Four reasons why ISBNPA should scrap the word ”race” – a hot topic opened by ISBNPA member Liselotte Schäfer Elinder

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The history of “race”
is several hundred years old. Carl von Linné, the inventor of zoological
taxonomy, in 1735 divided Homo Sapiens into continental varieties of Europeans,
Asians, Americans and Afer (Africans) with Homo Sapiens Europaeus characterized
as active, acute, and adventurous and Homo Sapiens Afer as crafty, lazy and
careless. From that time, and still today, categorisation into “races” has entailed
discrimination, violence and suffering throughout the world based on the
perception of superior and inferior “races”. However, it is high time to
abandon this terminology for a number of reasons, each one good enough in

1.     Modern genomics has shown that genetic
variability between proposed “races” is much smaller than variability within
“races”. Genes vary continuously with no sharp “race” boundaries. The word
“race” is ill-defined and an insensitive predictor of genotype (Cooper, Kaufman
and Ward, 2003).

2.     Continued use of “race” as a stratifier among
and within populations maintains the false belief among lay persons as well as many
scientists, that there are indeed different human “races” living on earth today.

3.     With today’s biomedical knowledge “race” must
be seen as a social and political construct (Cooper, 2013). As such it conceals
real and malleable health determinants like income, education, occupation and
discrimination. Therefore, this stratifier is counterproductive when it comes
to understanding and acting on health inequalities.

4.     Continued use of this term, I believe, nurtures
the ideology of race biology and racism, which has led to great suffering and inequities
throughout history continuing in today’s society. Consequently, scrapping this
term could in the most optimistic scenario contribute to elimination of racism.

Since 1997 the NIH has
instructions on how researchers should categorise people as belonging to two
ethnicities and five racial categories, which would be unthinkable in Europe
for dreadful historical reasons. As a member of the society, I therefore
propose that ISBNPA scraps the term “race”  and sticks to one or several well-defined stratifiers like country of birth,
ancestry, socioeconomic status, and if relevant genotype and skin type (e.g.
studies on vitamin D).

Further reading:

1.     Cooper RS, Kaufman JS, Ward R. Race and
genomics. NEJM 2003 348;12:1166-1170.

Cooper RS.
Race in biological and biomedical research. Cold Spring
Harb Perspect Med 2013;3:a008573.

Liselotte Schäfer Elinder, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

Country of birth: Denmark

Country of residence: Sweden

Ancestry: Northern, Central and Eastern European

Socioeconomic status: High