Reconsidering Race in the Genetic Era

So, how should we think about race? Perhaps we should move from the level of categorizing based on skin color to thinking about family trees. Everyone is descended from a particular line of ancestors. Those lines have intersected with many other family lines over the millennia and ultimately those lines all originate from the same family of the first modern humans in African between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago (Behar, Villems, Soodyall, Blue-Smith, Pereira, et al., 2008Caporael, 2004Relethford, 2008). Take any two humans at random and their genomes will be 99.9% genetically similar to each other (Collins, Green, Guttmacher, & Guyer, 2003Foster & Sharp, 2002). Of the 0.1% differences, only a small fraction of those are associated with racial or ethnic variation. While genetic research may find links between disease and genetic ancestry, we must keep in mind that no one is purely of any one racial group or ancestry. There is a rich diversity in how the human genome is expressed; yet, in the end, we are much more similar than different. We all descend from the same family, the human family. In light of the increasing amount of genetic research and its potential negative influence on racism, it is important that we conduct research that examines how folk notions of race are formed and how we can better help the public understand the relationship between genetics and race.


Anderson, N.B., & Nickerson, K. J. (2005). Genes, race, and psychology in the genome era [Special issue]. American Psychologist, 60 (1), 5-8.


Bamshad, M. J., & Olson, S. E. (2003). Does race exist? Scientific American, 289 (66), 78-85.

Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2006). Psychological essentialism and stereotype endorsement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 228-235.

Behar, D. M., Villems, R., Soodyall, H., Blue-Smith, J., Pereira, L., Metspalu, E, et al. (2008). The dawn of human matrilineal diversity. American Journal of Human Genetics, 82 (5), 1130-1140.

Bonham, V. L., Warshauer-Baker, E., & Collins, F. S. (2005). Race and ethnicity in the genome era: The complexity of the constructs. American Psychologist, 60 (1), 9-15.

Caporael, L. R. (2004). Bones and stones: Selection for sociality. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology, 3-4, 195-211.

Collins, F. S., Green, E. D., Guttmacher, A. E., & Guyer, M. S. (2003). A vision for the future of genomics research: A blueprint for the genomic era. Nature, 422, 835-847.

Condit, C. M., Parrott, R. L., Bates, B. R., Bevan, J. L., & Achter, P. J. (2004). Exploration of the impact of messages about genes and race on lay attitudes. Clinical Genetics, 66, 402-408.

Condit, C. M., Parrott, R. L., Harris, T. M., Lynch, J. A., & Dubriwny, T. (2004). The role of "genetics" in popular understandings of race in the United States. Public Understanding of Science, 13, 249-272.

Foster, M. W., & Sharp, R. R. (2002). Race, ethnicity, and genomics: Social classifications as proxies of biological heterogeneity. Genome Research, 12, 844-850.

Hawkins, M. (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860-1945: Nature as model and nature as threat.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Higginbotham, E. B. (1992). African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race. Signs, 17 (2), 251-274.

Jayarantne, T. E., Ybarra, O., Sheldon, J. P., Brown, T. N., Feldbaum, M., Pfeffer, C. A., et al. (2006). White Americans’ genetic lay theories of race differences and sexual orientation: Their relationship with prejudice toward blacks, and gay men and lesbians. Group Process and Intergroup Relations, 9 (1), 77-94.

article author(s)