They keynote by Rob DeSalle (Curator of Molecular Systematics at the American Museum of Natural History) entitled “Race Displaced by Ancestry?” was really informative for me. From my view as a non-expert, I thought he did a good job of going through some of the history of the idea of “race” within science, and then describing some of the techniques that biologists use to determine genetic relationships between individual and populations (trees, PCA, K-clusters, structure analysis). I think perhaps @Joe_Felsenstein was there and would have a much better idea of the technical details.
I came away with a better understanding of why the use of race (especially in science and medicine) is just not helpful compared to actually looking at ancestry and (brought up in Q&A) the particular environmental context a person belongs to. I wrote down a note: “What we see is that we are an interesting species, but there is no hierarchical arrangement of individual people.” I also got a better understanding of how a lot of current genetic testing is cherry-picking SNPs and how that gives a false impression of the level of diversity within the human population – if you’re looking to maximize your ability to distinguish between people from different geographic regions … you easily minimize the vast majority of genetic information that we all have in common.
The other talk I thought was really good was actually two presentations by Kostas Kampourakis from the University of Geneva and Brian Donovan from BSCS Science Learning (a non-profit science education organization). Kostas overviewed essentialism and in particular genetic essentialism (“genes constitute our essence”) and how that impacts our perception of race and ethnicity.
Brian then discussed whether genetic essentialism is increases or decreases as students encounter biology education. In particular, he discussed studies they conducted that showed that students are picking up genetic essentialism in the way we approach talking about genetics and race in typical biology classes. Students are more likely to believe that genes play a role in racial inequality in education after going through a typical biology class that talks about the racial component to diseases like Sickle Cell, Cystic Fibrosis, and Tay Sachs. They are more likely to see racial groups as genetically more homogeneous and the genetic differences between races as much larger than is the case.
I found more information on what Brian called a “Humane Genetics Education” at the BSCS website. The big take away for me was that students need a better understanding of genetics and clear and explicit discussion about race that shifts the conversation to human ancestry and the amount of genetic variability within and between populations.
I really wonder how many colleges and universities are making a human genetics course a part of their general education offerings? We (somewhat inadvertently) have done so at my university and I find that students are really wanting to understand genetics better. I think the caution I’m seeing here is that a focus on Mendelian genetics and on differences (genotypic and phenotypic) at the introductory level may be doing more harm than good and we need to find good ways to bring things like epigenetics, computational biology/pop gen, and human ancestry into these intro classes.