Two takes on genetics, race and identity politics

Two SciTech writers give their impression of Adam Rutherford’s December speech to Gensoc and Scisoc

Aisling Greene: Genetics vs. Prejudice


Before the December break, students gathered in the MacNeill lecture theatre for a talk from Dr. Adam Rutherford, the celebrated geneticist, author, and broadcaster. GenSoc (the genetics society)  and SciSoc (the science society) hosted the event, titled “Genes, Race and Identity Politics.”

Dr. Rutherford started out with some history, drawing attention to Charles II of Spain (1661-1700) and his “sub-optimal” genetic disorder.

One of Dr. Rutherford’s most interesting points of discussion was relationship between genetics and the public, noting that more often than not genetics is significantly misinterpreted and misbranded. Dr. Rutherford criticized services such as 23andMe and, examples of direct consumer-targeted genetics, and ways of determining genetic origin and resulting characteristics – he denounced their credibility by showing an example of his own genetic breakdown. Upon confirmation that he is “likely” to have brown eyes, he responded “I personally know I’ve always had brown eyes because of this wonderful technology called mirrors.” Much of his presentation highlighted and mocked the misuse of information and the dissemination of bad science, one example being the article published by the Independent entitled “Gingers face extinction due to climate change, scientists warn.”

However, while his talk received plenty of laughs, he managed to simultaneously turn the audience’s attention to the problematic abuse of population genetics for racially-charged agendas. The most profound example of this would be Galton, the proto-geneticist and eugenicist – otherwise known as “a massive racist.” Galton essentially pioneered the concept of genetics in the public consciousness, and unfortunately in the process, steered it in the direction of genetic purity, or racial superiority. He embraced genetics, but only to further a prejudicial agenda.

In response to this, Dr. Rutherford explained that genetics have proved that actually, we’re all ancestors of the same people. Therefore Galton’s original message of racial superiority does not ring true, but is significantly challenged by the current knowledge of population genetics. “The legacy of Galton is that he invented the field to prove racial superiority – and his ultimate legacy is that it proved exactly the opposite.” Rutherford warned that, when addressing the misuse of genetics by the alt right, “the use of definitions and categorizations and taxonomizations beyond biology is frequently very problematic.” To conclude his talk he ended on a high note, stating that “the true paradigm is that science won, not prejudice.”

Maeve McCann – Are we culturally predisposed to

misunderstand genetics?

Last February in Belfast I was at a lecture by Alice Roberts on “The Celts”. When Roberts was asked a question about a possible “Celtic Gene” she re-directed the question to Adam Rutherford, the geneticist in the room. He informed us all that there is no such thing as a “Celtic Gene”. There was an air of disappointment in the room on hearing this answer. Even the archaeological evidence Roberts was presenting wasn’t much hope for anyone wanting to prove their heritage and claim to be part of the Celtic tribe, simply because the Celts were in many places and were many things, over a long period of time.

But why is it that even with the advent of modern scientific knowledge and technology we still pine for the basics, for a single “Celtic Gene” or simple solutions for great biological complexities?

Adam Rutherford aimed to share some of his insight into the cultural misunderstanding of genetics when he talked to GenSoc and SciSoc last Wednesday. He has carried out research in UCL, has written several popular books on genetics, hosts the BBC4 programme Inside Science, and contributes regularly to the Guardian. What might set him apart from other science journalists is that he doesn’t fear controversial and difficult topics – in fact he seems to delve into them. He informed us that a past time of his was haunting neo-nazi and alt-right online forums correcting users on their genetics, so we don’t have to.

Rutherford opened his talk with the idea that we are culturally predisposed to misunderstand genetics. He claimed that identity politics, like we are seeing in alt-right groups, is the ultimate manifestation of this misunderstanding. To understand how we have reached this cultural misunderstanding of genetics he delved into history. He told us about the Hapsburg family, who ruled a large proportion of Europe for centuries. The emblem of the Spanish Hapsburgs was their protruding lips and chin, ugly by beauty standards, but to them signified their divine powers. They sought to hold onto this power (and the chin) by frequent consanguineous (in-family) marriages. They were aiming to conserve their genetics, without realising it.

Ultimately by trying to preserve the purity of their line they killed it, as severe inbreeding caused the last ruling Hapsburg, Charles II of Spain to be very disabled and unable to provide an heir of his own. The family was so inbred, and the family tree so confused, that it is impossible to even give the generation number between Joanna of Castile and Charles II – we can only approximate it to 6-9 generations.

Going back even further in time, Rutherford showed us an ancient hebrew script, containing text describing how in certain families sons would die after being circumcised. Not only this, but the script also detailed that after the 4th son had died the Rabbi would give special dispensation to allow the next son not to be circumcised. We know today that the disorder killing these boys was Haemophilia, a disease caused by mutation in a gene on the X chromosome. Despite this being a recent discovery, it seems that many centuries ago people had already approximated the notion of direct inheritance in families.

Bringing us closer to modern day discovery, Rutherford retraced the work of Gregor Mendel, also known as the father of genetics, in the 1800s with 29,000 pea plants. Mendel described laws of genetic inheritance which are still taught in schools today. However much to the dismay of the audience he reminded us that alongside Mendel’s work, some misleading examples of genetic inheritance are still taught today. Many of you may remember being taught that blue eyes and brown eyes are coded for by a specific gene. In fact research has shown that around 15 genes are involved in eye colour and any parents eye combinations can produce any combinations in their children. Worse still, Alfred Sturtevant disproved the myth about tongue-rolling being genetic in the 1940’s, but it is still in biology textbooks today!

Rutherford suggested that perhaps the root problem with the way society thinks about genetics is due to knowing only monogenic inheritance, such as the examples described above. Monogenic meaning involving only one gene in an outcome. However most biological interactions involve many genes and also factors outside of DNA itself: epigenetics. This one dimensional way of thinking about genetics is not only taught in schools but perpetuated in sci-fi films and television about genetic mutations, and mutants. In fact most genetic interaction is so complex we are only starting to understand the extent of its influences and also its limitations.

Regarding myths about genetics and ancestry – Rutherford pointed out that in Europe for instance, all people with likely european ancestry are related to each other through the populations who lived during the 10th Century.  He said that all genetic ancestry tests really do is play to what people want to hear, giving them a tribe to identify with even if everyone across europe could all realistically have ancestry in the Vikings, Romans, Jews and Celts simultaneously.

So why is the oversimplification of genetics is harmful? Simplifications are misleading. Thinking that DNA holds the entire blueprint to your life as many people do, would be wrong. This portrays that we are somehow limited from birth by our genes. Conversely DNA is a dynamic molecule in every cell in our body, responding and changing its transcription to our environment. Each of us are born with a unique set of chromosomes, yet our potential is not defined solely by this. You need only look at identical twins to see that genes are not absolute. Blue eyed parents may not give blue eyed children, skin colour does not determine intelligence and the diverse group called the Celts are not united by a singular gene!

There were those, before modern day genetic discovery, such as Galton the proto-geneticist who tried to use genetics as a justification of racial discrimination in the form of eugenics. The goal of eugenics being the selective breeding for fitter humans, with better genes. He obviously didn’t hear about how that went for the Hapsburgs… However knowing the history of Eugenics and its atrocities including mass sterilisation in America, racial discrimination and the Nazi holocaust to name but a few, we must ensure that we dispel myths about genetics and its influence. Those early pseudo scientific hypotheses have been well and truly disproven so should not be perpetuated and have no place in this modern age.

What I took away from Rutherford’s talk was that while Genetics was pulled into some nastier parts of history through eugenics and racial theories by early 20th century scientists such as Galton, it is also possibly the most powerful tool for debunking the misconceptions held by those in alt-right groups today. But it can only be powerful if we can eliminate the myths surrounding the DNA within us all.