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Race Doesn't Exist. Or Does It?

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Tony Frudakis and his company DNA Print Genomics believe they can identify hair, eye, and skin color and point to the genetic ancestry of test subjects by scanning their DNA. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce goes to investigate, using a sample of Jad's DNA to find out what they could discover. The results? Surprising to all. We found another surprised DNA test subject, Wayne Joseph, a high school principal and writer on the topic of race.

Guests:

Tony Frudakis and Wayne Joseph

Comments [47]

WJFreeman

You folks should seriously consider updating this piece with newer tests from Family Tree DNA, the National Geographic Society DNA ethnicity tests, or even 23andMe. DNAPrint Genomics is out of business and their methods are rather dated in the fast evolving world of genetic genealogy and population genetics.

A lot more is known and correlated against phenotypes now, though a wide sampling of SNPs (point mutations) along the genome is still the basis for the determination. It is just that there is so much, much more data and that the correlations are better.

Also, I thought that the explanations of what DNAPrint Genomics did were at best confusing and murky, and did little to add to the understanding of the listener as to how the test is done and what can be learned.

Apr. 21 2014 01:08 AM
Marih Zerep from Columbia MD

Excellent topic, many of yours are. Makes one think more closely about the subject.
Having said that I tend to side with Mzro and Mike. It was hard to pay attention to the speakers because their voices, some of them very close sounding, unless a long statement is spoken. This, mixed with the overwhelming and, sometimes, drowning effect, of the audio effects, makes it hard to follow and mostimes, digest the content.
It gives me the impression that you are trying to "imitate" an overloaded Web page with frills, pop-ups and all. The person doing the "audio mixing" knows what is being recorded, the listener doe not participate in the process. It is confusing.
Your format is that of a conversation where you can see who is speaking, but the listener has to wait to digest who is talking.

Apr. 20 2014 12:50 PM
neal

This show missed the point big-time. Race is a socially constructed reality. Racism is the belief that one's behavior is a result of a physical/genetic characteristic. Sunni, Shia, Moslem, Jew, Hispanic are NOT races they may share some common cultural factors but are not race. Just because light-skinned people are more likely to become sunburned does not that they are a race. Race- Humankind's Greatest Myth!!!

Apr. 19 2014 01:09 PM
Robert Miller

Not, there where seven original tribes DNA proves this and they where created different history proves diversity is a destructive force, name me one diverse nation that did not fail.

Clinton said we are all the same because of DNA and they called 89% of our DNA junk DNA that was not mapped and it turns out this included our DNA that creates our mind.

I am not saying all the races are not important but that we are not created for the same purpose.

Apr. 02 2013 01:52 PM
Leta Brown from Maple Plain, MN

Science continues to prove the creation story--of course we are one race--all descended from Adam, then Noah

Aug. 13 2012 06:20 PM
Mike Wright from Minneapolis

I was disappointed that this was so old, and in such a rapidly evolving field as genetic testing it is now very out of date. I want to know how good current testing is, for example I know 23andMe test a huge number of points across the chromosome, I wonder what they could tell us about race and genetics.

Perhaps it is no wonder that DNA Print Genomics went bust if they got things as wrong as they did in this case.

Aug. 13 2012 12:40 PM
Tony from Texas

I didn't notice this was an older episode till now, so I guess it's old news that DNAPrint Genomics went bust in 2009 or late 2008.

Aug. 12 2012 02:00 PM
Alice

I think the point is our race is much more complex than we typically think and that most of what we think of as "racial" markers are in fact cultural and national markers.

Apr. 26 2012 12:30 AM
Monique Russ

Please use the email above not the previous one.

Nov. 12 2011 10:09 PM
Monique Russ

I would like a transcript of this radio lab for a class I am taking on diversity. Could you please send this to me with the comments.

Nov. 12 2011 10:02 PM
Philip Margolis from Brooklyn, NY

"Race" is not exclusive to a particular geographical border, yet an abundance of people of the same "race" can be found in much greater number within a given boarder. In other words, "race" is not "necessarily" synonymous with geography, yet most Russians live in Russia, and most Chinese live in China, and so on.

A "race" is: a group of people who share a higher frequency of certain genetic characteristics and markers as compared to another group. Culture has nothing to do with it, although certain aspects of culture - food, music, art, taste in clothes, even politics and ideology - can be traced back, in disproportionate amount to a given culture. To say that there is an "American race" is completely ridiculous. To say that there is a "Japanese race" is scientifically verifiable, and that Japanese race happens to be living in Japan in greater number than any other place. America is a multi racial society, whereas Japan is, mostly, mono-racial. There is not an "American race", but there is an Irish race in America, and also in Ireland.

To reiterate - "race" is nothing more than a given group who possesses a disproportionate amount of genetic markers compared to another group.

Jun. 25 2010 07:22 PM
ZyngaGirl from Dirty South

I also agree with KentD, amy and Mike.

May. 14 2010 03:09 PM
ZyngaGirl from Dirty South

Bill is the first commenter I read who really got the point.

This study attempted to redefine the term "European." Middle-Easterners are not a separate group, but a huge group of mixed people whose heritage includes a lot of subsaharan African. Yes, Wayne has subsaharan African ancestry.

The fact that Wayne and so many others missed the point is very scary and troubling.

May. 14 2010 02:28 PM
AXC

Focusing on race in medicine makes sense in a homogeneous population - so for instance, you could assume if all the Japanese people in a study had an allergy, it is a "Japanese" trait. But once you get away from homogeneous populations (becoming more rare every day!), why should you expect any correlation between appearance and any other attributes? Someone with one African great-grandparent can look black, but dominance of skin color doesn't mean there is dominance of all medically relevant traits (tho possibly some). There are some conditions that WOULD be directly linked to skin color (e.g. in parts of the world with little sunlight people with more melanin produce less vitamin D than whiter people) and in that case the geographical source of one's ancestors is irrelevant. From my personal experience: my doctor asked me about my ethnicity and told me to take calcium supplements because I'm half north european (specifically a small notoriously inbred population), and so at risk of osteoporosis. This actually makes sense, and has nothing to do with the fact that I look Mexican. Seems like in the US these days what someone looks like really doesn't matter, unless they are absolutely sure of their ancestry many generation back.

Jun. 19 2009 04:09 AM
Dajam from Maine

This questions is for Andrew Patner.
Hello Andrew I tought your argument was very interesting and I would like to know more about that. I check on Google about the correlation between humans, carbon and the Pineal Gland, but I could not find anything from and .edu or .org source (which academically are more valid). Would you share your source whit me? thanks

Jun. 14 2009 08:24 AM
Jim from NJ

PATHETIC! That's my comment.
The show starts with Clinton and Collins saying there's no scientific basis for race and then proceeds to find as many ways as it can to say "whoa, hold on here a minute folks".
One may wish to give the benefit of the doubt to the shows producers and ascribe the narrative process employed as intentional, willfully wanting to show the confusion that exists on the subject.
But, I cannot. Yet, however unintentional, the episode did manage, by process of stumbling elimaination, to lead right back to the begining: there is NO scientific basis for race. Because there is no definition of race (when discussing humans) that can withstand even the slightest scientific inquiry. Try all you want to reverse engineer and micro dna your way back, even with a genome map but,there are no coordinates for an undefined destination.

Apr. 15 2009 10:55 PM
KentD from Richmond, VA

The test results returned for Wayne Joseph do not prove that race does not exist, only that the test is inadequate and flawed.
The first step in a discussion such as this is to define the terms. What is a race? It seems to be agreed that it is a subgroup of a species with distinct characteristics that differentiate it from the other members of the species, a subspecies. There is no clear definition for species, although sometimes interbreeding is used as a divider. That is not logical, because it relies on differences (usually molecular) in one small part of the organism. So lets use dogs as an example. All kinds of dogs (as far as I know) can interbreed (even wolves and coyotes), and there are vast differences in many physical characteristics, including behavior.
Several people above have commented on race being a substitute marker for culture, and I agree. In the episode, there was a large segment on a drug that seemed to work for blacks much more than whites. This was disproved with African tests. It seems hat they did not consider that most American blacks are descended from slaves, a population that went through many generations of a very different environment, beginning with the voyage in slave ships, and then selective breeding. (It was wrong, it was evil, but it happened.) So American blacks might well be considered a different race from Africans, despite the obvious similarities in outward physical characteristics.

Apr. 01 2009 11:59 AM
Mike from Australia

I think this show never got off on the right foot because it never challenged the (ab)use of the word "race" in the USA. Elsewhere "race" applies to a recognisable range of phenotypes and is by definition a purely genetic construct; "culture" applies to our social differences.

The confusion in the US arises because of the historical existence of two distinct social classes who also happened to be of different race, the adoption of race as a proxy for this social division, and the imprinting that has sustained it. This might be a more rewarding subject for exploration, because what the science has to say to us seemed to get lost here: there are (or will be found) genetic explanations for the observable differences in our bodies, and who knows, maybe some of our behavioural tendencies too, but there is no genetic basis for the socio-economic divide between "black" and "white" America, or for apartheid in any flavour. Such a division, and its reliance on a few convenient phenotypes, is a social construct, but our DNA is not.

Mar. 15 2009 08:47 AM
amy

The reason most scientists warn against trying to define "race" by these tests is that what these companies are selling is a misinterpretation of data. Yes different groups of people that are phenotypically different (blonde vs brunette, tall vs short, etc) will have different alleles at some loci, and Yes the there are variants that are more COMMON in some ethnic groups than in others. But that does not mean that just because you have an allele that is more common in the european group than in the african group it does not mean that you are of european ancestry, only that it is more likely ON
AVERAGE..but if your history says otherwise, then you are just not the AVERAGE african. These are complicated to explain to people who do not understand probability--and the people who run these companies do not want to tell you that they really can't tell you much of anything. except they can test for alleles that code for certain phenotypes--like brown or blue eyes...

Mar. 14 2009 12:46 PM
Andrew Patner from Chicago

Other test subjects -- e.g., if he tested only his paternal-paternal line, he could also test a descendent of a sister of his father or of his father's father, etc., and he would have been able to add to the various lines that led to him.

Feb. 21 2009 08:10 AM
Andrew Patner from Chicago

A friend just referred me to this piece and, like a number of those commenting above, I was deeply disappointed with it.

1) The test Jad took is from a commercial company, DNA Print Genomics, in Sarasota, Florida, that claims that it can "infer phenotypes" from a DNA sample and that basically *makes up* "percentages" based purely on suppositions and the company's own semi-random database. The guesswork they engage in is alluded to, but not spelled out.

2) Much more disturbing is your coda -- We are never told what test Wayne Joseph, the Black teacher interviewed, took, and from whom. It sounds as if he had only ONE test (he had two cheek swabs and there are two swabs for EACH test) -- What line was tested, what other information did he receive or ignore?

What you follow up with him on is just nonsense. If a) he is descended in part, as so many African-Americans are, from at least one white male slaveholder, and b) there was an unbroken male line from that white ancestor to Wayne Joseph today, and c) Wayne Joseph only tested his "deep paternal ancestry," then of course he would "not be Black." But *any* test of his deep *maternal* ancestry -- or yours or mine -- would show him to be "African" at least in part and would surely have shown other things as well.

Why didn't you all ask these questions? Why didn't you compare his very partial genetic "research" with his known genealogy? Commission a more comprehensive set of tests?

Jad and Robert seemed to be going here for some sort of squishy p.c. essay on "defining race" and intentionally used a very incomplete and unchallenged/uninvestigated claim by an essayist to support that goal. All you've done is confuse a lot of people.

Feb. 21 2009 08:06 AM
cyw from Texas

Take the skin color question: One person's Caucasian, another is Black African descent. The Caucasian, very pale; the Black African, very dark. What makes THAT difference? Why is the PINEAL GLAND - which holds CARBON - not recognized by the scientific community? Everything living is electrical; everything living must be carbon-based to even be alive. The fact that the Black African's dark skin (or any other person's skin that is darker)reflects the amount of carbon in his/her pineal gland means there's a biochemical difference between the Black African and the Caucasian. But because there's such insecurity about being "different", we tend to want to discount differences, because we perceive "different" as "better or "worse". Fact: those with a high concentration of carbon in their pineal gland need specific maintanance for optimal health. The danger is when scientists & doctors(who are mostly white males) make blanket prescriptions for ALL people. Ex: so-called "lactose intolerance"; black people have been identified to have this "condition". What the medical community doesn't consider: perhaps black people AREN'T SUPPOSED TO DIGEST COW'S MILK. But because the people they base findings on are primarily Caucasian, suddenly EVERYBODY is supposed to drink milk and eat cheese, based on the findings of their "control group". But the Black African is suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, obesity, and other maladies because they are "marching to the beat of a different drummer". They would fare better with more leafy greens and fruits, as these alkaline foods support high carbon in the pineal gland, as reflected in their skin color. Saying all this to say - the notion that "we're the same" is VERY DANGEROUS for people of color depending on the decisions of others who frankly, aren't considering their best interest. NONE OF US are the same. What we need to heal from is the REASON WHY we want to ignore the fact we're different.

Feb. 12 2009 05:52 PM
KS from New Haven, CT

"But the guy who considered himself Black, the educator guy, was black in skin color, So how come he had zero African DNA?"

None at the loci tested. It's not that the company sequenced his entire genome - it's that they looked at a number of markers and for him, none of those were African in origin.

The different answers from different companies is entirely because of the markers they used. Some look at the Y chromosome of males, for information on male ancestors. Some look at mitochondrial DNA, which can give information on female ancestors. Some look at a number of nuclear markers across the genome, giving information about your ancestry - for those markers!

These test are interesting, but very prone to misinterpretation, as in this example. The fact that our genetic material is always passed by 1/2 to a child (and the half that is passed on is random), and that there is genetic recombination between chromosomes makes the story more complicated. Go back a number of generations and there is a random element to what is passed on and what is not (therefore, lost).

Feb. 06 2009 01:53 PM
C from Chicago, IL

What about the 'Asian Flush' allergy? Does that support the idea that Asians are genetically different? Or is it a cultural diet thing?

Feb. 05 2009 12:29 PM
HW from Seattle

I recently fell in love with Radio Lab and the inquisitive environment in which we address mostly-relevant issues. Yet, this show was horribly disappointing and extremely frustrating.

Race is a social construct.

I could not see any conclusion that articulated this evident and historical truth. Understanding race from no matter what angle should never be discussed without a serious look at history. If you remove history from the discussion you are adding to the social construct by "intelligently" creating your own reasons for the unequal situation today.

I would hope for some sort of follow up addressing the comments and evaluating what was trying to be said in the show. I would hope that concrete statements are made to confirm that although the idea that race can be tied to science-it is an idea that exists because we have not had honest conversations addressing racism and institutionalized racism that lives in this world.

Jan. 30 2009 04:06 PM
Geoff Richardson from Santa Barbara, CA

Dr Paul Abramson and myself have just posted a song called 'Race Against Race' at http://www.myspace.com/true2voodoo. Our point is that because you cannot define or see race, it doesn't exist. Consequently, it's time to get over it and move on. I hope you like it.

Jan. 21 2009 07:58 PM
Howard from FL

Whoops, cut off that I am adopted, hence the interest!

Jan. 17 2009 07:46 AM
Howard from FL

I am adopted. What should my expectations be should I send in a DNA sample? Country or global region has always been my curiosity. How vague or wide will the findings be?

Jan. 17 2009 07:44 AM
Madinat

brilliant comment trista,
in college i took a class called the "national constructions of whiteness" (actual title, lol) that helped illustrate the very point that race is a social, not biological construct. nowhere else in the world, for example would the likes of wentworth miller be considered black with out a smirk of sarcasm, but here, anything goes!

Dec. 27 2008 11:28 PM
VR from 07306

Hello,

I was expecting a carefree, unbiased inquiry driven by curiosity and the passion for discovery and truth and having no ulterior agenda... which is, fortunately, your typical radiolab episode.

However, I was deeply disappointed when this episode devolved into a feelgood episode that only dealt superficially with the question of race.

Hopefully, the future episodes will be up to the usual radiolab standards.

Thank you.

Dec. 23 2008 10:34 AM
Hammad Ahmed from the bottom of his heart

Great show. Some of the comments above raise good points, too.

We tend to think of "peoples" as coming from some"where"--like there is a genetic center of Russian-ness. Or Mexican-ness. (see Philip Margolis comment) We forget that those centers are made up! Borders, capitals, all lines drawn in the sand by governments and nations. Before we can say it's a "foregone conclusion" that Russians have different bone structures from Mexicans, you first have to ask yourself, "Who counts as Russian? Who's Mexican? Where did I get that idea?" and that's the REALLY hard and tricky question, as Jad and Nell and all the other contributors point out.

One idea I had from the show is that maybe we should define races chronologically, not just geographically Borders and nations change. Races do too, it seems. Take me. Most would call me "South Asian." Maybe it's better to say, "Mogul-Punjabi-post-partition-Pakistani-American."

ugh. That's almost as unwieldy as Greenfieldboyce!

Dec. 21 2008 02:04 PM
Tristen from Detroit

I'd really just like to add to he previous comment by Philip Margolis about the importance of culture in defining race. Whatever genes can tell about the probability of characteristics of any given person, the fact remains that the race of the individual is solely determined by the cultural understanding of race. An interesting case were this played out in the legal system in the U.S. is the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. Bhagat Singh Thind was a Punjabi who moved to Oregon and attempted to become a naturalized citizen, however at the time this was not available to Asians. Anthropologists defined Thind as a Caucasian, but even though the court did not dispute that as factual, it claims that based on the "understanding of the common man" he was Asian. Thereafter he was not only denied citizenship but any other Indians granted it could have it revoked. This followed a similar denial of a Japanese man the ability to naturalized because he was not Caucasian! That is really just something historically interesting, but the principle of race being a contextual institution in humanity remains. Although I am not endorsing it, Mr. Joseph would very well have been treated as a black man regardless of ancestry. Furthermore, the idea of not being African as not being black in the way it is understood in the U.S. seems rather ridiculous to me.

Dec. 09 2008 10:02 PM
Josh Wallick from Washington, DC

The opening recording from Bill Clinton's speech cites how science has confirmed the teachings of ancient faiths. If anyone is interested in a Christian exposition of the Bible as a refutation of the idea of race (i.e., that there is no such thing of race), this link is a download:
http://sgm.edgeboss.net/download/sgm/events/t4g08/t4g08-session2.mp3
The speech was presented by Thabiti Anyabwile (B.S. and M.S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University) to an audience of approximately 5,000 mostly white, mostly Southern Baptist preachers in 2008 (http://t4g.org/08/media/).

Dec. 05 2008 10:48 AM
Carolina from Northern California

Hi Irving,

It seems silly to sort of belabour the point but one can have quite dark skin without being descended from Subsaharan Africa. Though in some way, we are all descended from that region! Indians from the southern region, Sri Lankans, Aboriginal Australians, and so on can be very dark-skinned. The man in question did have Asian blood (which could have been from these regions)as well as a high proportion of Native American heritage.

Carolyn

Dec. 01 2008 12:24 AM
Irving Weiss from Dix Hills, NY

But the guy who considered himself Black, the educator guy, was black in skin color, So how come he had zero African DNA ? He musta got the color somewhere along the genetic line.Therefore, he had to have more than zero.

Nov. 28 2008 05:10 PM
Philip Margolis from Brooklyn

There are indeed many variables that serve to cloud our attempt to make clear the question of “race” (I use the word “race” synonymously with the word “group”). What cannot be disputed however; what the report did not cover, are the different human musculoskeletal systems found on each of the world’s continents. Mexican bone structure is different from Russian bone structure, and the African is different from the Chinese, and so on. These differences in bone structure are strictly genetic and have nothing to do with “culture”. The key question is this. To what extent are these differences active or dormant, not so much in obvious ways as in bone structure or certain diseases in disproportionate amount in group x, and not as when compared to group b, but in more subtle and abstract ways having to do with psychological, emotional, and ideological “predilections” in one direction or the other? That bone structure and certain diseases have a genetic foundation that can be demonstrated empirically is a foregone conclusion. It is unjustifiable to stop at this point and suggest that because there is no identifying characteristic that is “of a certain race” that can be scene with the naked eye; that out of a willful blindness does not fit into some political agenda, that these things “therefore” do not exist. The utilization of knowledge will always be a matter of healthy debate, but to deny that facts exist is dishonest and contemptible.

Nov. 28 2008 09:52 AM
Carolina from Northern California

Oh, yes, I agree. There is more genetic diversity, in some cases, through a few square kilometres in Africa than in all of Western Europe to be sure. And race is a fairly arbitrary category, fluid and sociologically determined in its nomenclature.
Still, this is an opening for those of us who were taught that we belonged to a single discrete group to find that our heritage and that of the world is far more encompassing than we may have thought.

Nov. 26 2008 03:57 AM
Bill from New York

Even the way in which ancestry is presented here is part of the problem, because it implies that racial categories have persisted across history, which is wrong, and further promotes the erroneous assumption of cultural persistence across history. So you're shown to have, say, African ancestry. Fine. But don't for a minute suppose that there's a discrete thing called "African Ancestry," as whatever the mean genetic makeup of any "people" (but we know Africa is full of "peoples," right?) is at any one point in time is going to shift and vary from generation to generation--indeed perhaps just the way in which we decide to delimit what counts as a "people" shifts historically. Darwin's caveat about the status of species applies here. We have constantly shifting continua, and while there's no denying shared genetics and physical traits, the concept of "race" is always far in excess of what amount to the superficial details by which we identify them.

Nov. 24 2008 04:08 PM
perri

Thanks Carolina!

Nov. 24 2008 11:42 AM
Carolina from Northern California

P.S. Perri, I heard the show on the 19th. Not sure of its date of recroding.

Nov. 23 2008 01:28 AM
Carolina from Northern California

Hi Soren,

I so appreciate the clarification! What a creative (and encompassing) way to isolate DNA strands. I am reasonably certain that my ancestry is comprised of Berber (North African) heritage, and am looking forward to the time when North African/Middle Eastern heritage has its own distinct genome in the database.

Thank you so much for responding! This is such a fascinating topic: we are all so related.

Wayne Joseph's story is so intriguing, and leads one to wonder about other edifices by which we define ourselves, and their possible repercussions when called into question.

Thanks,

Carolina

Nov. 23 2008 01:26 AM
Soren Wheeler

Hi Carolina,
You're totally right that most DNA ancestry tests trace either paternal lines (through the Y chromosome) or maternal lines (through the mitochondrial DNA). But DNA Print does something different. It looks at a sample of spots across the genome, then compares that to large databases of genomes from different places around the globe. It's a statistical game for sure, so there is definitely an error range ... but I can only guess that for Wayne, the swing of a few percentage points here and there were beside the point.
Soren

Nov. 22 2008 01:53 PM
perri

When did this show air? Nov.28th is nearly a week away?

Nov. 22 2008 11:22 AM
Bridget from Minneapolis

This show was so intriguing. I can't wait to be able to listen to it again! I have long been interested in what qualfies races genetically. I find it fascinating how we as humans have adapted to our different environments to give us a beautiful spectrum of people.

Nov. 20 2008 09:43 AM
Chava from TWIN CYTIES

Hi guys, like the first person who comment I'd love to listen to again, great show, Paz.

Nov. 20 2008 12:57 AM
Carolina from Northern California

Hi. This radio program totally confused me. How is Wayne Joseph convinced that he has no African blood due to a DNA test? Am I wrong in believing that the DNA only tests the sex chromosones for race, and therefore in the case of a woman, it only tests the matrilineal line for both the father and mother (leaving the great portion of the DNA out) and for men the patrilineal side of the father, and the matrilineal side of the mother (due to the X and Y chromosones). If this is not true, I would be really interested to know as I would like DBA information on my mother's father's ancestry which I understood as a woman, would not show up in the DNA tests but still does comprise my genetic inheritance. Any response would be gratefully received. Thanks.

Nov. 20 2008 12:08 AM
Joyce Barry from minneapolis

I would like a transcript of the genetics and race radio lab you did on Nov 19th.
Or to be able to listen to it again?
Thank-you

Nov. 19 2008 11:47 PM

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