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Genetic testing and the return of race science

Recent years have seen a boom in the genetic testing industry. Now, for relatively little money you can have your DNA analysed to see where your ancestors came from. But what does this industry say about how we view race and genetics, and is this merely a return of discredited and politically reactionary race science?

Eleanor Penny 7 August 2020

Genetic testing and the return of race science

‘I presume, Doctor, that you could tell the skull of a negro from that of an Esquimau?’ 
‘Most certainly.’ 
‘But how?’ 
‘Because that is my special hobby.’
- The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps it started in 2000, when a scientist on the human genome project produced a rough but complete draft of our genetic map; the story of what makes our peculiar species peculiarly us. Of the three billion base pairs of genes that make up each individual living human, roughly 99.9% are identical to those of every other individual living human. We are all utterly unique, and we are all mostly the same. Scientists, storytellers and snake oil salesmen have all seized with urgency on the possibilities – commercial, academic, existential and otherwise – posed by our ability to unfurl the secrets of that vanishing 0.1%. By 2000, forensic genomic testing was already commonplace, although without the ubiquity our TV screens might imply, where genetic paternity testing was the well-trodden fodder of family courts and daytime TV. But commercial sequencing remained quite another thing. 

The cost of sequencing your entire genome is still prohibitive enough to keep it beyond the reach of most people – for now. But more and more companies are offering the opportunity to take a peek into a tiny fragment of that tiny fragment for under a hundred dollars, with the price falling all the time. Sometimes the purpose is explicitly medical. Certain companies can tell you whether you can expect to inherit a degenerative disease, or an increased risk of certain cancers. Some companies offer genetically tailored diet plans to unlock the code to that dream summer body your cells have been hiding from you all this time. The most popular product however, and the one marketed with the most flair, are the so-called ‘ancestry tests’ that offer you a chance to peer into the cultural, ethnic and geographic histories stitched into the base codes of the animal that you are. And in our droves, we have flocked to these companies for the chance to find out. Last year, MIT Technology Review found that over 26 million people had taken an at-home genetic ancestry tests, and the rates of growth are mind-bending enough to make any start-up dreamer salivate into his turtleneck. MIT wrote that: “If the pace continues, the gene troves could hold data on the genetic makeup of more than 100 million people [by 2020]”. Companies like 23andMe, early to the jump in 2006, have graduated to Silicon Valley royalty. 

It usually goes as follows. You order a testing kit online. This provides you with, among other things, a little test tube into which you unload globules of your spit. You seal it up, send it off in the post, and presently receive a breakdown of your ancestral makeup. Maybe you’re 13% Ashkenazi Jewish, or 48% Iberian or 31% Sub-Saharan African, or 8% Russian, or some combination of all of them. Maybe you’re 98% Korean. The categories vary. The borders of history shift from test to test. So do the results. 

In 2013, White Supremacist Craig Cobb was trying to set up an ethnic haven for his fellow whites in the distant reaches of North Dakota, away from the sinister machinations of a multi-ethnic state. He was invited on Trisha Goddard’s daytime talk show to have his DNA tested. The results, announced live on air as the studio audience crowed in triumph, showed that he had 14% Sub-Saharan African American ancestry. Taken on trust, these tests show Cobb to be nearly five times more African than Elizabeth Warren claims to be Indigenous, - but he didn’t share her enthusiasm for diversity-mining. “This is just statistical noise,” he said, waving off the results. 

Three years later, travel company Monmodo released an advert in which a motley gang of people from all across the world were invited on a ‘DNA Journey’. Before the results, each offers a range of flattened gestures towards some distant bigotry; a white man who proclaimed himself ‘proudly English’ and a woman who described herself as ‘proudly black’ are set on a level, a Kurdish woman says she dislikes the Turkish government (which has attempted serial genocide on the Kurds), an Icelandic man dislikes the French because they are a bit stuck-up. Inevitably, the Kurdish woman throws up Turkish ancestry, the English man has ancestors amongst the hated Germans, the Cuban amongst Eastern European, the Bengali amongst the Brits. “This should be compulsory,” says one participant “There would be no such thing as extremism if people knew their heritage like that. Who would be stupid enough to think of such a thing as a pure race?.” At the end, you are invited to buy your own kit from AncestryDNA, and book a holiday to get in touch with your roots.

Humans have always travelled extraordinary distances and mingled with extraordinary ease. But, colonialism, globalisation, the relentless churn of economic overhaul, the global dislocation of workplaces and ease of travel has meant that families have become increasingly scattered, kinship groups turfed out or uprooted. Violent histories have erased, burned or buried links to the past. Is it any wonder that we queue in our millions before the fold out stalls of salesmen who promise an answer to the questions of ourselves? Where do we belong? Yet innocence of the question doesn’t excuse the faults in the answering languages. 

While the label of ‘genetic’ may gloss these techniques with the patina of marble-hard scientific fact, the methodology behind them is often dubious at best. Moreover, the partisans of hard scientific fact often forget that science, like any other human knowledge, bears with it our own foibles and biases baked into its methodologies, its frameworks, its hypotheses, the questions it sets out to answer. And for many hundreds of years, racism has been written into the base code of our life sciences, and replicates itself endlessly.  
As Ruha Benjamin has written, although technology offers us the promise of redemption from biases by removing the messy intrusions of human thought, those biases are often hard-wired into the design. The serve to prop up, accidentally or otherwise, systems of structural racism, now consecrated in the infallible minds of machines. 

Amongst its honest fans you can find a lot of loyalty to an enlightened vision of a multi-ethnic world of mongrels, where geneticists have the gotcha retort to purity-paranoid etho-nationalists bent on exclusion. But the questions raised are, ultimately, about race, ethnicity and national belonging - and genetic testing is answering them with biology. Its starting point and selling point rests on and reinforces the dangerous notion that race is a biological reality, that there is something biological and immutable about the difference between Sub-Saharan Africans and Northern Europeans, or indeed between Ghanaians and Nigerians. This claim, that there is such a thing as an identifiable ‘German’ or ‘Kurdish’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ genetic data set, might have intuitive force, but only because we’ve been marinating for centuries in the scientific racism churned out by top academies and seized on by slave-drivers and colonial clearers as the founding mythology of a deadly global mission. “The power hierarchy had white people of European descent sitting at the top”, writes Angela Saini, author of Superior. “They built their scientific story of the human species around this belief.”

The basic principle of genetic testing is to find percentage matches between a slice of DNA in the test subject and the same slice in sample populations of people who self-report their ethnic background. Yet, different companies look for variance in different sections of our genetic code. Some look exclusively at maternal mitochondrial DNA, some look at Y chromosomes, some look at other, non-coding single nucleotide polymorphisms. Crudely, if your results say you’re 14% Venezuelan, that means that the section of your DNA that the testing company examines is 14% similar to that same section in a sample population of self-reported Venezuelans, which can vary in number from the dozens to the thousands. Professor Sophia Roosth, Harvard academic and specialist in the history of science, tells me that the efforts to verify the apparent Venezualan-ness of test populations will vary hugely from company to company. Some don’t verify – which, if we’re as blind and partial about our histories as the sales pitch would have it, seems like a dubious way of establishing a reliable data set. Some bolster their findings with conventional genealogy, scouring back through birth certificates and marriage licenses. Some back them up with papers and scientific journals, although given that many of their methodologies also rely on self-reporting, Roosth says that “that just kicks the can down the road”. 

Genetic variance is such that any group of otherwise unconnected strangers will share some DNA material. Round up an auditorium of random people, and ask them to raise their hands if they play the piano. Test those people, and you’ll find some statistically significant similarity in their DNA. Test some flute-players or hockey-players against that model, and you might find that they are 24% piano-playing. Yet, as Roosth explains, “there is no gene for piano playing” even if searching for one is no less absurd than a gene for Englishness. The problem is that“we are used to thinking of race as biological”. Not only that, the adaptive grammars of racial difference across countries offer wildly different explanations of the same genetic data. Where in countries like America the sickle cell gene may seem like a code for Blackness, across much of the world in general it is linked not to ‘race’ as a scientific fact, but to the much more practical concern of historic exposure to Malaria-carrying insects. Our colonial intuitions are marketed back to us as the stuff of blood and bone. 

Heredity is a messy business – much messier than the clinical language of race would have us think. So much of what our ancient forebears passed down to us is so diluted, mingled and spliced that tracing a direct link to the genetic ethnicity of any one ancestor dwindles the further back in time we are attempting to peer. Take for instance maternal mitochondrial DNA, which travels along what we must crudely call the maternal line. Bifurcating at each generation, it contains traces of your mother, and indeed your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother - but not your ancestors as a collective whole. Thus, your biological sibling with a different configuration of sex chromosomes would have completely different results. And within 8 generations, just 1/256th of your biological parentage clings on in the examined material. Indeed, Roosth calls this process of dwindling applicability “flimsy on two levels”: vanishing percentages of ancient DNA linked to the genetic profile of contemporary sample populations. The test seems to make a claim about your genetic heritage as a whole, from the distant past - but in reality, examines an exponentially vanishingly small amount of your heritage, and compares it to test samples of modern populations. Built into this process are some uncomfortable assumptions about which parts of our histories might be meaningful; you might be more connected to your father’s mother, be able to speak her language and cook her food - you might not identify with the gender people assume - . But “from a genetic testing perspective, it doesn’t matter.” 

Then we come to the problem of nations. The constant shuffle and flux of national borders poses a problem for those who want to tell stories about where we’ve come from in the language of where we’ve arrived. What of, for instance, Czech Republic or Pakistan both of which came into being within living memory? Once, there was presumably a gene for the Soviet Union, or the Ottoman Empire. One of these testing companies, 23andMe, has copped to the problem. Their explanation for this historical inaccuracy is that they want to offer people categories which are meaningful to them. Roosth calls this “disingenuous” - that these companies know that people will understand their results in a way which reinforces dangerous ideas that race and nationhood are rooted in biology.

These companies are successful because they are very good at what they do. What they do is tell a compelling emotional story distantly anchored in facets of our genetic code. What they do not do is tell a robust, replicable and reliable history of the places in the world our ancestors happened to come from. And to do their job, to tell a legible story, genomic ethnic ancestry tests must take as axiomatic trans-historical categories of ethnicity and nationhood, filtering raw biological data through those assumed frameworks, so that those frameworks take on the appearance of biological robustness. To cash in on the idea that there is any socio-biologically robust category of nations and ethnicities through time is to re-bottle the old wines of ethno-nationalism and racial purity on which our political classes are raging drunk. 


In 2018, then-POTUS hopeful Elizabeth Warren turned to genomic testing in an effort to put to bed a longstanding controversy over her own heritage. The test apparently confirmed that she was, as she had long claimed, part Native American - specifically, 1/32nd Cherokee. That 3% was touted as conclusive proof – enough to justify ticking the ‘Indigenous’ box on college application forms and campaign rallies. On a detached, brute comparison of percentages, that 3% could be used to claim one entirely indigenous great-great-great grandparent. But, not so fast. First out of the gate, that isn’t how tribal membership is actually established in the vast majority of cases. ‘Blood quantum’ guidelines which demand a certain percentage of tribal ancestry are usually established with reference either to genealogical methods (archival, genetic or otherwise) which prove a relationship to a real, actual person on the tribal registers. Tribal membership criteria vary widely and change often, guidelights to establish links of descendence, history, culture, kinship against the historic backdrop of colonial genocide. Rarely are they blunt biological claims to be settled with dodgy science.

Indeed, the Senator’s native Oklahoma has a long and ugly history of people falsifying native ancestry in order to stake a claim to the land the federal government reluctantly demarcated for tribal use. Kim Tallbear, author of Native American DNA explained to me that ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Native American’ are not at heart the racial categories the skull-fondling predilections of race scientists made them out to be. Instead they are a collective term for hundreds of different kinship groups and nations, each with distinct languages and cultures, specific relationships to their land, their differences trampled flat by processes of colonial violence. Clumsy markers of ‘genetic ethnicity’ fail to stitch back those sundered lines of belonging. Indeed, the very process of studying Indigenous genetic material is ballasted to the heart of this process; Tallbear relates that scientists have long justified their particular fascination with harvesting the blood and marrow of native people for study on the grounds that ‘they are disappearing’, as though it were the natural decline of a weak and ill-adapted species. Thus is woven a convenient biological story of Indigenous ‘disappearance’, which strips the old mechanics of racialisation for parts and jimmy-rigs them back into a fresh machine. A determined project of extermination reaches its conclusion, glossed as a natural process of ecological diminishment. 

Why then do white people get so excited about Native American ancestry?  Perhaps it is, as Tallbear claims, a way to soothe the troubled conscience of facing up to their role in a project of colonial clearance. “It’s a really individualistic way of looking at race and complicity,” Tallbear told me, “versus looking at who benefits from the structure and who does not.” The tests may tell us a lot about ourselves and our histories - just not in the way we might like. 

In some ways then, the promises of genomic testing services to ‘reconnect people with their heritage’ offer a sideways redemption to white academia, and to the process of white knowledge-making itself. That what they helped create can be cast off, what helped erase can be recovered, that those histories were never really destroyed. An analgesic for the seizing nerves of scientific and political institutions in uncertain reconciliation with their past. 


Perhaps it should not surprise us that attempts at carving up humanity into ‘natural kinds’ end up re-inventing reasons for already-existing power differentials. Such is the apparatus of racial science; a (state-backed) attempt to ‘discover’ the differences convenient to certain systems of economic and social dispossession. In the 18th and 19th century, industrial efforts of colonial academia poured resources and man-hours into developing theories to explain an assumed biological difference between racial groups, in an attempt to structure and understand the natural superiority of the white European man over the rest of the world. And hence, his natural dominion over his fellow inhabitants - or variously, his burdensome duty to haul poor unfortunate races out of their self-made savagery. The 1854 influential race science tome ‘Types of Mankind’ posited that on a creational ranking, the ‘Negro’ ranked above the chimpanzee, but many rungs below the ‘Greek’. If ever called to justify themselves, projects of racism and colonial dispossession reached for taxonomies of race. 

From this intellectual ballast, the guiding lights of enlightenment thought wove into their theories of freedom and democratic self-governance an uncompromising picture of who amongst the human race was civilised and rational enough to shoulder such grave responsibilities. Locke remained firm that “no Slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his Master has over him.” Kant wrote that “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race”. Emmanuel Eze explains that for Kant, skin colour was not simply a physical difference, but “evidence of an unchanging and unchangeable moral quality.”

After the mechanised of horrors of Nazi racial science were revealed to the world in 1945, racial science and eugenics have been discredited, and international bodies issued diktats censuring talk of scientific racism. But, as in her recent book Superior, Angela Saini has charted how it clung on in everyday life, in politics, and in academia.  The foundations of our politics and economy are bound up with the attempt to forge those scientific differences, an embarrassed attempt at wiping the slate clean was never going to be so simple, declaring ourselves exempt was never going to suffice. ‘Population’ ascended as a euphemism for race, and although the epistemic categories of race shifted and open eugenics somewhat fell from grace, their twin spectres never really left us, stalking our hooded thinly in the various flimsy disguises. In doing so, we distanced ourselves from the long effects of eugenics by bringing in genetic ethnicity as an object of study and as robust scientific fact. Charged to the supposedly safe hands of liberal dispassionate scientists, race was still reinforced as a biological category by the continual dredging for genetic similarity within racialised groups, and seeking purely biological roots for the sociological conditions of race-making. In the words of Angela Saini, “race is real, if you want it to be.”
Part of this race science heritage is exposed by Troy Duster in ‘Backdoor to Eugenics.’ There he shows how ‘criminality’, used euphemistically as a marker of race, has been mined for genetic content by some bright-eyed scientists keen to discover whether some populations are naturally more predisposed to petty theft and street violence. These scientists are heirs to an uncomfortable estate. Scientific quests for the criminal type emerged alongside and intertwined with racial science, where caste and class and criminality were layered over each other as categories of biological deficiency - demanding the strong arm of the law. Duster invites us to wonder why the white-collar criminal - more likely to be upper-class, male, and just as caucasian as the name suggests - doesn’t often suffer the stern fascinations of a phrenologist running fingers over his brow bone in search of a root criminal type.  

Such elliptical studies of race are flexible and adaptable as all good political tools must be. Neanderthal skulls were once compared inquisitively with those of Aboriginal Australians; both considered further down the evolutionary ladder, both considered doomed to extinction as they fail to adapt to the advances of more sophisticated hominids. More recently, genetic tests revealed that interbreeding between ancient human species left traces - and those traces tend to be more pronounced in people of broadly European descent than those of Aboriginal Australians and North Africans. (I should say here that testing for species difference is meaningful in the way that testing for racial difference is not). Ringing in the changes, we have seen a slew of articles about how Neanderthals were not the maladapted brutes they were once rumoured to be - but sensitive, intelligent, artistic, no longer bone-headed authors of their own extinction. Where data was needed to ballast our flimsy preconceptions about race, data was found. 


Equal among the fans of genomic testing are the new armies of the far right. Reams of message boards and online communities have emerged devoted to seeking and dissecting proof of pure ayran ancestry. We live in the long shadow of the one drop rule, and its totalising cultural paranoia about miscegenation. Sometimes they’ll fish up a stinker of a revelation - but like Craig Cobb and his African DNA, they will often be encouraged to dismiss this as so much statistical nonsense and go in search of another company which will likely produce a wildly different set of results. Race is real for them, because they want it to be. 

Race science – or as its cheerleaders sometimes term it, ‘race realism’ – is on the rise across the world, waxing popular as political settlements once again seek confirmation that their politics of domination is merely the culmination of nature’s destiny. Not confined to the swivelled-eyed fringes, even Boris Johnson has dabbled in ‘race realism’ himself, here painted as the take-no-prisoners common sense of a politician who won’t cow to the warped priorities of metropolitan liberals. It has done him no damage.  

The potentials of DNA testing, harnessed by the crudely ethnonationalist overtures of a deportation-happy state, lend a newly clinical edge to the accusing question: ‘where are you really from?’. Sophia Roost does not shy away from diagnosing the dystopian. “In many ways, the worst case scenario is already happening”, she says, where random genomic sampling is used as a data capturing and surveillance mechanism that reinforces structurally racist patterns of policing and punishment. 23andMe offered testing kits to reunite families at the US-Mexico Border. By the same token, the Trump administration is aiming to collect DNA from the hundreds of thousands of people who pass into the hands immigration custody - and use that to trace and deport undocumented relatives. As a tool of examining race, it presents a host of problems, closed circles and methodological cul-de-sacs. As a tool of race-making, its uses proliferate.

Yet, some partisans of such testing practises argue from an anti-racist perspective that such tests can ‘start a conversation’ about heredity that will, by virtue of our baseline genetic similarity, always bend towards the light of liberation. Admirably optimistic though it may be, I can’t shake the suspicion that, for those frothing with paranoia about the perils of miscegenation, genetic proof that our society is indeed rife with inter-racial breeding isn’t exactly the gotcha we might like it to be. That those clinging white-knuckled to concepts of racial purity won’t be persuaded to set them down with simple proof that the world is, as they suspected, riven with admixture and filth. It may even be a reason for yet more vigilance. The central structure of belief, that racial difference has a biological component, is left largely untouched.


I have to confess myself skeptical about the parasitic intentions of multi-million dollar companies cashing in on false promises of historical certainty, the cynicism of those for whom legacies of grief and loss are a delicious business opportunity. They offer beguilingly simple answers to the urgent, intimate questions of ethnicity, nationhood and belonging. Tech-utopians will commonly have it that technology has no inherent social value, it is how you use it that matters. That a hammer can be used to build a house or cave in a skull; in either case it remains a hammer, blank and valueless. Whether you like it or not, these hammers are here now. So, the question is left to us of whether we can find a way to build houses, or if these tools are so irretrievably compromised by their histories that they’re only ever going to be used as skull-shatterers. 

We can imagine a situation where the genomic tests for Jewishness are extended to Arab Jews and Palestinians as a retort to the segregationist overtures of ethno-nationalist Netenyahuites. But then, what of the migrants and minority groups whose tests are less likely to read ‘semitic’, but who have no less need of state protections, who cannot claim a stake in a compromised definition of belonging? Political contestation over the notion of home will not be settled by a genetic get-out clause. The parameters of exclusion shift, but there is no clear end in sight.

Conversely, there’s a compelling case that these tests could figure into a broader public reckoning with rotted histories of genocide, slavery and displacement whose descendents live and breathe with its living, breathing consequences. A fractured attempt at repopulating the uncomfortable genealogies excised from the public archive; an axis, perhaps, both of confrontation and of healing. There are also the potential uses of genetic testing in establishing a case for reparations, as writer and academic Alondra Nelson has catalogued. Paired with traditional archive-scrimmaging genealogy, she outlines how it could establish links between living relatives and ancestors whose labour, wealth and lives were confiscated again and again by a system of white supremacy. If in our legal system, debt obligations are handed down with wealth, so the inheritors of dispossession have a claim against the children of wealth. Nelson recounts the story of a woman whose family history held that one of her ancestors was a slave set free by her master. DNA records helped reconstruct a picture that, in fact, she was to flee her captor and tormentor. The benevolent slave liberator fades back into the fog of unremembering, and the garden variety viciousness of the slave-keeper steps forward for a reckoning, and his beneficiaries have no choice but to squirm at the fresh knowledge of their duties towards the present and the past. Histories of programmatic sexual assault on enslaved women are passed down through progeny. The promise of comfortable redemption for white epistemology withers. Nonetheless, this kind of genealogical testing uses direct parental lineage testing; a process which doesn’t stray into the scientifically and ethically dubious territory of begging the questions of race. And indeed, Kim Tallbear worries how those kinds of tests can be leveraged to undermine this kind of restitution in new forms of ’pretendianism’, where those bogusly claiming Native ethnic ancestry lay claim to state funds and institutional support reserves for Indigenous people. The same old pattern of resource theft. 

Questions remain of what other histories are being resuscitated in these attempts to revive the past. If and how decolonial genetics can force a public reckoning with living history without accidentally allying with the ushers of a new race science. How, as race science rises and ethno-nationalists seize the levers of state power across the world, we learn to tell different stories about belonging, about nationhood, about who we are.