Dying Gaul
Leonardo da Vinci – Vitruvian Man (ca. 1492)
Ink on paper. 34,4 × 25,5 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.
I don't usually blog about my occupation and readings as a nephrologist. Yet I'll make an exception with the present blog, that deals with a topic I have discussed for years with colleagues from the USA: the concept of 'human races'.

I read an article today in the medical review Kidney International that expresses a feeling shared by many European doctors: discomfort at seeing the word 'race' used with such a light heart in the international medical literature in English.

The average people will not use the term 'race' in Europe as they commonly do in the USA. In the mind of everyone, for obvious historical reasons, the notion of 'human races' is closely linked to racism, slavery, and the Shoah.

In medical literature though, particularly in articles from the United States, the word is still of current use.

Kidney International

I was very pleased then to read an editorial by Eberhard Ritz from Heidelberg and Sarala Naicker from Johannesburg, entitled "Race: A call to change nomenclature", in which the authors provide strong argumentation for making a systematic change in all scientific communications from 'race' to 'ethnicity'. 
             [Kidney Int 2009; 76: 807-808. doi:10.1038/ki.2009.356]

Here are some lines of their article:

In scientific meetings and literature, the term ‘race’ is still widely used to characterize the genetic background of specific cohorts. This term has become completely anachronistic with modern genetic insights and should therefore be abandoned.
It makes no sense to categorize individuals according to skin colour — the density of the skin melanocortin receptor, likely selected to provide protection against skin damage induced by ultraviolet light, bears little relation to the diversity of the genetic codes of respective individuals. Dark skin is seen in populations as diverse as African populations and Australian Aboriginals, the latter of whom have a quite different genetic background.

The use of terms that refer to distinguishing traits such as skin colour, body shape, and hair texture leads the scientific community to magnify differences and ignore similarities between groups of people. Also, these traits are no more accurate in making distinctions between human groups than any other genetically inherited characteristics. We are an extremely homogenous species genetically; all humans today are 99.9% genetically identical. 
The concept of ethnicity is related to the Greek concept of ethnos, which refers to the people of a nation or tribe, and ethnikos, which stands for national. Hence, ethnicity refers to the ethnic quality or affiliation of a group, which is normally characterized in terms of culture.
The International Society of Nephrology is a global professional society of nephrologists and renal research scientists with a multicultural and multiethnic constituency. Its goals include the development of nephrology and prevention of chronic kidney disease through education, training, research, and public awareness in both the developing and the developed world. In view of the above facts, the executive council of our society finds it is appropriate to use the term
‘ethnicity’ rather than ‘race’ in our scientific communications.

Some will think this is nothing but political correctness. I disagree. Words matter. Besides, it certainly is not merely coincidental that the article was written by citizens of Germany and South Africa, two countries where History has shown that 'race' is not an innocent word.

10 comment(s):

    I recommend this paper:
    Diversity is an opportunity, we don't have to be frighten by it.
    Our diversity is a strength. Nazis thought in genetic weakness and in the risk of "contamination" of the aryans by the "bad" genes. Never forget it:
    Germans are very aware of this problem certainly more that others peoples in the world. It's the weight of History.
    Very interesting post, thank you for sharing your readings.


    Well said and done,.... still, don't you think that racism is much deeper than a word? Perhaps in the scientific world it will alleviate some of it. However, regardless of whether we distinguish a person by race or ethnicity, in the real world, unfortunately, it does not change the fact that many people judge other people just by the color of their skin.


    It is very true that America has this fixation on race. We have to qualify ourselves all the time -- not just to the government, schools, and employers (to assure the powers that be that they are being fair to people of all 'races'), but to people you meet. To get asked, "What are you?" is a very daunting thing. I could be vague and say, I'm American or I am a woman, but they almost invariably say things like, "No, what race are you?"

    Ethnically, my mother is Mexican and my father is Mexican and Filipino. But if you want to be truly accurate, two of my mother's grandparents were from Spain by way of France. And to be Mexican means I have American indigenous ancestry as well. I'm just a mashup. And there are more people out there are like me. We are a conglomeration of ethnicities that will be hard to define as time goes on. I don't think we should define it.


    Kyste – Thank you for the reference, the article is worth reading.

    Lynn – Racism is obviously more than words. That's what I meant with political correctness. Yet when even people who are not racist use with a light heart a concept, 'human races', that is not scientific and has discriminatory connotations, they apparently justify racism. Racists don't need moral support from scientists, do they?

    Vanessa – Affirmative action based of ethnic criteria instead of family income is very debatable in my opinion. In the context of this kind of affirmative action what race are you? is a question that makes sense. A question that has been given a reason to be asked...

    On the contrary, did you know that such a question from an employer or an official is punished by the Law in France and other countries? Same with sexual preferences.

    On 04 November, 2009 23:45 Anonymous said...

    Question: Pourquoi ecrire en anglais alors que , il me semble, d apres votre profil " a propos" que vous soyez francais? Simple curiosite de ma part.


    C'est une question que je me pose moi-même de plus en plus souvent... Au départ, il y a près de 5 ans et sur un support autre que Blogspot, j'ai commencé à blogguer en anglais par jeu, à destination d'un tout petit nombre de lecteurs non francophones.

    Comme je l'ai expliqué dans un précédent blog, c'est ensuite devenu un moyen d'améliorer ma pratique d'une langue que je n'ai jamais aimée, mais qui est la lingua franca de notre époque. Et puis, il est étonnamment décomplexant d'écrire dans une langue qu'on ne maîtrise pas. Lorsque c'est mal écrit, on a toujours l'excuse de ne pas être un native speaker, et de toute façon on ne peut le plus souvent pas s'en rendre compte par soi-même.

    Cela dit, l'intérêt que je retire de ce blog en anglais diminue régulièrement, au fur et à mesure que ma fluency augmente. Il est probable qu'un de ces jours pas très lointain, je vais arrêter, soit complètement, soit pour passer au français.

    (Merci de votre intérêt)


    Nouvel essai de lien vers ce précédent blog:

    On 18 November, 2009 16:38 Anonymous said...

    salut mr ,,,,,,,,c la vendeuse de falafel ,,,,,,,prennds soin

    On 18 November, 2009 16:39 Anonymous said...

    je t ai ecrit un petit mot slmnt pr s assuere ke tu vas le recevoir ,tu vas bien??????je te souhaite tt le bonheur ,car tu es un si cher ami ,,,bises pr la famille ,nana ,,,,

    On 18 November, 2009 16:40 Anonymous said...

    s assurer*


Post a Comment

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin


Timeless Music
The Magic Flute
by W. A. Mozart

Timeless Reading
Les Essais
by Michel de Montaigne