Questioning Race-Based Medicine

Genomic Research Pioneer Argues Against Race-Based Medicine

This past week, Craig Venter told the New Scientist that “Race-based medicine doesn’t have any real basis in science.” I have no idea why this story seems to be of little interest to the majority of science journalists, as it has not been very widely reported, but it represents a major milestone in terms of understanding how humans vary biologically. The story stems from a comparison of Venter’s genome with that of DNA co-discoverer, James Watson.

Venter, who loves both competition and controversy, has set himself apart not only from Watson, whose shameful remarks about the intellectual inferiority of Africans severely tarnished his reputation, but also from his old foe, Francis Collins. Venter was the CEO of Celera Genomics when Collins was the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute. Both Venter and Collins desperately wanted to be the first to decode the genome as part of the Human Genome Project. Despite Collins’ subsequent arguments against the race concept, when the announcement was made in June 2000 that the Human Genome Project had completed an initial decoding of the DNA strand, he stated that the project researchers had used the genes of five different people, representing the major races of humans, and the racial diversity of humans. Even at that time, this seemed to me to be a confusingly narrow view of human population biology.

I don’t know how Collins’ genome would compare to Venter’s, but the revelation that Watson, a “Caucasian,” carries genes (*not blood*) that are commonly found in Koreans shows that racialized medicine makes patients susceptible to wildly inaccurate diagnoses because racial classifications in general do little to predict which genes an individual might be carrying. Venter’s realization of this sets him apart from both Watson and Collins in terms of his sophistication in understanding both the social and biological implications of this finding.


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