When scientists first decoded the human genome in 2000, they were quick to portray it as proof of humankind’s remarkable similarity. The DNA of any two people, they emphasized, is at least 99 percent identical.
But new research is exploring the remaining fraction to explain differences between people of different continental origins.
Scientists, for instance, have recently identified small changes in DNA that account for the pale skin of Europeans, the tendency of Asians to sweat less and West Africans’ resistance to certain diseases.
At the same time, genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA. Ancestry tests tell customers what percentage of their genes are from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The heart-disease drug BiDil is marketed exclusively to African-Americans, who seem genetically predisposed to respond to it. Jews are offered prenatal tests for genetic disorders rarely found in other ethnic groups.
Such developments are providing some of the first tangible benefits of the genetic revolution. Yet some social critics fear they may also be giving long-discredited racial prejudices a new potency. The notion that race is more than skin deep, they fear, could undermine principles of equal treatment and opportunity that have relied on the presumption that we are all fundamentally equal.
“We are living through an era of the ascendance of biology, and we have to be very careful,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. “We will all be walking a fine line between using biology and allowing it to be abused.”
Certain superficial traits like skin pigmentation have long been presumed to be genetic. But the ability to pinpoint their DNA source makes the link between genes and race more palpable. And on mainstream blogs, in college classrooms and among the growing community of ancestry test-takers, it is prompting the question of whether more profound differences may also be attributed to DNA.
Though few of the bits of human genetic code that vary between individuals have yet to be tied to physical or behavioral traits, scientists have found that roughly 10 percent of them are more common in certain continental groups and can be used to distinguish people of different races. They say that studying the differences, which arose during the tens of thousands of years that human populations evolved on separate continents after their ancestors dispersed from humanity’s birthplace in East Africa, is crucial to mapping the genetic basis for disease.
But many geneticists, wary of fueling discrimination and worried that speaking openly about race could endanger support for their research, are loath to discuss the social implications of their findings. Still, some acknowledge that as their data and methods are extended to nonmedical traits, the field is at what one leading researcher recently called “a very delicate time, and a dangerous time.”
“There are clear differences between people of different continental ancestries,” said Marcus W. Feldman, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University. “It’s not there yet for things like I.Q., but I can see it coming. And it has the potential to spark a new era of racism if we do not start explaining it better.”
Renata McGriff, 52, a health care consultant who had been encouraging black clients to volunteer genetic information to scientists, said she and other African-Americans have lately been discussing “opting out of genetic research until it’s clear we’re not going to use science to validate prejudices.”
“I don’t want the children in my family to be born thinking they are less than someone else based on their DNA,” added Ms. McGriff, of Manhattan.
Such discussions are among thousands that followed the geneticist James D. Watson’s assertion last month that Africans are innately less intelligent than other races. Dr. Watson, a Nobel Prize winner, subsequently apologized and quit his post at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.
But the incident has added to uneasiness about whether society is prepared to handle the consequences of science that may eventually reveal appreciable differences between races in the genes that influence socially important traits.
New genetic information, some liberal critics say, could become the latest rallying point for a conservative political camp that objects to social policies like affirmative action, as happened with “The Bell Curve,” the controversial 1994 book that examined the relationship between race and I.Q.
Yet even some self-described liberals argue that accepting that there may be genetic differences between races is important in preparing to address them politically.
“Let’s say the genetic data says we’ll have to spend two times as much for every black child to close the achievement gap,” said Jason Malloy, 28, an artist in Madison, Wis., who wrote a defense of Dr. Watson for the widely read science blog Gene Expression. Society, he said, would need to consider how individuals “can be given educational and occupational opportunities that work best for their unique talents and limitations.”
“Regardless of any such genetic variation, it is our moral duty to treat all as equal before God and before the law,” Perry Clark, 44, wrote on a New York Times blog. It is not necessary, argued Dr. Clark, a retired neonatologist in Leawood, Kan., who is white, to maintain the pretense that inborn racial differences do not exist.
“When was the last time a nonblack sprinter won the Olympic 100 meters?” he asked.
“To say that such differences aren’t real,” Dr. Clark later said in an interview, “is to stick your head in the sand and go blah blah blah blah blah until the band marches by.”
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