Thursday, February 5, 2009

Obasogie on the Racial Risks of Genetic Research

Osagie Obasogie has published a paper under the aegis of the Center for Genetics and Society called, Playing the Gene Card?: A Report on Race and Human Biotechnology. He highlights certain emerging technologies, such as race-based medicines, genetic ancestry tests, and DNA forensics, and offers a cautionary message:

While each of these applications has been examined individually, this report looks to them together to highlight a fundamental concern: that commercial incentives and other pressures may distort or oversimplify the complex and discordant relationship between race, population, and genes. Applications based on such distortions or oversimplifications may give undue legitimacy to the idea that social categories of race reflect discrete biological differences.

The concerns raised in this report should not be read as impugning all genetic research that implicates social categories of race. There is evidence that socially constructed notions of race may loosely reflect patterns of genetic variation created by evolutionary forces, and that knowledge about them may ultimately serve important social or medical goals. Yet, given our unfortunate history of linking biological understandings of racial difference to notions of racial superiority and inferiority, it would be unwise to ignore the possibility that 21st Century technologies may be used to revive long discredited 19th Century theories of race.

Advances in human biotechnology hold great promise. But if they are to benefit all of us, closer attention should be paid to the social risks they entail and their particular impacts on minority communities.

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