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Many studies seem to suggest that certain diseases or genetic differences are linked to race. Whether it's rates of heart disease and hypertension, the efficacy of "tailored medicines" or evidence of population differences, some research results seem to follow racial lines. Yet many scientists maintain that race is not biological and should not be regarded as a meaningful indicator in medicine or scientific research. How do we make sense of this?
Click on a question below to see how our panel of experts responded:

Opening Question:
What role should race play in health research & medicine?

Q: Is there a gene that controls skin color? Why are there such striking visual differences between people, not just in terms of skin, but also nose shape, eye shape, etc. - how did those evolve and what makes us look so different?

Q: You say there's not a single gene or trait that divides people into races. But are there sets of traits or groups of characteristics attributable to genetic differences among modern racial groupings? Isn't scientific differentiation more about frequencies and probabilities than it is about absolute differences? Can't you look at overall genetic patterns and come up with a pretty accurate estimate of what somebody's race is?

Q: Why do people who need organ and bone marrow transplants tend to match more with people of the same ethnic or racial background? Does the higher success rate of intra-racial versus inter-racial transplantation suggest that race has some biological reality?

Q: I've heard that people metabolize drugs at different rates and that this correlates with "racial" groupings - is this really true? And if so, don't drug manufacturers have a responsibility to do clinical trials on various populations instead of assuming that trails performed on White Europeans are generalizable to all populations? I agree that race is a social construction, but I also seem to come across data that suggest differences in vulnerabilities to illness, metabolism of alcohol, opiates and other drugs among racial groupings.

Q: Are you suggesting that there are no genetic differences between populations?

Q: Why was mitochondrial DNA used to compare the students' genetic sequences in Episode One of the film series? Does mitochondrial DNA change over time? Are 350 letters enough of a sample to really determine if two people are closely related?

Q: When looking for genetic variation, does it make a difference to look at "coding" parts of the genome as opposed to "non-coding"?

Q: If race isn't biological, how do forensics investigators determine a person's race using just their bones or a fragment of their DNA?

Q: You say that sickle cell isn't a racial disease. Are you denying that this and diseases such as Tay-Sachs are genetic in origin or that there are clear racial differences in their rates of occurrence?

Q: You often hear scientists claim that humans are 98% identical to chimpanzees. If such a small amount of genetic difference can produce such great phenotypic variation, isn't it disingenuous to claim that there's only a small amount of variation among humans and that it's not enough to separate people into races?

Q: When drug studies refer to race, are the subjects chosen by phenotype? Many Black Americans have white and Native American ancestry, yet that fact is often ignored. Doesn't that make the study invalid?

Q: Aren't black people on the whole the best athletes in the world? They clearly dominate so many sports. It seems absurd to say there's no correlation between race and athletic ability.

Q: What can a person's DNA tell you about historical migrations and genetic ancestry? I've heard of some research that demonstrated a genetic link between a group of Africans and ancient Hebrews and another study that compared Britons from a particular region with ancient human remains from their village. How can genetic links between people either across geography or across time be established?

Q: I believe that people are all the same underneath the skin, but you can't help but notice that different groups (both within American society and globally) have had varying levels of success and achievement. This seems to correlate with race or the way people look. What's your take on this?

Q: Aren't racial differences hard wired? Isn't this just an ancient way to distinguish friend from foe?


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