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How Racists Misuse Genetics (and What Scientists Can Do About it)

by Ana Driscoll

Three thousand. This is the number of hateful and anti-Semitic incidents in the United States between January 2017 and August 2018, with many more occurring even in the past few months. Racism and white supremacy have occupied an increasingly prominent space in our public discourse, with terrifying consequences. Those who espouse these harmful beliefs have often twisted science, particularly genetics, to justify their arguments. From eugenics in the early 20th century to so-called “race science” today, science has been misunderstood and misused in support of hatred – and scientists must step out of their ivory towers and fight back.  

Eugenics is inextricably linked to the scientific establishment in the United States. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), a research institution established to promote “race betterment,” was founded in 1911 using money from the Carnegie Institution. It spent years collecting and studying family pedigrees, eventually concluding that the genetically “unfit” lived in poverty and had low social status. The ERO would later become the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory – one of the most prominent sites for scientific research in the world today. The ERO’s ideas were not an anomaly. In fact, in 1926, over 20,000 students were enrolled in eugenics courses at 376 universities. Eugenics research was a mainstream and accepted component of American science.

The acceptance of eugenics by the scientific community emboldened both politicians and the general public, leading to horrific consequences. Over 60,000 sterilizations were performed by various state governments between 1909 and the 1960s. In North Carolina, having an IQ below 70 was legal grounds for sterilization well into the 20th century. In an eerie parallel to our modern political environment, the biologist who established the Eugenics Record Office favored immigration restrictions as a primary method of eugenics implementation. He was far from the only eugenicist who though this way: the Immigration Restriction League was founded in 1894 and supported banning non-Nordic immigrants from entering the United States in order to “protect” the upper-class American gene pool. They lobbied for literacy tests for immigrants on the basis that literacy rates were low in “inferior” races, leading to the implementation of that policy by the federal government in 1917. Prominent members included the presidents of Harvard, Bowdoin and Stanford.  

While American scientists are no longer using their work to actively promote racist ideology, white supremacists still turn to modern genetics to justify their own arguments. As detailed genetic testing becomes more accessible, they can be seen posting ancestry results from companies such as 23andMe on sites like Reddit and 4Chan to “prove” their racial purity. They cite peer-reviewed scientific literature in order to justify “race science,” which argues that disparities between races in categories such as education are the result of the “genetic superiority” of white people. In a particularly ridiculous use of scientific literature, a group of white supremacists posted videos of themselves chugging milk – the gene responsible for lactose digestion is more common in European populations than in other groups, which the milk drinkers apparently believed was proof of the evolutionary superiority of Europeans.

Scientific evidence does not support a solely genetic explanation for variations between populations. Graham Coop, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California-Davis, explains that even if a trait is strongly heritable in one population, variations in that trait between populations may be caused by environmental differences. For example, we know that height is largely dictated by genetics under normal circumstances. Within a group of white Americans of similar socioeconomic status, height differences between individuals would be almost entirely genetic. However, the difference between the average height of a white American and the average height of a North Korean cannot be attributed to heritability. Environmental factors such as nutrition play a much larger role. Therefore, even when geneticists conclude that a trait has a largely genetic basis within a given population, it is scientifically inaccurate to say that differences between groups are also due to genetics. This is where the white supremacist reading of scientific literature goes wrong.   

There are even “informal journal clubs” on white supremacist forums dedicated to analyzing population genetics studies. They post figures from papers with misleading explanations, giving a veneer of scientific respectability to abhorrent ideology. For instance, a plot dividing populations into groups in order to elucidate their ancestral origins was taken without axis labels or its original caption, labeled “The genetic reality of race,” and disseminated on Twitter as proof that race can be defined by discrete, non-overlapping genetic categories (and that some of those categories are somehow better than others). University of Michigan Bioinformatics graduate student Jedidiah Carlson explains that this interpretation ignores the “continuum” between individuals – that is, no neat genetic boundaries can actually be drawn between ethnic groups. Additionally, while ancestry and race are often correlated, they are not actually the same concept.  

While race plays a very real role in our everyday lives, some consider it to be a social construct without an accurate scientific definition. In the United States, only a single ancestor of African ancestry, no matter how distant, was once enough to be legally classified as black. In Central and South America, Spaniards developed complex racial classification schemes based on not only one’s percentage of African, Native and white ancestry, but also whether that ancestry came from your mother or father’s side. This is to say that race is not inherently biological, but instead is often defined by the cultural norms of the society in which we live. Scientists affiliated with the American Society for Human Genetics explain that “most human genetic variation is distributed as a gradient, so distinct boundaries between population groups cannot be accurately assigned. There is considerable genetic overlap among members of different populations.”

More and more scientists have been speaking out about this issue. However, many are tempted to sequester themselves in the ivory tower, becoming removed from the real-life consequences of their work in the name of “focusing on their research.” In a recent New York Times article about this issue, the author explains that “many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic,” with others suggesting that this is the job of journalists. Such an attitude represents an abdication of scientists’ responsibility to the general public. Whether it is due to the fear of being misrepresented, the fear of legitimizing white supremacy or the difficulty of conveying nuance and caveats to a general public that does not want to hear much of either, some geneticists are reluctant to involve themselves in this debate. As the foremost experts in their field, however, their voices hold much more weight than those of politicians or journalists without scientific training. These toxic ideas cannot stand unchallenged, and scientists are the most appropriate people to do so.

The statement put forth this November by the American Society for Human Genetics, a professional organization for human geneticists, is a promising start. In it, the organization “denounces the misuse of genetics to feed racist ideology” and explains that “genetics exposes the concept of ‘racial purity’ as scientifically meaningless.” These unequivocal rejections of racism are necessary and important. Such statements would be even more useful coming from individual geneticists, especially the authors of papers often cited by white supremacists. For instance, the lead author of a study looking at genes associated with high educational attainment among Europeans posted a question-and-answer sheet intended for nonscientists on Twitter in anticipation of his work’s misuse. In this way, direct engagement with the public on the appropriate interpretations of genetic research can not only serve to counter the misapplication of science, but also prevent its occurrence in the first place.

It is clear that American science has a racist legacy. We must learn from our uncomfortably recent endorsement of eugenics and atone for our mistakes by condemning white supremacy and preventing the misuse of genetic research for unethical ends. Due to public trust in their credentials, scientists are in a unique position to influence discourse on these issues. The safety and wellbeing of minority groups in the United States depends on it.