This week, my UofA colleague Lesley Harrington comments on the joint 23andme and Fox “root for your roots campaign”. On the surface, the idea sounds like good fun. Take a DNA test and find out which World Cup team you should be rooting for. In fact, as Lesley points out, the idea is deeply problematic.

In a similar vein, I have been stunned recently by the television ads for In one especially egregious example (AncestryDNA brings neighbours together) two neighbours who seemingly have never interacted before, build a relationship on the realization that they share some “Irish DNA” (whatever that might be). The very clear implication is that without shared ancestry, they would have little reason to be friends.

In his critique of the roots campaign (which applies equally to the ancestry campaign), Arthur Caplan rightly says that it is built on “bogus science about the genetics of how we define nations and ethnic groups”, and that it “reinforces racial and ethnic stereotypes about human behaviour and nationhood that are rooted in history, culture, economics, colonialism and prejudice, not ancestry or biology”.

In a companion piece, George Quraishi counters that the campaign is not likely to “inflame racial animosity”. He’s right about that, but he misses the point. While I wouldn’t call the campaigns racist, they do rely on, and strongly reinforce publicly held ideas that are foundational to racism, and that are absolutely not supported by science.

It used to be normal science that humans can be divided into types according to biological markers, that biology drives culture, and that some biological make-ups (and therefore cultures) are superior to others. That was more than a century ago. It led (and continues to lead) to millions and millions of deaths and untold suffering.

By the 1920s, the classical concept of biological race, based on morphological markers such as skull shape and skin colour, had become scientifically indefensible. By the 1940s, it had become politically impossible to support. But despite all the social change brought about by the subsequent civil rights movement and its cousins, the classical concept of race has certainly not disappeared. It has spawned two very closely related descendants, hardly distinguishable from the original, that are very much with us, and that have a significant influence on public attitudes and policy making.

In one case, morphological traits have been replaced by a strangely rigid concept of culture. The assumption is that, just as people in the old model were prisoners of their inherited physical morphology and the limitations it imposed on them, they are now prisoners of their inherited culture, which equally imposes limits on them. You hear about this on cable news panels when people talk about “ghetto culture”, for example.

The other, much more pernicious and dangerous survival of the classical race concept, has replaced morphological traits with genetic traits as a basis for classification. This is the model on which the roots campaign and the ancestry ads rely to colonize the public mind.

It is pernicious because, since it (mis)uses genetic data, it has the aura of scientific validity. It is dangerous because it posits that people’s behaviour, culture, potential, and now even their international football allegiances and neighbourly relations, are controlled and limited by the genetic material they carry. It is also worth pointing out that despite its recent history of death and destruction, it is presented as friendly and innocuous.

Nevermind that we have only the most rudimentary understanding of how genetic traits express themselves in varying environments, or of how they interact with each other to create behavioural propensities, or even of the full genetic diversity of humans.

The unconsciously held reasoning goes that these genetic traits, whether we understand their meaning or not, are scientific realities. Therefore, the divisions of humanity we create on their basis must be meaningful, and must inform our daily activities and our collective policies, our individual interests and our friendships.

I am constantly amazed at how resilient the classical concept of race has proven. It is a relatively new concept, which evolved some time between the 17th and the 19th century. Because of historical accidents, it quickly spread to organize and underpin much of the geopolitical and social reality of our entire world. It has withstood scientific and political attack, and has barely mutated to keep its hold on much of our social reality.

These types of ads and campaigns don’t help. They rely on misconceptions held by their audiences, they perpetuate, reinforce, and legitimize them. They don’t directly preach racism or increase it, but they help sustain the conditions under which it can emerge and flourish.

2 thoughts on “Race, racism, and the genetic testing industry’s publicity campaigns

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