Gene research shows racial distinctions are overblown
Arizona Daily Star
July 13, 2003
Opinion Editorial By Nicholas D. Kristof
I had my DNA examined by a prominent genetic specialist in Oxford, England, and
what do you know! It turns out I'm black.
The mitochondria in my cells show that I'm descended from a matriarch who lived
in Africa, possibly in present-day Ethiopia or Kenya.
OK, this was 70,000 years ago, and she seems to be a common ancestor of all
Asians as well as all Caucasians. Still, these kinds of DNA analyses illuminate
the raging scientific debate about whether there is anything real to the notion
"There's no genetic basis for any kind of rigid ethnic or racial classification
at all," said Bryan Sykes, the Oxford geneticist and author of "The Seven
Daughters of Eve."
"I'm always asked whether there is Greek DNA or an Italian gene, but, of course,
there isn't. … We're very closely related."
Likewise, The New England Journal of Medicine once editorialized bluntly that
"race is biologically meaningless."
Take me. Sykes looked at a sequence of my mitochondrial DNA to place me on a
kind of global family tree.
It would have been nice to learn that my ancestors hailed from a fishing village
on Loch Ness, but ancestry can almost never be pegged that precisely, and I
appear to be a mongrel.
One of my variants, for example, is scattered among people in Finland,
Poland, Armenia, the Netherlands, Scotland, Israel, Germany and
On the other hand, is race really "biologically meaningless"? Bigotry has been
so destructive that it's tempting to dismiss race and ethnicity as artificial,
but there are genuine differences among population groups.
Jews are more likely to carry mutations for Tay-Sachs, blacks for sickle-cell
It's hard to argue that ethnicity is an empty concept when one gene mutation for
an iron storage disease, hemochromatosis, affects fewer than 1 percent of
Armenians but 8 percent of Norwegians.
"There is great value in racial/ethnic self-categorizations" for medicine,
protested an article last year by a Stanford geneticist, Neil Risch, in Genome
It warned against "ignoring our differences, even if with the best of
DNA does tend to differ, very slightly, with race. Profilers thought a recent
serial killer in Louisiana was white until a DNA sample indicated he was
probably black. (A black man has been arrested in the case.)
As genetic science advances, the police may eventually be able to recover semen
and put out an APB for a tall, white rapist with red, curly hair, blue eyes and
perhaps a Scottish surname.
On the other hand, genetic markers associated with blacks can turn up in people
who look entirely white. Indians and Pakistanis may have dark skin, but genetic
markers show that they are Caucasians.
Another complication is that blacks are, on average, about 17 percent white:
They have mitochondria (maternally inherited) that are African, but they
often have European Y chromosomes. In other words, white men raped or
seduced their maternal ancestors.
Among Jews, there are common genetic markers, including some found in about half
the Jewish men named Cohen. But this isn't exactly a Jewish gene: The same
marker is also found in Arabs.
"Genetics research is now about to end our long misadventure with the idea of
race," Steve Olson writes in his new book, "Mapping Human History."
When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, my son Gregory had a play date with a
classmate I hadn't met. I asked Gregory, then 5, whether the boy's mother was
"I don't know," Gregory replied.
"Well," I asked sharply, "did she look Japanese or American?" Although he'd
lived in Tokyo for years, Gregory replied blankly, "What does a Japanese person
He was ahead of his time. Genetics increasingly shows that racial and ethnic
distinctions are real - but often fuzzy and greatly exaggerated.
Genetics will increasingly show that most humans are mongrels, and it will make
a mockery of racism.
"There are meaningful distinctions among groups that may have implications for
disease susceptibility," said Harry Ostrer, a genetics expert at the New York
University School of Medicine.
"The right-wing version of this is 'The Bell Curve,' and that's pseudoscience -
that's not real. But there can be a middle ground between left-wing political
correctness and right-wing meanness."
I'll be searching for that middle ground this year as I'm celebrating Kwanzaa.
* Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times, 229 W. 43rd St.,
New York, NY 10036; e-mail: