The language researchers use to describe human populations has evolved over the past 70 years – sciencedaily

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Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that the words scientists use to describe human populations – such as race, ancestry, and ethnicity – changed dramatically from 1949 to 2018. Such changes and their timing, as well as new descriptors for certain population groups, may be linked to structural racism, social trends and how people perceive social constructs such as race.

The results of the study show that the term “race” is now used less on its own, but that it is used more when it is associated with “ethnicity”. In addition, the use of the terms “ancestry” and “ethnicity” has also increased. The survey, which was conducted by researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which is part of the NIH, was published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

For the field of genetics, the question of what makes a population is fundamental. Accurately describing human diversity has a direct impact on our understanding of genomic variation among people, and in turn, how this variation influences our health. Historically, scientists have often mistakenly conceptualized races as distinct biological groups, which has led to inequalities in health and supported scientific racism.

Many scientists rightly reject the idea of ​​racial and ethnic categories as biological units. Now, in the field of genomics, ancestry, ethnicity, and race are used as inaccurate approximations of genomic ancestry. But scientists still disagree on how these terms should be used and understood.

“Given the pervasiveness of these terms, we wanted to empirically investigate the historical use of these concepts in the context of genetic and genomic research,” said Vence Bonham Jr., JD, lead author of the study. and Acting Deputy Director of NHGRI.

Specifically, the researchers studied the use of population terms in the history of the 70-year publication of the American Journal of Human Genetics, which is the longest continuously published journal in the field of human genetics. They searched the text of journal articles to identify when “ancestry,” “ethnicity,” “race,” and other related words began to be used, if they appeared together, and which terms were slowly being used less frequently. Of the 11,635 articles analyzed in the study, 11,360 were research articles, with the remainder being award speeches and other communications.

Zhiyong Lu, Ph.D., co-author and principal investigator of the National Library of Medicine’s Intramural Research Program noted that using simple natural language processing programs and robust statistical tests allows them to easily analyze tens of thousands of pages. and find associations between words.

The results of the study show that the term “race” appeared in 22% of articles between 1949-58, and decreased to 5% between 2009-18; however, in recent years the term has appeared more often when used with “ethnicity.” Conversely, the overall use of the terms “ethnicity” and “ancestry” has increased over time.

Geographic terms like “African”, “Asian” and “European” are also on the rise. “Hispanic” and “Latina / o / x” were introduced in the newspaper in 1980 and 1996, respectively.

It should be noted that the descriptors that the authors consider to have negative connotations classically associated with the notion of biological race have diminished in recent decades.

“Some of these changes could be due to researchers becoming more aware or receptive to historical and current debates regarding the use of breed in genetics,” said Yen Ji Julia Byeon, lead author of the study and doctoral student at Princeton University. “We need continued critical thinking as the terminology and concepts used to study human genetic variation continue to change.”

The researchers note that the survey only reveals the amount of use of their preselected terms rather than the quality. They also recognize the limitations of the study given that it was performed on articles in a single review.

“Future studies may delve deeper into how population labels continue to evolve,” said Lawrence Brody, Ph.D., study co-lead author and NHGRI Division Director of Genomics and Society. . “The goal is to recognize our troubled history with race and to create better genomic tools to accurately describe human genomic variation.”


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