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'I have a genetic dream'

It's been almost 40 years since a great man lost his life, essentially because he had a dream of racial equality. As America celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, there's been a resurgence of interest in the issue of race - not only because a black man is a serious contender for the presidency, but also because scientific trends have raised new questions about the concept of race.

On one side, we have DNA pioneer James Watson's comments about potential correlations between ethnicity and intelligence - comments that sparked the biggest controversy in Watson's controversial career. On the other side, we have genomics maverick J. Craig Venter's observation that "race is a social concept, not a scientific one."

This year's HapMap genetic survey adds to the picture's complexity, noting that there are links between geographical origins and genetic traits, ranging from your vulnerability to diseases to your vulnerability to underarm wetness. Just as we're getting over the idea that your skin color defines who you are, researchers are pointing out that genetics can play a role in defining what you will become.

When it comes to higher functions, however, the nature-vs.-nurture argument comes to the fore. If one geographical population behaves differently from another, is it really a case of genetic differences, or rather of cultural differences? New research indicates that the pull of cultural values can be surprisingly powerful, potentially leading to changes in the wiring of the brain. 

Such findings reinforce what Martin Luther King (and J. Craig Venter) said: Much of what we think of as racial differences have to do with social differences instead. When populations are isolated, genetic variations and environmental factors tend to take those populations down separate paths. That's how some of our ancestors happened to end up lighter-skinned than others.

Today, we're dealing with the multimillion-year hangover from those differences,  as well as our hard-wiring for "us vs. them" tribalism. I have a dream that a deeper understanding of genetics will finally help us bridge the gap.

I'm out of the office today, but to help bridge the gap to my next posting, here are some Web offerings that touch upon race and genetics: