Is “race” a valid scientific construct?

James Watson, of Watson and Crick fame, has resigned this morning (Race row DNA scientist quits lab). No doubt it was due to the controversy over his incredibly offensive comments about people of African descent:

He was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”.

He later issued a pretty feeble apology; actually more of a statement that he’d been misunderstood. On the subject of whether Africans were genetically inferior, he retracted his earlier statement: “there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

The most interesting discussions so far about this incident resolve around the question: Is “race” a valid scientific construct for genetic research, or is it merely a social construct? It’s a deceptive question whose answer probably isn’t either/or: for example, I think it’s been shown that certain populations correlated with “race” are more genetically prone to having particular medical conditions.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to science. For me, the deeper question is: when does race get used in research and when doesn’t it? For what purposes? Science rarely takes place (if ever) in a vacuum of objectivity. Research gets funded, often in order to support human decisions about something. Note that Watson’s original comments reference “social policies.” He also mentioned what employers tend to think about the intelligence of people of African descent.

This is what’s truly scary about genetics in this day and age. It definitely can be a tool for helping people. But I suspect the greater likelihood is that it’ll be a tool for deciding who’s smart/able, who’s more deserving of opportunity, even who’s more deserving of a chance to live (health insurance companies love this stuff!).

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