Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Portrait of a mathematical geneticist

An interesting PLoS interview with Neil Risch (via the blog Gene Expression.)

Neil Risch (Caltech BS in math; PhD in biomathematics from UCLA) is the Lamond Distinguished Professor in Human Genetics and Director of the Center for Human Genetics at the University of California, San Francisco, California, United States. He has held faculty appointments at Columbia, Yale, and Stanford Universities.

I have a strong problem with the way politicians use this information. [Former President] Clinton, for example, when the first draft of the human genome sequence came out, made a statement about how all people in the world, in terms of their genetic makeup, are 99.9% the same. His intent—to reduce conflict among peoples—is noble. People on the left, anthropologists and sociologists, do the same thing. They use the 99.9% figure as an argument for social equality. But the truth is that people do differ by that remaining 0.1% and that people do cluster according to their ancestry. The problem is that others could use that information to create division.

From NYT, March 20, 2003:

A view widespread among many social scientists, endorsed in official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association, is that race is not a valid biological concept. But biologists, particularly the population geneticists who study genetic variation, have found that there is a structure in the human population. The structure is a family tree showing separate branches for Africans, Caucasians (Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent), East Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians.

Biologists, too, have often been reluctant to use the term "race." But this taboo was broken last year by Dr. Neil Risch, a leading population geneticist at Stanford University. Vexed by an editorial in The New England Journal that declared that race was "biologically meaningless," Dr. Risch argued in the electronic journal Genome Biology that self-identified race was useful in understanding ethnic differences in disease and in the response to drugs.

Race corresponded broadly to continental ancestry and hence to the branches on the human family tree described by geneticists, he said. Expanding this argument today, Dr. Risch and nine co-authors say that ignoring race will ‘retard progress in biomedical research.’ Racial differences have arisen, they say, because after the ancestral human population in Africa spread throughout the world 40,000 years ago, geographical barriers prevented interbreeding. On each continent, under the influence of natural selection and the random change between generations known as genetic drift, people would have diverged away from the common ancestral population, creating the major races. Within each race, religious, cultural and geographical barriers fostered other endogamous, or inbreeding, populations that led to the ethnic groups.

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