By Micho Gravis
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY
Genetic diversity is an important topic in biology. It provides the foundation for the process of evolution by natural selection and promotes the ﬁtness of the population in its environment.
There are genetic bases of why certain human populations are more or less susceptible to speciﬁc diseases. For example, Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish populations have a greater genetic predisposition for Tay-Sachs disease whereas people of African ancestry exhibit an increased probability of sickle cell anemia. Understanding the genetic markers associated with these diseases can beneﬁt human health by improving diagnosis and treatment. However, without appropriate consideration of ethics in biology and medicine this information can also be misused and distorted in unethical and scientiﬁcally invalid ways. While there is a legitimate genetic contribution to human diversity, this concept has been spuriously co-opted by politically extreme and racist ideologues purporting the superiority or inferiority of diﬀerent races/ethnicities.
Certain blood pressure medications are known to aﬀect African-Americans diﬀerently than Caucasian Americans due to genetic and physiological diﬀerences: a legitimate biological diﬀerence important for managing health care options for diﬀerent patient populations. In a misguided attempt to test for racially disparate medical responses, African Americans were denied access to appropriate medical treatment in the Tuskegee syphilis study initiated in the 1930’s. The Tuskegee experiment taught us nothing about biological variation in medicine, but rather taught us a painful and grotesque lesson about the importance of informed consent and biomedical ethics when considering the often-controversial topic of biology and race/ethnicity.
In the modern era of biology, sequencing the human genome revealed that the genetic diﬀerences within a particular racial/ethnic group can be as diverse as the diﬀerences between purportedly distinct racial/ethnic groups. The boundaries between diﬀerent races and ethnicities cannot be readily deﬁned by genetics, and race and ethnicity are as much or more of a social construct as they are a biological construct. Perhaps the key question is not merely what can we learn about ethnicity through the lens of biology, but instead what can we learn when ethnicity is considered at the interdisciplinary intersection of biology with other academic ﬁelds.