We should look through our differences with a new perspective

Revised from the award-winning essay from the American Society of Human Genetics’ International DNA Day contest.

On May 21, 2023, Real Madrid Player Vinicius Jr. was subjected to racist abuse during the team’s away tie against Valencia, which aroused a heated debate. On May 30, a German soccer club was punished for walking off the field after an alleged racist slur. Besides these striking incidents, hate and disrespect toward people who possess different characteristics or body features happen almost every day. However, if we look at our differences through the lens of genomics, this issue can be addressed easily and clearly. 

Humans share a common ancestry in Africa. We dispersed to the rest of the world between 200,000 and 60,000 years ago and went through distinct evolutions to adapt to various environments. Human genomes, the complete set of genetic instructions that make us who we are, have been shaped over time by a complex interplay of biological and environmental factors. Statistically, due to common ancestry, only 0.1% of DNA varies between individuals. However, these differences, which arise from mutations throughout human evolution, contribute to our distinct individual features and lineage. 

Certain genomic variations became prevalent in particular populations due to the evolutionary advantage they offered. Race has no biological basis, and therefore its role as a justification for discrimination is flawed. Lighter complexions facilitate the production of more vitamin D, which prevents diseases like rickets in climates further away from the sun; by contrast, pigments in the skin can protect the skin from sun damage and skin cancer in areas exposed to sunshine. 

There are millions of fascinating examples of why we are different. In regions of Africa where malaria was common, the sickle hemoglobin mutation became widely present, as people with sickle cell anemia are more likely to survive and reproduce. People living in high altitudes – Tibetans, along with Andeans and Ethiopians – possess specific genes which help them deal with hypoxia, a state in which not enough oxygen reaches body tissues. In parts of the Middle East and Europe where animal husbandry is developed, changes in the lactase gene allow people to continue producing lactase after entering adulthood, enabling them to drink milk without diarrhea and flatulence, which many East Asians experience. 

Genomes influence our appearance, susceptibility to disease, metabolism of drugs, and even our cognitive abilities. It is essential to recognize that our differences are derived from common humanity and should serve the development of the whole. 

Our differences should not be used as a piece of evidence to justify discrimination. Instead, it is only the result of evolution and adaptation. The science behind our differences should allow us to celebrate our commonalities as human beings while also embracing our differences. 

Image source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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