More musings on human genetics and race, but this time from a personal level to explain I think the different ways people "think about" racism and their role in it.
In this thread I am going to be critical about how many people think about broad structural racism/unconscious bias, but I will do this via critiquing my younger self, as it is super-hard to do this broadly without offending people; I can own offending myself :)
In my 20s I spent a fair bit of time in America and considered myself reasonably cool and trendy - worked hard at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, partied hard in NYC and Harvard, where I had friends.
I met broad American culture in both places - Long Island Jewish and Italian-American culture, preppy New England culture and my first interaction with African-American culture.
I had a friend from my English private school (Eton) that went to Harvard, Kiki Ssenymantono who was Ugandan, and he had a dynamite combination of English accent (it is semi-magical in the US! Adds 10 points to your IQ!) and deep black skin.
My love of America continued - both scientifically and culturally - and this was brought together in a summer at the end of my undergraduate when I worked for Kurt Schmoke, the 2nd African-American Mayor of Baltimore.
During that summer I got under the skin of city life in Baltimore; spent a hair-raising week with an unmarked police unit in the projects; a week with community work in East Baltimore, learning about the 'numbers' and the role of Pastors in political American life.
(I am convinced that the third season of the Wire was based on that summer; my only disappointment is that they didn't have a young English kid from Oxford on the Mayor's team).
Over this time I was working on computational biology (I was a precocious student) and in my graduate world was super lucky to work on the human genome - I've never looked back. And, as the diversity sequencing of humans started I realised these clear truths of human diversity -
Firstly that we are very *undiverse* genetically; secondly that our explosive growth from African means our genetic diversity patterns is dominated by the shared history in Africa (this always blows people's minds open) and third just how much we move around and have sex.
(there is tendency to think the moving around and having sex is a recent thing in human history - recent admixture etc - sometimes always associated with chattel slavery and rape >>
The latter is a horrible part of human history but they are plenty of other big movements of humans, and likely more consensual sex relationships, as well as slavery, though a lot of our pre-history we have to reconstruct via archeology and genetics, so it's not so easy to know)
One reflection of this story is I've realised my position on "race differences" has changed a lot in the last ~25 years. When I was younger, I had closer to what I now call the "animal farm" view of difference - all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
What I mean by that is that people would acknowledge equality as an ideal, point to obvious differences such as skin colour, often acknowledge other differences associated with skin colour (the classic: 100 meters sprinting) and then >>
<< imply other things are natural consequences of differences, such as the proportion of white skinned professors. It is a comfortable, "we are being equal" mindset and sees the long shopping list of differences in the world as somehow quite natural.
It doesn't actually hold up as a solid thesis, and certainly not one where genetics justifies these differences we see; genetics does underlie skin colour but not so obviously sporting ability nor professorial achievement.
A side note: the sporting ability argument is one of the most protracted and boring arguments brought up; As @AdamRutherford notes, there is not great human genetics on elite sporting ability- no good GWAS and it is all a bit kooky argumentation on individual genes or ethnicity
I don't want to really want to dive down this rabbit hole now; rather I note that my 25 year old self thought that some aspect of this argument held water, with a strong thread of equality and equal opportunity whatever our biological differences
What I find interesting here is not the precise arguments, but very clearly for *myself* my younger self was more "accepting of structural racism" or "comfortable with my unconscious biases" - I could even claim more crudely, "more racist".
Now my younger self would be pretty pissed off with this characterisation and probably rightly take umbrage if my older self used such crude language. And what about a future self? Quite possibly my future self will look at this tweet thread with wry smile.
One could accuse me of virtue signaling perhaps with my "anti-racist crusade" though actually my motivation to me feels far more about trying to untangle genetics from this nexus of ethnicity and race.
It is hard to guess the blind spots my future self or other people know can see here (that goes with the definition of blind spot) but I do know that many people have not gone on the same journey as I have about genetics and race.
Namely that race or ethnicity is not some crude read out of someone's genetics. Actually, if anything, the links between race/ethnicity and genetics are thin, concentrated in a handful in physical attributes, such as skin colour, hair type, facial features.
The genetics that underlie these features are they themselves are dispersed across the world in a very messy way which, due to the fundamentals of human population genetics (explosive growth from Africa; much movement and sex throughout human history) is just .... really messy.
I feel here this knowledge is key part of my journey to a better place, and this is partly why I tweet, blog and write things about this (often with colleagues). I hope it is useful, and I can help make the world a bit better in this area.

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More from @ewanbirney

21 Nov
The ... level of self belief on Twitter is quite remarkable and apparently I don’t know much about the human genome or genetics. That’s me told ...
More seriously, conversations about ethnicity and race are loaded because it is both a big active part of many societies and discourse - most obviously US but many western countries (UK included of course) and >>
<< for many people this is a key part of their identity. There are shallow issues here -it is far too easy to use words that mean different things or for people to read strong motivational stances or inferences into statements
Read 9 tweets
21 Nov
Another evergreen reminder - ethnicity (or "race") is a process of self identification, often ticking a set of boxes, or gestalt assessment using visible characteristics of people (skin colour, hair type, clothes) by others. It is *not* a good representation of anyone's genetics.
The collapsing of ethnicity or race concepts as some sort of crude readout of genetics is plain wrong.
We can sometimes go the other way - genetic measurements in some places can predict the ethnicity box you will tick on a form - but we definitely can't predict your genetics from the box you tick.
Read 15 tweets
21 Nov
A reminder and perspective on this COVID, mid November.
(context: I am an expert in genetics/genomics and computational biology research; I know experts in a variety of other domains; I have a COI as I am a long established consultant to Oxford Nanopore, which makes a new COVID test, LamPORE).
As ever, it is good to start with the overall perspective - SARS_CoV_2 is an infectious human virus which causes a nasty disease for a subset of people, often leading to death.
Read 23 tweets
17 Nov
Vaccine safety thread - briefing to journalists as much as anyone else as ever, and an offer.
Vaccines are safe. They are safe principally because of the extensive and multiple testing that happens before they are licensed, and that ultimately is due to 100,000s of people who volunteer for trials to assess and quantify safety. I am a scientist and one of these volunteers
"Safe" here of course can never mean never - strange things happen in life, healthcare and biology and like many things we do in life - crossing roads, going biking, drinking wine - we have constantly do things which are safe but have some small risk of something going wrong.
Read 14 tweets
15 Nov
Good case numbers in France, Germany yesterday and the Welsh firebreak definitely worked. (What a surprise - reducing person contacts slow transmission). Northern Ireland controlled well but plateauing high -another push needed
Need to see the impact of the English Nov lockdown - next week sometime one should see lower infection numbers after the 7 day ish incubation period from last Friday plus the test and reporting cycles.
Scotland’s Tiering scheme and particular the central belt work also has done well - though I suspect they want to achieve now more decrease in infection
Read 6 tweets
14 Nov
Right. Deep Breath. RT-PCR "false positives" and Ct numbers (again). tl;dr it is complex, but the RT-PCR testing systems deployed across the world are sound and the people who run them report positives are positives and little can be improved obviously.
Context: I am a genomics/genetics + computational biology expert. I know a large number of infectious disease testing experts. I have a COI in that I am a long established consultant for a company (ONT) that makes a new test here; this gives me additional insight
There a number of classes of false positives which don't concern the current debate (eg, sample swaps, lab contamination). To repeat an early point all the people I know in this are paranoid about this, test and check in a rather detailed way and these are looooow.
Read 22 tweets

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