If Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hoped to release the results of a DNA test would solve the issue of her…
If Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hoped to release the results of a DNA test would solve the issue of her claim to the Cherokee heritage, she was quickly proven wrong. In a video highlighting her family life as she released on Monday, Stanford University Geneticist Carlos Bustamante told the camera that “the fact indicates that you definitely have a native American ancestor in your pedigree”; In recent tweets, Warren declared that she released the test results as an answer to “racism” by President Donald Trump’s rehearsal of that part of her background.
In the following days, the release was reignited debate about not only the reliability of commercial DNA tests, but also the very importance of DNA in matters of race and legacy.
In Warren’s case, the Cherokee Nation quickly responded that “a DNA test is worthless to determine tribal citizenship” and to use such a test to claim a connection “is inappropriate and incorrect.” (Warren acknowledged that the results did not say anything about tribal citizenship). But the problem of trying to use a DNA test to claim any race identity goes far beyond this example. In fact, the rebellion of Warren’s fall is part of a long American history of trying and failing to use science or pseudo science to categorize people.
The essence of the debate is the issue of science as a social institution informed by social standards – not a separate, apolitical company based on objective observation.
Genetics RC Lewontin, in his classic book Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA tracks the relationship between DNA history and the rise of Western secularism in the 19th century. Lewontin argues that science is a social institution which – despite its allegations of objectivity – “reflects and reinforces the dominant values and the views of society at every historical epoch.” During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the science of the period had a holistic view of nature reflecting religious perceptions of how the world worked. Later, science was shifted to reflect a new idea as understanding all that is required to analyze individual bits and pieces (like atoms, molecules, cells and genes). “Our genes and DNA molecules that make them up are the modern form of grace,” writes Lewontin.
In this new thinking, as Lewontin calls the ideology of biological determinism, the biological components describe which they are and where they fit into society.
The mid 19th century, as I describe in my book that the blood stood clean saw the rise of the American School of Anthropology, which used theories of scientific racism to support pro-slavery ideology and doctrine of manifestation Destiny – with its destruction of Indian communities – based on what WEB Du Bois later called “the greater physical difference between hair, skin and bone”. Scientific findings validated social perceptions of human disparity, where the Europeans occupied a higher rung on the hierarchy of humanity, with Indians under them and Africans near the bottom. 19659003] But among the many problems with the thought, one of the race’s categorization was based on science. If you thought that some competitions were better than others, then it was a lot of things that fell in any category. The followers of this theory, whose finding appeared to be scientific, actually used ideas that were intended from ancient European concepts of blood and purity based on religion to answer their questions about who was white, who was black and who
Get your historical fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME story newsletter
By the late 1800s, the ideology of biological determinism had entered American law, where the politics of blood ruled . People of African descent were defined by the hypothesis, meaning that a drop of black “blood” made a black, despite all other occasions. At the same time, a competing concept called blood quantum defined, which required much more than a drop, American Indian identity. The difference between race definitions was captured by author Karen Blu in his book Lumbee The Problem: An American Indian People’s Battle . “It can only take a drop of black blood to make a person a Negro, but it takes a lot of Indian blood to make a person a” real “Indian,” she said.
Social definitions of race and society social consequences of these categories – did not shorten directly with biology. Nevertheless, such ideas were coming up.
1904, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, lectured before the Sociological Society in London about the science of eugenics, a theory that he began to develop in the 1880s, in his words, “treats all influences that improve a kappes inbound properties “. Galton’s ideas were crucial for spreading what would become one of the most scary pseudo-scientific fakes in the 20th century: the idea that some breeds are biologically better than others and that humans can be raised for improvement. He thereby set the scene for a harmful racial campaign that contributed to everything from stricter anti-smuggling laws and the emergence of involuntary sterilization to the philosophy of Hitler and the Third Empire.
But thinkers on the other side already countered these ideas. 1942, as the Americans crossed the Atlantic to battle during World War II, anthropologist Ashley Montagu – a student of Franz Boas who opposed eugenics and scientific racism from the last century – published his influential book Man’s most dangerous myth: Fallacy of Race who opposed biological determinism because the concept of race had no genetic reason. Individual physical appearance, individual intelligence and “ability of the group to which the person belongs to achieve a high civilization” could not be scientifically determined.
His work was the page that was time tested. In 1998, the American Anthropological Association released a statement about race that debunked the ideology of biological determinism and the concept of race as a scientific fact. In other words, competition policy is not biology. Still old myths die hard. Even today, many rely on race definitions of who is black and who is Indian who can easily be traced back to the old thoughts with the single-release rule and blood quantum.
At the same time as the issue of race as a social construction is considered by a large part of the scientific community, genetic science pushed full speed ahead.
In the late 1900s, as James Shreeve details in his 2006 National Geographic article “Reading Secrets of the Blood,” two separate genomic projects were launched. The most popular was the Human Genome Project, an international scientific collaboration aimed at giving a whole blueprint of a human by sequencing the estimated 25,000 genes in the nucleus of the human cell called DNA. In the summer of 2000, when researchers Francis Collins and Craig Venter stood with President Bill Clinton at an international press conference to present the first draft mapping and sequencing of human DNA, one aspect of the presentation that featured special media attention was the unambiguous statement that race classifications made no biological feeling.
Advances in Genetic Science have also made it possible for home DNA testing to grow as a company and give people a chance to see what their blood could tell them. But with that possibility there was the risk of sliding back into a story that many hoped had remained. For example, the US PBS specialized African American Life, hosted by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, DNA tests to trace the assumed line of the eight guests to their African country of origin and to calculate their percentage of American Indian heritage . Gates was taken into account for the importance he put on DNA results, but the gates were already open: many Americans were convinced that DNA tests could provide perfect and complete evidence of the ancestors’ relatives.
However, as the researcher, Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and False Promise of Genetic Science has said on several occasions “People think there is a DNA test to prove that you are Indians. There is not. “
Confidence in DNA reinforces old thoughts about separate biological races and gives credence to archaic ideas about the purity of the race, now granted by white supremacists. That Sen Warren should look at DNA as a way of proving her point is not surprising; For more than a century, Americans and others have accepted the idea that race is blood in the search for these answers. But what people have found instead are more questions.
Today science is as sacred as religion. The alleged authoritative validity has for the most part been without question. But just as the age of science resulted in what Lewontin called “a reasonable skepticism” of the overall allegations of the Church institution, we must also question the daring claims of scientific science if we really want to know who we are.
Historians explain how the past informs the present
Arica L. Coleman is a researcher of American history and the author of the blood remains clean: African Americans, Native Americans and the Prediction of Race and Identity in Virginia and a former chairman of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latin American, Asian and Indian (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Stories at the American History Organization.