Column 5 min read

Genome Culture: When Genetics’ Race Problem Rears Its Ugly Head

Charlottesville is a grim reminder of how groups past and present have used the language of genetics to claim racial superiority.

By Laura Hercher featured image Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

It may seem like a long time since white supremacists marched in the streets of Charlottesville. It may seem like decades must have passed, because the sight of contorted white faces spewing hate speech feels like footage from another era. It may seem like whole geologic eras must have passed, with all the storms and floods and fires in the interim. But it happened less than three months ago. It happened on August 12, 2017.

Remember what a shock it was to hear them, the alt-right marchers, chanting “blood and soil.” The words, Nazi slogans, evoked ideology linking bloodlines, ethnicity, and a right to the land. The old idea of bloodlines (which we now understand as genes) and their explicit use of racialist language (black, white, and Jew) was a reminder that America’s race problem is also genetics’ race problem.

Racists, like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, are perversely interested in using science even as they disdain scientists and expertise. White supremacists have adopted the tools and language of genetics to provide a scientific gloss to their mythology of racial superiority. As population geneticist Jedidiah Carlson said in a memorable thread on Twitter last December, “These assholes do their homework.  They know all about founder effects, haplogroups, admixture and how to interpret @23andme results.”

Anyone who works in genetics and does not feel a chill reading those words has not learned their history. Scientific racism is a virus to which the field of genetics is uniquely susceptible. It has parasitized the science since the earliest days, when Charles Davenport, a respected geneticist of the early 20th century, promoted institutionalization, immigration restrictions, and forced sterilization as tools to stop those deemed imperfect in mind or body from passing along their “flawed inheritance.” In fact, flawed inheritance was a big bucket into which Davenport tossed not only non-Mendelian conditions like neuroticism and feeble-mindedness but also even more suspect categories like vagrancy and waywardness (though that was only a problem in women).

Nobody working in clinical genetics sees themselves as heir to this disreputable legacy, which was both morally bankrupt and scientifically incompetent. We have attempted to disown our past, but ironically, the problem may be (literally) in our genes. Genes, inconveniently, do determine some of the differences between groups (along with most of the commonalities).

Genes make some groups taller or shorter, darker or lighter. This holds true for traits with a fairly straightforward relationship to instructions dictated by a limited number of genes. But more complex traits like intelligence, resilience, and fitness emerge from complex interactions between genes, gene regulators, chance, and the environment. In this dynamic system, variants aren’t simply good or bad. The same variant may tip one individual toward brilliance and another toward self destruction. The same variant that may keep a person alive in a time of scarcity may make him or her susceptible to diabetes when food is abundant. A good genes–bad genes scorecard suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how genes work.

Those in search of tribal bragging rights should know that self-identified race and ethnicity are mediocre proxies for what’s in your genes. Many white supremacists have learned this to their chagrin when attempting to use ancestry testing to demonstrate their racial purity. In fact, so many proud racists have discovered non-white ancestors in their lineage that disappointed test takers have suggested the results represent a Jewish conspiracy to promote multiculturalism.

Nope. Genetics is complicated. And yet, people in search of a simple narrative to fit a narrow-minded agenda will likely find one. We geneticists may tend to underestimate this, believing that greater understanding of the science will lead people to a more nuanced, worldly, and respectful view of persons. The truth will liberate us. After all, genes do not respect borders and a map of gene flow is not a static picture of countries and continents, but a fluid array, like colored sands shifting under glass. Diversity within gene pools is a sign of health, while homogeneity leads to weakness.

But sadly our facts and figures remain at risk of selective misuse by the mouthpieces of evil, because Kool-Aid cocktails go down better when garnished with the truth.  So how can genetics as a field combat the abuse of genetics as a science?

Not by avoiding the topic. Genetics needs more and not less diversity in who and what we study.  Avoiding areas of study because we might not like the results is unscientific and shortsighted and simply leaves the field clear for those with an agenda, who are most likely to produce work that reinforces stereotypes and prejudices.

In all our work, it behooves us to be careful about how genetics is presented and explained. For example, results from ancestry tests are routinely presented in ways that reinforce the false notion that we share DNA with some groups and individuals but not others. You may be 40 percent Irish, but it doesn’t mean you are 40 percent identical with some mythical Irishman and share no DNA with Jews or Japanese or Finns. You share 99.9 percent of your DNA with everyone on earth. You share 50 percent of your DNA with a banana.

Ancestry and relationship testing don’t assess DNA globally. They measure how often individuals match at certain spots within the genome that tend to vary between individuals in ways that are characteristic of lineage. These variable spots are the exception and not the rule.

It’s also important to avoid language that suggests genetic determinism, or the idea that we are simply the product of our genes. Our most important traits, who we are, arise from a combination of many, many genes as well as environment and happenstance, and evolves over a period of time, in a developmental process that is unique and random and not predetermined. Skin color, on the other hand, is an example of something under straightforward genetic control. If that is what you think is your most important trait, congratulations and, I might add, you may also be an idiot (but probably not in a way that traces to any particular gene).