Resources: DNA Basics

Website Resources on the History of Race Science and Eugenics:

Eugenics Archives is an interactive website formed from a collaboration of scholars, survivors, students, and community partners in challenging eugenics.

Dismantling Eugenics (Sept-Oct 2021):

“Dismantling Eugenics: Legacies/Reckonings/Futures is a virtual gathering that will bring together activists, artists, critical thinkers, cultural workers, organizers, and scholars to envision a future free from the insidious founding principles of the eugenics movement, which posited through pseudo-science that some human beings – largely white, able-bodied, heterosexual men – were “fit” while others were “unfit” that still plague modern society in the forms of ableism, classism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, xenophobia and other forms of social tyranny today.”

A virtual convening with some resources freely available on-line:

20 years after the human genome was first sequenced, dangerous gene myths abound Philip Ball The Guardian, 9th June 2021

Sequencing the human genome was hailed by many as decoding humanity’s “instruction manual”, with genes supposedly carrying all the information needed to determine particular traits, and mediate health and disease. Instead, some 20 years later, genetics has since turned this deterministic view of genetics on its head.

As dissected by Phillip Ball in The Guardian article, this deterministic “instruction book” image is precisely the fallacy that genomics has overturned, as our understanding of genetics grows. Yet such false claims are yet to be addressed by genomic researchers.

The human genome project has consistently promoted and sustained a misleading view of genes.

Failure to address the falsehoods of genetic determinism is laying the ground for the latest era of consumer tests that claim to reveal where we come from and what makes us, us.

It is also facilitating the latest resurgence in racist and eugenics politics.

Most traits have a genetic component that is immensely complicated, with perhaps hundreds of genes involved, as well as other environmental, and simply random factors.

While there have been some successes in genetic medicine, it has not transformed the field; successes in gene therapy are rare, and personalised medicine tailored to individual genetics has not materialised.

Watch the discussion at RightsCon Online (July 2020) about the rising collection of our DNA, increasingly becoming a key data source for police as well as private companies. The convergence of private data interests, the political climate in nations such as the US and Brazil, and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic are further fuelling the rise in data collection, raising concerns for abuses of power in the context of a lack of proper regulations across the world.

The conversation, joined by GeneWatch’s Executive Director Helen Wallace, covers some of the historical origins of genetic research, the overblown scientific claims made by private DNA companies, the necessary safeguards required to prevent miscarriages of justice, and recent international legal precedents limiting unfettered collection of innocent people’s DNA.

A review on the issues of genetic discrimination by Otlowski et al. (2012): Genetic Discrimination: International Perspectives

When Politically Inclusive Genomic Science Relies on Biological Notions of Race, Dr Duana Fullwiley, Isis, 2014, 105:803–814

A 2014 publication by Dr Duana Fullwiley details new notions of racial thinking in genetics studies that have concerning implications for their contribution to the recreation of race science, which can be seen emerging in different spheres of society from law enforcement to health sciences. 

The article summarises how many current geneticists are still promoting old notions of race that is being used to promote racist concepts and policy, while simultaneously mixing this with alternative modern race projects of a “liberal persuasion” used for “liberalizing, educational, genealogical, and antiracism efforts”. 

While genetics today has largely moved from openly categorising people’s genetics on outdated biological concepts of race, Fullwiley argues that the current genetics field still promotes old racial concepts. Moreover, the latest iteration of genetics and ‘ancestry’, especially by commercial ancestry testing companies, is being utilised by those claiming anti-racist agendas, as well as by those promoting racist agendas in line with older concepts of race science.  

Genetic studies of ‘ancestry’ have become popular in recent years, but as Fullwiley explains, the underlying rationale for their scientific validity rests on a limited and imagined framing of history. In order to make genetic estimates of people’s ancestry, the science relies on comparing data from two historical time points – modern day, and the time point that preceded European colonialism, based on a Eurocentric version of history that imagines that mixing between populations was largely absent until European expansionism. As such, genetic data from ‘old world’ is used as a historical reference of a hypothetical time point where populations were static, reinforcing the old concept of ‘pure types’ located in continental land masses. Nonetheless, such work is often sold as anti-racist, or inclusive, bringing much needed data on racialised communities as a means to address health disparities for example, a concept much promoted from a liberal standpoint. 

An added layer to this issue is that ancestry tests, while often sold as a means for undoing racism or offer an insight into people’s ancestral lineages that were broken by slavery, are actually being deployed to further forensics and law enforcement activities. Examples are given of genetics scholars who took and analysed their students’ DNA, but was later used to further development of DNA profiling techniques to generate police snapshot images, assessing genes linked to hair colour, skin colour, or facial features, for example. The particular scholar, while working on forensics applications, nonetheless promotes the DNA profiling of his students as promoting anti-racism, showing students to be ‘genetically admixed’, and suggesting that highlighting people’s diversity and genetic ‘admixture’ will decrease racism, despite reinforcing ideas of genetics and race. 

Fullwiley’s article is an insightful warning against this new complex era of race and genetics, where “policy makers and scientists who could be classed as political liberals and conservatives come together and join forces to advocate for the inclusion of race as a variable in genetic studies”. She calls for careful analysis of this renewed acceptance of biological ideas of race that are often deployed for both anti-racist and racist efforts.