what “race” means

So very interesting….

Q & A with Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of the “personal genetics” company 23andMe.

Q. Have you had any situations where a person finds out they have relatively recent ancestors of a race that they were unaware of? If so, have any reacted badly?

A. We know that quite a few people find surprises about their ancestry through 23andMe’s service. One customer with extensive knowledge of his European paternal ancestry discovered that his maternal line traced to a Native American woman. He tracked down paper records that revealed a “mulatto woman” about seven generations back. Native American ancestry makes some sense given that his ancestry traces to the southern U.S. While he was excited about this new information, his 93-year-old mother was far less positive and remains skeptical! Quite a few African Americans have discovered that their paternal line traces to Europe. Although many African Americans may be aware that they have some European ancestry (the average is about 20 percent), some discover that close to 50 percent of their ancestry traces to Europe, and this can take some getting used to.

Q. As projects like yours and the HapMap uncover numerous instances of genetic differences between human groups or races, what is the responsibility of the genetics community when discussing innate differences between races, particularly when a large part of academia is convinced that there are no such differences?

A. A lot of the difficulty in talking about race has been a lack of agreement on what “race” means. In the past, the idea of pure races also included an ordering of certain races as inherently superior to others. We reject this idea absolutely. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no genetic differences between populations of different ancestral origin. A few of our features use the genome-wide data of reference populations from around the world to trace the origin of pieces of an individual’s genome. Some customers have complex patterns depending on where their ancestors originated. These reference populations aren’t “races”; they’re representative samples of peoples who have lived in a single place for a very long time and have thus accumulated different sets of genetic variants over time.