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Racial Alchemy: Bioethics and the Skin Tone Gene

Since the 2005 discovery that the SLC24A5 gene variant plays a sizable role in human skin pigmentation, scientists have become increasingly intrigued by the possibility of genetically manipulating skin color. Curiously, however, this research is going on with little mention of the dreaded “R” word: race.

A recent New Scientist article, for example, expends almost 3,000 words on the ins and outs of skin color’s genetic basis and apparent malleability without once mentioning race. The author eagerly notes, however, that “our skin color might one day become almost as easy to change as hair color is today, freeing us from the constraints of our genes [and] mak[ing] life far harder for those who still insist on judging people on the basis of a handful of gene variants.” Nina Jablonski’s 2006 book Skin: A Natural History devotes nearly 300 pages to understanding skin’s social, cultural, and biological significance without seriously engaging race’s long and tortured history; only two references to race appear in its index.

It is not uncommon for scientists to underestimate race’s relevance to their work. Stanford geneticist Gregory Barsh, for example, told Science that recent studies involving theSLC24A5 gene variant “indicate how the genetics of skin color variation is quite different from, and should not be confused with, the concept of race.” Jablonski apparently agrees: “skin color” she told Science, “does not equal race, period.”

From a geneticist’s perspective, this effort at separating skin color from race may be technically accurate; in any other context, however, it’s a bit counterintuitive. History, contemporary race relations, and common sense suggest that race and skin color will continue to be tied tightly together to shape social outcomes, public policy, clinical evaluations, and even legal thought. For example, economist Joni Hersch recently published findings showing that light-skinned American immigrants – controlling for all other factors, such as language proficiency, country of origin, and occupation – earn 8 to 15 percent more than those with dark skin. Similarly, economists Arthur Goldsmith, Derrick Hamilton, and William A. Darity Jr. have shown that medium and dark-skinned blacks suffer a wage penalty of 10 to 15 percent relative to whites. These studies suggest that American society, in effect, imposes a progressive “dark tax”: social stigma and financial penalties compound as melanin increases.

The concern here is that colorstruck yet raceblind approaches to “decoding” skin color’s genetic underpinnings might fail to seriously engage with the extent to which skin tone shapes basic social relationships – both between whites and racial minorities and within minority groups themselves. Within virtually every culture of color and among racial groups, dark skin tends to signify unattractiveness and incompetence. Colorism – a subset of racism – isn’t simply an antiquated system divvying up “house Negroes” from field workers. Rather, it is a social structure that continues to shape people’s everyday lives, individual psyches, and social outcomes. Thus skin tone doesn’t just have economic impacts. It also affects dignity and identity.

If the empirical evidence suggests that skin tone continues to be significant in predicting social outcomes, what does the supposed distinction between race and skin tone mean for genetic research? And what would it mean for bioethics to engage these conversations?  Mark Shriver, a member of the team that discovered the SLC24A5 gene, has been instrumental in turning population genetics techniques into marketable (and ostensibly profitable) ancestry tests. Much ink has also been spilled over the so-called “gay gene” and the prospect of services for either screening out “gay embryos” or somehow altering their gene expression to ensure their heterosexuality. Could skin tone alterations be the next viable market for consumer biotechnologies? And what would this mean for society, given that racial inequality based largely on skin hue persists?  What can bioethics say about these developments other than repeat traditional concerns about clinical safety and individual autonomy?

What’s happening with genetic research into skin color is as much an ethical development as a scientific one. It highlights some researchers’ diminished sense of responsibility for their work’s public impact. Distinguishing skin color and race may give some enough ethical cover to dabble in racial alchemy without being held accountable for their research’s consequences. We only stick our heads in the sand if we view research on the SLC24A5 gene variant as a biotech discovery hermetically sealed within the confines of research labs, with little social impact. We should try instead to anticipate the ethical and social challenges raised by this work and think sensibly about a key question that should be at the center of more bioethical debates: what does it mean for human biotechnology to develop in the public interest?

Osagie K. Obasogie directs the project on Bioethics, Law, and Society at the Center for Genetics and Society. He is also a regular contributor to the blog Biopolitical Times.

Published on: May 18, 2007
Published in: Bioethics, Science and Society

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