A biosocial return to race? A cautionary view for the postgenomic era

American Journal of Human Biology (2022)
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Recent studies demonstrating epigenetic and developmental sensitivity to early environments, as exemplified by fields like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) and environmental epigenetics, are bringing new data and models to bear on debates about race, genetics, and society. Here, we first survey the historical prominence of models of environmental determinism in early formulations of racial thinking to illustrate how notions of direct environmental effects on bodies have been used to naturalize racial hierarchy and inequalities in the past. Next, we conduct a scoping review of postgenomic work in environmental epigenetics and DOHaD that looks at the role of race/ethnicity in human health (2000–2021). Although there is substantial heterogeneity in how race is conceptualized and interpreted across studies, we observe practices that may unwittingly encourage typological thinking, including: using DNA methylation as a novel marker of racial classification; neglect of variation and reversibility within supposedly homogenous racial groups; and a tendency to label and reify whole groups as pathologized or impaired. Even in the very different politico-economic and epistemic context of contemporary postgenomic science, these trends echo deeply held beliefs in Western thinking which claimed that different environments shape different bodies and then used this logic to argue for essential differences between Europeans and non-Europeans. We conclude with a series of suggestions on interpreting and reporting findings in these fields that we feel will help researchers harness this work to benefit disadvantaged groups while avoiding the inadvertent dissemination of new and old forms of stigma or prejudice.

Author's Profile

Maurizio Meloni
Deakin University


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