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Why we should give up on `race'

By Steven and Hilary Rose

As geneticists and biologists know, the term no longer has meaning.

IDENTITY IS fluid. One of us used to describe herself as "English" (erasing her Gypsy grandparent), the other as "British Jew" (or did he say Jewish?), but our shared whiteness was then always unspoken. Today complex identifiers such as "black English" or "Birmingham Punjabi British" or "British Sikh" speak both of a new ease and pleasure in difference, and of a political demand that racism become history. The confidence of the voices claiming these new multiple identities tells us change — not without fierce opposition — is happening.

But race is also a term with a long history in biological discourse. Used very loosely up to the early 20th century, it was given a more rigorous definition by the evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky in the 1930s, as applying to an inbred population with specific genetic characteristics within a species, resulting from some form of separation that limited interbreeding. At the time, Dobzhansky's definition seemed fine for non-human species - but how might it relate to humans? Early racial theorising divided humans into either three (white, black, yellow) or five (Caucasian, African, Australasian, American and Asian) biological races, supposedly differing in intellect and personality.

In the aftermath of Nazism, the Unesco panel of biological and cultural anthropologists challenged the value of this biological concept of race, with its social hierarchies. When, in the 60s and 70s, genetic technology advanced to the point at which it was possible to begin to quantify genetic differences between individuals and groups, it became increasingly clear that these so-called races were far from genetically homogeneous. In 1972, the evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin pointed out that 85% of human genetic diversity occurred within rather than between populations, and only 6%-10% of diversity is associated with the broadly defined races. Most of this difference is accounted for by the readily visible genetic variation of skin colour, hair form and so on. The everyday business of seeing and acknowledging such difference is not the same as the project of genetics.

For genetics and, more importantly, for the prospect of treating genetic diseases, the difference is important. Humans differ in their susceptibility to particular diseases, and genetics can have something to say about this. This is why, as more and more genetic variation within human populations has been revealed by the human genome project and DNA technology, there has been a growing debate among geneticists about the utility of the term race. Last autumn, an entire issue of the influential journal Nature Reviews Genetics was devoted to it. The broad consensus remained unchanged. The geneticists agreed with most biological anthropologists that for human biology the term ``race'' was an unhelpful leftover. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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