By Adam Rutherford, 7 July 2021
UNSHARED science is of little value. The whole scientific endeavour relies on ideas, methods and data being available to all. The words we use are vital to making sure that we are all on the same page and our ideas are conveyed accurately. But in my field of genetics, the language we use isn’t up to scratch. Terms in common usage present problems ranging from being scientifically confused or ambiguous, to being rooted in a racist history that echoes in our present.
Every scientific discipline has its own jargon used to summarise or label the complexity of the world. And as our genome is the richest data set we have ever tackled, it is no surprise that human genetics is particularly burdened with terms that strive to encapsulate our ancestry and the secrets of our behaviour, evolution and disease.
Genetics is also a field with a pernicious history. Its origins are inextricably entwined with the 18th-century invention of race, then using pigmentation and skull measurements to hierarchically taxonomise people. With that came scientific racism marshalled into the justification of slavery and subjugation, and the eugenics projects of the early 20th century followed not far behind.
Contemporary genetics has unequivocally demolished the attempts to use ancestry, anatomy and genetics to assert a biological basis for race. Although people around the world differ, the genetics underlying those differences doesn’t correspond to the racial classification that we use today. “Black” – meaning people of recent African descent – covers more than a billion people with more genetic diversity than the rest of the world put together. From a genetic point of view, it isn’t an informative term. Yet we use it. This is why we call race a “social construct” – race exists because we perceive it, but has no meaningful biological basis.
Nevertheless, the scientific language of the past resounds today. That is why I and colleagues in various fields of genetics are calling for a change in these language conventions, which, we argue, don’t serve scientific insight and shackle us to the prejudices of history.
Some examples are widespread. Caucasian, for example, is a word used today in official forms, public discourse and in many academic papers. Does it mean white European? Does it include people from south Asia or North Africa? Different definitions have included these populations and others. Furthermore, it was originally coined to indicate the “beauty” and “superiority” of white Europeans. It has no place in science today.
Other examples are arguably less prejudicial, but equally unsound. Bantu is often used to broadly describe people from southern Africa with a shared linguistic heritage. Yet the diversity of dialects in more than 400 million people renders their grouping imprecise and not inherently meaningful. Even terms like “ethnicity” and “ancestry” have subtly different meanings when used in different fields and by different people.
In the genetics community, there is growing recognition that we have to change our language. The American Society of Human Genetics stated in 2018 that “the invocation of genetics to promote racist ideologies is one of many factors causing racism to persist”.
Humans are all of one species, but people from around the world are different, and genetics reflects those regional adaptations and different evolutionary journeys. Grouping people is a necessary part of understanding similarities and differences in our DNA.
Our intention isn’t to police language, but to prompt it to evolve. Some genetics terms should be consigned to the dustbin; others will require thought and discussion. Our hope is to spark a conversation for changing to a lexicon that better serves our understanding of human diversity, and simultaneously frees us from a troubling history.
Are your students and children and colleagues and friends in on this conversation about changing to a lexicon that better serves our understanding of human diversity, and liberating us from our troubled history of racialized language and racialized people?