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The word ‘caucasian’ should be banned say Cambridge and UCL scientists

The word ‘caucasian’ should be banned because it is ‘associated with a racist classification of humans’, according to five Cambridge and UCL scientists.

Researchers said scientists should only use the term when absolutely unavoidable but refrain from ‘usage where possible’.

Authors of the article titled ‘The language of race, ethnicity, and ancestry in human genetic research’ said the term Caucasian was an ‘old term associated with racist and pseudo-scientific classifications of humans’. 

Caucasian, they wrote, is ‘an 18th-century term invented to denote pale-skinned northern and western Europeans, or in other archaic connotations a wider range of people based on skull measurements, including west Asians, south Asians, north Africans and Europeans.’

The paper, published on the pre-print sever arxiv, added:  ‘The language commonly used in human genetics can inadvertently pose problems for multiple reasons. 

The word ‘caucasian’ should be banned because it is ‘associated with a racist classification of humans’, according to five Cambridge and UCL scientists (pictured, Trinity College, Cambridge)

‘Terms like ‘ancestry’, ‘ethnicity’, and other ways of grouping people can have complex, often poorly understood, or multiple meanings within the various fields of genetics between different domains of biological sciences and medicine, and between scientists and the general public.

The paper said scientists should add quotation marks around the word when used in research, the Telegraph reported. 

Authors Dr Ewan Birney, Michael Inouye, Dr Jennifer Raff, Dr Adam Rutherford, and Aylwyn Scally said their is intended ‘to stimulate a much-needed discussion about the language of genetics’.

Adding they hoped it would help ‘begin a process to clarify existing terminology, and in some cases adopt a new lexicon that both serves scientific insight, and cuts us loose from various aspects of a pernicious past.’ 

Dr Ewan Birney, deputy director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire, has added terms such as ‘Native American’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘White Irish’, and ‘European’, should also be avoided. 

Instead, he says, researchers should use more scientific language derived from a two-step genetic analysis. 

‘European’, for example, would instead be ‘the European-associated PCA [principal component analysis] cluster, which aims to minimise variation in non-genetic factors and genetic factors’. 

The suggestion, which even Dr Birney terms ‘bamboozling’ for non-scientists, is intended to prioritise ‘technical accuracy over concision’.

The researchers said: ‘Some of these suggestions may meet with disagreement; we present them partly to stimulate discussion of these and other terms, and in the hope that this will lead to better and more accurate language conventions and less misunderstanding, particularly outside of human genetics’. 

Dr Adam Rutherford is currently honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL (pictured starring in The Cell in 2009)

Dr Adam Rutherford is currently honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL (pictured starring in The Cell in 2009)

Announcing the paper, honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL Dr Rutherford said: ‘I have been working on this a while: sparking a conversation about the lexicon of genetics, which continues to utilise scientifically redundant, confusing and racist terminology.’

Adding in a second tweet:  ‘We’re definitely not prescribing or policing language, but want to prompt a dialogue with colleagues in similar and adjacent fields about our terminology, datasets and tools, and move towards a lexicon that both serves the science and frees us from a racist past.’

Among his fellow contributors, who were each given equal credit, were Dr Jennifer Graff, a geneticist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, Michael Inouye, Principal Research Associate in Systems Genomics and Population Health, and Darwin College, Cambridge geneticist Aylwyn Scally.  


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