bad science… as far as I can tell, because it draws a link between genetics and behavior in African Americans.
But this is exactly what a diverse science of human genetics looks like. All sorts of smoking behaviors have genetic links, and scientists (including some of my WashU colleagues) study them because they have the potential to help people live healthier lives. Why do some people quit smoking, while others try and fail? Should the FDA ban menthol cigarettes, as it has proposed to do ?
Genetic studies can help answer those questions. Genetic links with health-related behaviors are pervasive, and many are specific to particular populations. If we want genetics to not just benefit whites, we need studies like this one.
If you are a regular patron of The Finch & Pea, you know that Nicholas Wade’s controversial book, A Troublesome Inheritance (link is to David Dobbs’ unflattering review), is a work of pseudoscience that purports to draw on the fields of human and population genetics to support a panoply of racist stereotypes. Now, a lengthy list of leaders in these fields, tired of their work being misappropriated, have signed a letter asserting:
We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures. – Graham Coop, Michael Eisen, Rasmus Nielsen, Molly Przeworski & Noah Rosenberg (+134 signatories)
As Mary Carmichael notes, this is probably the first time these 139 scientists have ever agreed on anything.
*Hat tip to Daniel MacArthur.
At the request of my co-blogger Mike, I’m reposting this article which originally appeared at Science 2.0 on 30 December 2008 where some authors of the paper in question respond in the comments during the run-up to the publication of their book The 10,000 Year Explosion.
Unfortunately for all of us still breathing braniacs, the title only applies to those of us who are also medieval Ashkenazi Jews, according to the authors of the 2006 paper “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence”.
Discussing “race” and intelligence is always a touchy subject and definitely not politically correct; but science should not be fettered by the chains of political correctness like a mangy circus lion. It must run free across the intellectual savanna, striking down the juvenile wildebeest of ignorance. Following articles on the biology and significance of race by Michael White, Massimo Pigliucci, and moi, my attention was directed to “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence”. Thanks to press attention from biological research bell-weathers like The Economist and the New York Times, as well as discussion on National Public Radio, this paper has gained Goodyear AquatredTM-esque traction on the internet. Continue reading
Posted in Follies of the Human Condition, This Mortal Coil
Tagged Cultural Evolution, evolution, Evolution, evolutionary theory, Genetics, human genetics, Massimo Pigliucci, natural selection, population genetics, quantitative genetics