In an article on race and medicine, New York Times does its best to ignore and denigrate race

Furthering my claim that the New York Times is becoming more regressive in its Leftism, we have a long article in the science section on race and medicine. The thing is, the author of the piece does his very best to pretend that there’s no such thing as “race”, even while investigating—and buttressing, to some extent—the connection between race (or ethnicity, if you will) and illness.  But the ideological petticoat of author Moses Velasquez-Manoff shows throughout, particularly at the end. Valasquez-Manoff, a science writer, lacks science degrees, which may explain his cluelessness about how scientists conceive of “race,” but, given that I tried to explain it to him in a long phone interview, I doubt it.

I’ve explained my take on “race” many times before, and you can search for it on this site. (If you want just one article, go here, which summarizes and glosses a like-minded piece from Quillette by Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard, and Brian Boutwell). Like virtually all geneticists, I don’t see a finite and absolutely discrete number of easily identifiable “races”—that’s a strawman that people like Velasquez-Manoff attack. Maybe the general public thinks this, but Velasquez-Manoff is talking to scientists and about accepted science here.  “Race” (or “ethnicity”, if you like that word better) is simply a term for human “ecotypes”: groups of different evolutionary ancestry that have evolved different traits.

Like many animal species, humans, especially during our evolution after we left Africa, were divided into relatively discrete groups that were geographically isolated from other groups. In the absence of frequent migration between areas (such as we have now), these groups differentiated genetically, and generally along lines of geography. (Barriers like oceans and mountains are formidable obstacles to inter-group mating!) That differentiation was due to either divergent forms of natural or sexual selection, or to random genetic drift.

You can see these differences using either DNA sequencing or morphology (physical traits). Although, as is well known, there is more genetic differentiation among individuals among one ethnic group or population than among different groups, you can nevertheless pick out these groups by using combinations of genes, for differences at one gene tend to be correlated with differences in other genes. So, for example, we can see clustering of genes among people from the Americas, Oceania, native Australians, Europe/Middle East, and East Asia, and this clustering enables their recognition as groups that evolved semi-independently.

The Winegard et al. paper gives several examples of how “ethnicity” is correlated with genetic clustering; here’s one quote:

Empirical studies bear this logic out. The geneticist Hua Tang and her colleagues, for instance, found that self-reported ethnicity corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters from 326 microsatellite markers  (a microsatellite marker is a piece of repetitive DNA in which a series of DNA base pairs are repeated). Other studies have demonstrated even more power to identify people’s ancestry accurately. These studies illustrate that, whatever the meaning of the claim that there is much more variation within than among races, researchers can, if they use the appropriate procedures, distinguish human ancestral groups from each other with remarkable accuracy. The significance of these genetic differences among groups is entirely an empirical question.

And my own words, which quote the Tang et al. paper:

Here’s a quote from the abstract of the Tang et al. paper, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, an excellent journal. The article is free online:

Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. On the other hand, we detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.

Despite the clear evidence that human populations are genetically different and differentiable—although the presence of clusters within clusters precludes us from picking out discrete “races” having sharp boundaries—ideologues pretend that these differences don’t exist or aren’t meaningful. That’s because they fear that recognizing different groups will lead to discrimination against those groups, for the very same reason that biological ideologues won’t consider the possibility that there are genetically based differences between the behavior and neurology of men and women. Recognizing differences, they fear, will lead to institutionalizing bigotry based on those differences: to racism and sexism. The article by Winegard et al. dismantles this idea handily. The truth is the truth, regardless of whether it fits your ideological biases. And we can and should promote equality on moral rather than biological grounds.

But Velasquez-Manoff doesn’t like the idea of race, and so when he’s trying to discuss whether we should base some medical decisions or treatment on ancestry or ethnic background, he gets all antsy. You can read the article for yourself:

Here are a few quotes from the piece that shows the author’s lack of understanding of a more sophisticated concept of “race”, and his attempt to dismiss the importance of geographic differences between human populations:

Professor Yudell belongs to a growing chorus of scholars and researchers who argue that in science at least, we need to push past the race concept and, where possible, scrap it entirely. Professor Yudell and others contend that instead of talking about race, we should talk about ancestry (which, unlike “race,” refers to one’s genetic heritage, not innate qualities); or the specific gene variants that, like the sickle cell trait, affect disease risk; or environmental factors like poverty or diet that affect some groups more than others.

Ummm. . . race and ancestry are pretty much the same thing, and if genetic differences aren’t innate qualities, I don’t know what they are. What Velasquez-Manoff means by “innate qualities” is probably stuff like IQ or behavior, controversial topics about which we have little firm knowledge with respect to ancestry. What we’re talking about here are genetic differences that may have an effect on the incidence of diseases like sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs, (Valasquez-Manoff’s tortuous attempt to avoid concluding that sickle-cell anemia is more frequent in populations descended from West Africa then from other populations is amusing.)

Here’s more:

What’s new today is that modern genetic science has revealed just how arbitrary the old race categories — Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid and so on — really are. Yes, there is variation in the human family, but there are few sharp divides where one set of traits ends and another begins. Rather, traits exist in gradients, reaching high frequency in some populations and lower frequency in others. As the geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania reminded me, human beings are too young as a species, too promiscuous and full of wanderlust, always moving and mixing, for the kind of separation and differentiation that would cause true speciation to have occurred.

Well, these categories are not completely arbitrary: they just don’t pick out the totality of genetically recognizable groups. And yes, there aren’t sharp divides between groups and traits (or genes), for we see groupings within groupings—exactly what you’d expect if humans formed populations that were semi-isolated after they left Africa.  And who on earth even claims that there are “true species” in humans? No scientist I know! We’re not reproductively incompatible or isolated, which is the criterion for true species. We simply differ in our traits and genes, which is what we call “subspecies” or “ecotypes.” Remember, genetic differences among ethnic groups are correlated, for groups became genetically differentiated as semi-isolated populations.

Velasquez-Manoff prefers medical diagnostics based on genes rather than ancestry, apparently not realizing that these are correlated. Yes, we’d like to know everyone’s full DNA sequence for the best medical treatment, but sometimes an ancestry-based approach is better, simply because some diseases are clearly correlated with ancestry (and I recognize that there’s a conflating issue of culture, which isn’t genetic), and because in most cases we don’t know which genes are involved in disease and which variants are associated with which conditions. So these paragraphs, for instance, are confused:

The takeaway from studies like this is that rather than relying on race, doctors should focus on the genes important to whatever puzzle they face — an approach often called “precision” or “personalized” medicine. The idea is that tailoring treatment to the patient’s genotype, not to skin color or hair texture, would improve outcomes.

Consider the case of kidney disease. Scientists have found that African-Americans fare worse than whites when it comes to this illness. The assumption had long been that some environmental factor explained the difference. But in recent years, scientists have linked certain variants of a gene called APOL1 to worse kidney-related outcomes. Those variants are enriched in people of African ancestry. Girish N. Nadkarni, a kidney specialist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, explained to me that scientists think this may be because those variants protect against the sleeping sickness endemic to some parts of Africa.

Yes, it would be good to have the APOL1 genotype of all patients, but look: here the author admits that there are genetic differences between groups that correlate with their ancestry. They just don’t show a perfect correlation. Further, there may be other genetic differences between groups beyond APOL1 that affect kidney disease, but we don’t yet know about them, and so might be able to use self-identified ancestry as a correlate of those unknown differences. This is why my own doctor, Alex Lickerman, uses “race” as a guide to diagnosing prostate cancer. He’s quoted in the article:

Alex Lickerman, founder of ImagineMD, a medical concierge service in Chicago, cites the example of prostate cancer. For unclear reasons, African-Americans have a higher risk than whites. One test for the cancer, which looks at prostate-specific antigen, is controversial because it can yield false positives. Some recommend against using it at all.

But Dr. Lickerman says that merely being aware that African-Americans have a higher disease risk impels him to order the test more often for African-American patients. To his mind, the elevated risk of cancer outweighs the risk of a false positive. “Race is a crude marker, but it’s a usable marker,” he said. In that respect, it is no different from other factors doctors consider, most of which are based on imperfect studies of limited size and scope, and need to be weighed carefully.

Note that Lickerman recognizes race as a sign of ancestry that is correlated with genetic differences—and the genes for prostate cancer probably haven’t all been identified. It’s better in this case to partly base tests on race than to do nothing in the absence of genotypic data. What Lickerman is doing here, which seems sensible, involves recognizing the reality of “race”.

When discussing the higher incidence of hypertension in African-Americans than in white Americans, Velasquez implicates racism. He doesn’t seem to recognize two things: that hypertension in American blacks might be due to other cultural differences, like diet, or that it might be due to an interaction between evolved black/white genetic differences with factors like diet. The author simply wants to flaunt his virtue by singling out racism as the likely cause:

African-Americans, who on average have about 20 percent European ancestry, suffer from high blood pressure more often than whites do. Some studies indicate that among African-Americans, the darker one’s skin, the greater the risk of high blood pressure. The pattern could indicate that African ancestry is responsible.

Yet Africans in Africa don’t generally have high blood pressure. So some argue that the experience of having dark skin in the United States — of experiencing racism — is what’s raising blood pressure. In this case, Dr. Burchard says, even though race is a social construct, the best way to talk about the associated disease risk may be to use the labels, since the societal baggage that comes with them may be causing the problem.

Note that Velasquez-Manoff fails to present alternative but even more credible hypotheses (I don’t think that experiencing racism is a more likely explanation for hypertension than is diet, for instance). At any rate, he fails to lay out both genetic and interactive explanations. And the notion that “race is a social construct” is simply ridiculous. If it were, Lickerman’s ministrations would be futile. If race were purely a social construct, ancestry and ethnicity wouldn’t be correlated with any biological factors.

Of course we’d like to have the DNA profile of all patients, but we’d also like more research on exactly which genes are associated with disease. Such genes, though, may be hard to identify because they have tiny effects. In the meantime, there are occasions, as with sickle-cell anemia and prostate cancer, that ethnicity, or “race”, or “self-identified race”, can be used meaningfully in a medical way. And that, of course, means that ethnicity is not a “social construct”, for it has biological meaning. That’s the point that the Winegard et al. article tries to make.

Velasquez-Manoff’s virtue signaling and distaste for any concept of race is most evident in his last paragraph:

Science seeks to categorize nature, to sort it into discrete groupings to better understand it. That is one way to comprehend the race concept: as an honest scientific attempt at understanding human variation. The problem is, the concept is imprecise. It has repeatedly slid toward pseudoscience and has become a major divider of humanity. Now, at a time when we desperately need ways to come together, there are scientists — intellectual descendants of the very people who helped give us the race concept—who want to retire it.

It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t like race because it “divides humanity.”  Well, it partitions humanity on the basis of genetic difference, but that’s not what he means. He means that genetic differences cause friction between people. The solution to that is not to pretend that the genetic differences don’t exist, but to stop them from creating bigotry and hatred.

And if you want, discard the word “race”—but let’s keep “ancestry,” shall we?. No biggie, since “ancestry” is a term that enlightened biologists see as closely associated with “race”. Should we retire the concept of “ancestry”, too? If so, then why does Velasquez-Manoff mention it repeatedly?

I have to say that when I talked to Velasquez-Manoff and tried to tell him about the more modern concept of “fuzzy” race that encompasses a variety of nested populations that differ genetically, I could sense that he didn’t like what I was saying. And at the time I got a bad feeling about what he was going to write, as I could sense him ignoring what I was trying to tell him. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that he was determined at the outset to downplay the significance of genetic differences between ethnic groups. And that is surely reflected in his piece, which I found notably unenlightening and genetically ignorant, even if it was politically correct.

56 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Sub

    ““Race” (or “ethnicity”, if you like that word better) is simply a term for human “ecotypes”: groups of different evolutionary ancestry that have evolved different traits.“
    ^^^^ this is good – I’ll use this as the take-away….

    … and now I’m beginning to dislike the term “take-away”….

    • Michael Scullin
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      As an anthropologist with a fairly strong biological background I find the terms “race” and “ethnicity” not to be at all equivalent. Ethnicity, as in “ethnic group” is far better thought of a group of people sharing a language and culture. American Indians are generally thought of as a racial group but a Cheyenne is hardly the same (even genetically) as an Aztec (Nahuatl) or an Aymara or Yanomamo in South America. Even people within a language family can vary considerably in their ethnicity as the Algonquian language group extends from the Atlantic(Deleware as an example) to the Blackfeet located along the northwestern fringe of the Great Plains. In Europe the Romance languages are spoken from Romania to Portugal and France – rather different ethnicities but not races.

      • TJR
        Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Is that the standard usage of “ethnicity” in your field? I’ve always understood “ethnicity” to refer more to biology rather than to culture.

        • Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, of course it is. Think of ethnomusicology for instance.

        • Michael Scullin
          Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          In anthropology ethnic groups are the basis for much scholarship, and anthropologists have also called themselves ethnographers who record ethnicity from a variety of perspectives (now, unfortunately a lot are using some sort of post modernistic perspective with all the jargon that goes with it). Anthropologists still call themselves “ethnographers,” call their work “ethnology,” and have journals of ethnography and ethnology.

          Ethnic groups are defined largely by geography and language. My particular area of interest is the Northern Great Plains which was largely populated from about a thousand years ago with people (ethnic groups) moving onto the Plains as populations increased in the east and hostilities between groups compelled some to move west into land more hostile climatically than ethnically. People are very sensitive to linguistic variability and that alone can define an ethnic group. Cities from the beginning have had “ethnic enclaves” which remain sources of friction ranging from teasing to mayhem.

  2. DrBrydon
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    As the Nazis demonstrated, ancestery can easily be used as a stand-in for race. The thing to do is not to pretend differences don’t exist, but to agree that from a political point of view they are meaningless. We have explicitly agreed as a nation that we are all equal under the law. There are people who don’t like it and ignore it, but it’s fundamental, and we should rally on that idea.

  3. Liz
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s politically correct if it isn’t even correct. On something else, I don’t understand the following:

    “Although, as is well known, there is more genetic differentiation among individuals among one ethnic group or population than among different groups…”

    Wouldn’t there be more differentiation among the different groups?

    • Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      The analysis goes this way: you look at all existing variants of a gene. Then you apportion the variation: what proportion of differences between people are within groups, and what proportion are between groups. So if each population is variable, but the frequencies of the different variants (as with A, B and O alleles in Landsteiner blood groups) vary among populations, it’s very easy to show that the biggest proportion of total variation within the species lies within a population, and a smaller amount reflects the frequency differences (which are often not large) between populations. But if you combine the information from many different genes, you can begin finding significant group differences in the average frequencies.

  4. Draden
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I see race like one of those old “tree of life” diagrams with simple organisms at the bottom and humans at the top. Some scientific validity but the social construction to put humans at the top of the tree limits the value. Better to throw out race entirely and start with a fresh analysis. The pick one of four or five ethnic groups was on a medical form I filled out recently, so not a strawman yet.

  5. Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    This is about words and medical practices. Velasquez-Manoff is confusing at times. Adam Rutherford conveys what I assume to be V-M:s message better.

    It’s interesting to note how extremely different from Lewontin’s view our blogger’s view of the usefulness of the r-word is.

    The important thing is not to hinder useful medical practices. There are many known examples of ignoring necessary treatments to avoid “racial profiling”, but I guess some opposite instances have happened as well.

    • nicky
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

      “There are many known examples of ignoring necessary treatments to avoid “racial profiling”,….”
      Possibly my memory is letting me down, but I can’t think of a single one right now. Could you refresh our memories with a few of these examples?

      • Posted December 12, 2017 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        I was speaking of the personal decisions of living individual people I happen to know. Their medical records are none of your business.

  6. Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Your analysis of race as a biologist is ok with me. However, like many biologists you want to retain the term ‘subspecies’ for ancestral groups. As an anthropologist, I think the term ‘subspecies’ will result in the use of this term ‘subspecies’ as inferior ‘subspecies’ by the racist inclined types. I am ok with ‘ecotypes’ as ancestral groups.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      It’s the prefix, isn’t it?

    • darrelle
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Probably some will take it that way. The ones looking for support for preexisting views always do that sort of thing. We’ll just have to explain, repeatedly.

      Homo sapiens neanderthalensis is not a subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens. We are both, collectively, subspecies of the species Homo sapiens. We are a subspecies in exactly the same way they are.

      • Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I guess there’s a fair amount of agreement now about H. s. neanderthalensis and H. s. sapiens as subspecies of H. sapiens.

        This, however, will make it important to somehow address the creeps who equate modern “races” as “subspecies”.

        It’s an entirely empirical question of course.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    … the ideological petticoat of author Moses Velasquez-Manoff shows throughout …

    That’s why you never wear one of those gauzy numbers on the op-ed page of the NYT.

    Dang, boss, had to reach pretty deep into the hoary historical barrel for that metaphor, huh? 🙂

  8. Monika
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    This somewhat reminds me of the discussion about female vs male medical/pharmaceutical treatment, i.e. a heart attack presents differently in women and men. As a result women get treated a lot later than men.

    As usual, when politics enters medical treatment and diagnosis, we get chaos and suffering.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Yep. Men don’t have anywhere near the problems with breast cancer either.

      • nicky
        Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

        I heard they suffer more from prostate cancer than women, probably a socially constructed myth.

  9. rickflick
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The notion of nested racial groups reminds me of a photo I have that seems to illustrate it. My grandfather was born in a small town in west England. My father resembles him in many ways. Both have bushy eyebrows, a slight concave bend to the forehead, a thin upper lip, and a somewhat weak chin( think Bertrand Russell, though less well educated). Going through the family album, I came across a picture of the town football team from the 1920s. The dozen men looking curiously out at me all had pretty much the same cluster of features.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      It’d be interesting to see a photo of the milkman in your grandfathers town.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        😎

  10. Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    i think you’re using the words “race” & “ethnicity” interchangeably which is more of a semantic issues rather than, “there’s no differences between humans at all”. so i think you’re debating semantics here, i do not think they’re interchangebale words & i think we will be completely alright erasing the word “race” & replacing it with ethnicity.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Your comment prompted me to re-read the piece and I don’t see where PCCE is using race and ethnicity interchangeably.

  11. Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    this is semantics, i don’t think race & ethnicity are interchangeable the way you use it. if we used ethnicity more, we’d have less of a narrow view of the divisions of the human race.

  12. Derek Freyberg
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I read the article and was, like PCC(E), decidedly unimpressed – and even less so now that I know he spoke to PCC(E) for background before it appeared.
    Whether we call it race or ethnicity or ancestry, and I take no side on that, genetic makeup (which is dictated by ancestry) is correlated with certain medical issues, and it’s foolish to ignore that. And we can’t do a genetic analysis on everyone who goes to the doctor.
    I think Dr. Lickerman has exactly the right take on this – you use the information that’s available to you to make the best diagnosis.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. From a medical ethics point of view a Dr who doesn’t take into account their patient’s heritage is fundamentally at fault.

      • nicky
        Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the reason all doctors I know (and I know quite a few) do. Mostly it works the ‘other way’, no need to e.g. check for porfyria or HLA B27 in a black patient, at least not during the first approach.
        Other cases, such as diabetes 2, hypertension or glaucoma, although much more frequent in black populations, are so common in all populations that racial profiling makes little sense.

  13. Pliny the in Between
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Race, as it’s currently defined, is a useful heuristic in medical problem solving and treatment optimization strategies. Pretty much everyone knows that it’s an imperfect variable but on average incorporating it into the decision matrix results in better individualization of medical decisions. Once we have routine access to genetic profiling, race will be replaced with better or more subtle heuristics identified through analytics.

    • Posted December 11, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Exactly.

    • Posted December 11, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ll add that here in Europe, at least, doctors tend to have eyes in their head. They are able to deduce important information about a patient by other means than asking them to check boxes about race in some form.

    • Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      Precisely. The article’s author completely misses this main point. Moreover, Velasquez is guilty of trying to stats-wash this point away (and seriously bungling it):

      ‘ “Race is a crude marker, but it’s a usable marker,” he said. In that respect, it is no different from other factors doctors consider, most of which are based on imperfect studies of limited size and scope, and need to be weighed carefully.’

      The marker of race is not crude because of “imperfect studies of limited size and scope”; it is well understood to be weakly correlated with various diagnosable afflictions. Velasquez seems to be implying that a weak correlation is the same thing as a weak study design.

  14. Posted December 11, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    https://www.quantamagazine.org/what-bacteria-can-tell-us-about-human-evolution-20171205/
    throw a-bit-of bacteria in there and see how it fits with race.

    I find bullshit and health counter productive.
    I certainly do not wish to die or worse because my doctor did not want to offend my sensitive self or worse still, someone else.

  15. Posted December 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    People can argue that sickle cell isn’t a disease that primarily affects black peoples all they want but if Trump announced tomorrow that he was cutting funding for sickle cell research you can bet those same people would denounce this as an attack on black people.

    • johnw
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it would be taken as something primarily aimed at African Americans because it would be – they would suffer the consequences disproportionately so within the US. But not because of the color of their skin, but because their ancestors came from a part of the world, West Africa, where malaria is particularly prevalent and the sickle-cell allele is common. This would also be true if they came from eastern India (Bengal, Bangladesh) where the prevalence of a sickle cell allele is similarly very high. It would not be true for people from east or south Africa. Malaria is not a disease of pigmentation, nor is sickle-cell anemia. But in the US where people with African American ancestry have by far the highest carrier frequency for the pathogenic allele, the intent of singling out funding for the disease would be clear.

  16. loren russell
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious — the author seems to treat sickle-cell trait and what has been called thalassemia as the same. My recollection [about 40 years out of date, perhaps] is that the former had evolved in [mostly] west Africa, while the latter was frequent all around the Mediterranean. Are these two regionally-based names for the same mutations [I know there are at least 2 genes involved in both regions.]

    • nicky
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes, they are different mutations and they present somewhat differently, and you are correct in your geographical spread. In fact, apart from sickle cell anaemia, there are several Thalassaemias. Sickle cell is the most severe of these diseases, since sickle cell homozygotes are not even viable.
      What they all have in common is protection against Plasmodium parasites. There are four species: vivax, ovale, malariae and falciparum . The latter is the most deadly form of malaria and associated with sickle cell in humans.

  17. johnw
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    So how many races are there? Are Papuans/Australians a race? Melanesians? Micronesians? Andaman Islanders? Uyghurs? Kalash people? The Ainu? The Khoisan? Eskimos? Terra Del Fuegans? Brazilians? Touregs? Which ones are black? Which are not and what race do they belong to? What categories should we put these people into? Categories from the 18th century that European explorers picked out for them? Or maybe should they categorize themselves or decline to do so as they see fit?

  18. Posted December 11, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Agree with the point that race / ancestry are a good (if not the best) approximation to having a full genomic sequence for an individual. Taking a detailed family history remains a critical part of medical diagnosis even, or indeed especially, in the current overwhelming mass of molecular data. In fact, the family history is often the more powerful as it incorporates many of the subtleties involving phenotypic expression, that may not necessarily be apparent from gene sequence data (even if the information is present, it may not be open to interpretation due to our lack of knowledge). Social history likewise – there is no gene for poverty – one of the major determinant of health outcomes for both communicable and non-communicable diseases.

  19. Posted December 11, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Velasquez-Manoff has written several articles and now a book on how bacterial imbalances in our bodies are the cause of many modern ailments. I’d love to hear an expert assessment of his thesis.

    FTR, V-M received a B.A. in Literature from UC Santa Cruz, graduating with a GPA of smiley face; and a masters in Science Writing from Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. The OP states, “Valasquez-Manoff, a science writer, lacks science degrees, which may explain his cluelessness about how scientists conceive of “race”, for which evaluation you provide evidence.

      My question, then, is: Why is this guy writing a science column for the New York Times??

      • Razib
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:08 am | Permalink

        carl zimmer has no science degrees, and he does a better job that some people with science degrees. so i thought that was kind of a low blow by jerry tbh.

  20. Razib
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    1) the journalists are very confused partly because geneticists mislead them. i’ve talked to enough journalists to see what’s going on (mind you, some of them want specific answers and scientists, to get them off their backs, give them what they want to hear)

    2) the use of the term ‘race’ seems very much generational. younger pop gen people don’t like it. older ones are OK with it. i do like the term race mostly because if you say ‘race is a social construct’ the general public has no comprehension of population structure in humans…and i like people to actually understand the nature of population structure in humans.

    but i think we lost this war. 10 years ago some people under the age of 40 might have spoken up to defend the term race. i don’t think anyone would want to risk it now.

    • Razib
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 1:11 am | Permalink

      i don’t think anyone would want to risk it now.

      by this, aside form the usual accusations, you might get a seriously peeved email from alan templeton 🙂 as i did when i coauthored an article on why race is a useful concept in USA TODAY

    • Posted December 12, 2017 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I’ll subscribe to some nostalgia about this. A four-letter word is a quite succinct way of speaking about complicated things.

      But you are right. I avoid the word completely both as a medical concept and as a sociological concept. Of course this produces longer paragraphs 🙂

  21. Razib
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2006/08/10-questions-for-luigi-luca-cavalli.php

    10 years ago i asked l.l. cavalli-sforza about this:

    Q: 7) Question #3 hinted at the powerful social impact your work has had in reshaping how we view the natural history of our species. One of the most contentious issues of the 20th, and no doubt of the unfolding 21st century, is that of race. In 1972 Richard Lewontin offered his famous observation that 85% of the variation across human populations was within populations and 15% was between them. Regardless of whether this level of substructure is of note of not, your own work on migrations, admixtures and waves of advance depicts patterns of demographic and genetic interconnectedness, and so refutes typological conceptions of race. Nevertheless, recently A.W.F. Edwards, a fellow student of R.A. Fisher, has argued that Richard Lewontin’s argument neglects the importance of differences of correlation structure across the genome between populations and focuses on variance only across a single locus. Edwards’ argument about the informativeness of correlation structure, and therefore the statistical salience of between-population differences, was echoed by Richard Dawkins in his most recent book. Considering the social import of the question of interpopulational differences as well as the esoteric nature of the mathematical arguments, what do you believe the “take home” message of this should be for the general public?

    A: “Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.”

  22. Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    “humans, especially during our evolution after we left Africa . . .”

    After leaving Africa, when did humans go back to Africa?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Ooooo, well-aimed gotcha question!

      • Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Yeah… obviously “we left Africa” means “some of us left Africa”. If we are speaking strictly about Homo sapiens sapiens around 60 000 years ago, we can probably say “most of us left Africa”.

        Some never left, some went back earlier, some later, most people never. Not a case for rocket scientists, actually.

  23. Posted December 12, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    The medical questionnaires I’ve received over the years have not delved very deeply into race or ancestry. Self reporting your “race”
    is of little use as, with or without your knowledge, you may be part white, black and native American (for example). Knowledge of ancestry for most of us does not go back very far. The detailed questions about illnesses
    may go back as far as one’s grandparents. Not far enough.

    Other questionnaires about race or ancestry have tended to be very limited in choices.
    Also, they tend to be used more for political or governmental reasons. Some schools can modify answers to the race issue, and if a parent has not answered “black” or “white” for two siblings, but “human”, for example, one may be noted as “black” and the other as “white” by the school.

    There has been more movement of peoples throughout history than we take into account when discussing “race”. Wars. Slavery. Trading. Whenever and wherever people have left home (or been invaded), they’ve spread their comparatively unique genes. In terms of ancestry,I can only document seven nationalities. That doesn’t take me very far back in history. Prior to that I have no idea of the “races” of my ancestors. But, I am considered “white”. I am not from one of the privileged classes of whites. My ancestors were relatively uneducated, small farm owners or sharecroppers. Some even were seasonal field hands or crop pickers traveling wherever there was work.

    It is much too easy to try to group people by
    characteristics that do not convey the whole person or their history.


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