Scholar speaks on relationship between race and genetics
As biotechnology improves, genetics have been instrumental in advancements in criminology, sociology and medicine. However, warned Princeton University professor Ruha Benjamin in a lecture last Tuesday, genetics may also oversimplify race and ethnicity. In reality, she argued, race is much more complicated than mere genetics, and race data must be treated with care and consideration for the social conditions behind it.
The lecture, titled “The Emperor’s New Genes: Science, Public Policy and the Allure of Objectivity,” began with Benjamin’s explanation of the origin of science’s tendency to strive toward absolute objectivity, sometimes to a fault. She claimed that, when it comes to ethnic groups, there is “as much homogeneity between groups [as] there is within them,” and for that reason, race is a social construct made up of a series of environmental, subjective factors.
She then went on to explain that the public approaches biology with a certain sense of “fetishization,” viewing it as a “deterministic process” that results in concrete conclusions. In reality, she explained, it is a much more fluid field, subject to human error and bias, and, as a result, “For some researchers, the best science is ahistorical and asocial.”
As Benjamin explained, this disconnect between life and social science can create issues when it allows scientific findings to be used in manners for which they were not intended. As an example, Benjamin cited the United Kingdom’s controversial border control policy, which allows border agents to use genetic sequencing to test the truth of immigrants’ countries of origin and to deport them if it is discovered that they lied about where they are from. This policy uses science for an unintended purpose, she argued, thereby oversimplifying the issue at hand.
However, Benjamin continued, the practice of using genetics to determine race has also been used against various groups in South Africa and India, where such data is also used to justify citizenship.
She then transitioned to discussing the concept of genomic sovereignty — the notion that each nation has its own genetic signature, resulting in a difference between Mexican genomes and Indian genomes, for example. While this idea at first appears to be a powerful force of inclusiveness for various underrepresented groups within a population, it carries with it a threat of nationalistic tendencies and can feed into pre-existing ideas of national hierarchy, where “dominance becomes euphemized as mere difference,” she explained.
From there, Benjamin put her research into a medical context, demonstrating that some diseases thought to be more common among specific racial groups are, in fact, more affected by national lines than racial ones. Because of this, Benjamin argued, some diseases can go misdiagnosed because the lens through which doctors view a patient’s condition is too narrow.
The talk concluded with a lengthy question-and-answer session, during which students engaged with Benjamin, voicing their concerns and receiving feedback.
As Benjamin stressed to one student, the intention of her research is not to claim that race has no place in studies — thereby enforcing some sort of “color-blind science” — but rather to argue that race must be reframed. “The take-home is not to ignore racial differences,” she said, “but to take it in a social rather than biological context.”