Epistemological Pitfalls in the Proxy Theory of Race: The Case of Genomics-Based Medicine

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (forthcoming)
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In this article, we discuss epistemological limitations relating to the use of ethnoracial categories in biomedical research as devised by the Office of Management and Budget’s institutional guidelines. We argue that the obligation to use ethnoracial categories in genomics research should be abandoned. First, we outline how conceptual imprecision in the definition of ethnoracial categories can generate epistemic uncertainty in medical research and practice. Second, we focus on the use of ethnoracial categories in medical genetics, particularly genomics-based precision medicine, where ethnoracial identity is understood as a proxy for medically relevant differences among individuals. Notably, extensive criticisms have been made already against the genetic interpretation of races, but, nonetheless, the concept of race remains a key element of contemporary genomics. This motivates us to explore possible reasons why such criticisms may have been ineffective in redirecting attention to other (non-race-based) ways of controlling for human variability. We contend that popular arguments against the idea that human races have a genetic basis, though convincing in many respects, are not sufficient to exclude the pragmatic use of race and ethnicity as proxies for genetic variability related to complex phenotypes. Finally, we provide two further arguments to support the idea that ethnoracial categories are unlikely to provide meaningful insights into medical genetics, which implies that even the interpretation of race as a useful tool to stratify disease risk is unwarranted.

Author Profiles

Joanna Karolina Malinowska
Adam Mickiewicz University
Davide Serpico
Università degli Studi di Milano


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