07 September 2020


'Genetic ancestry testing, whiteness and the limits of anti-racism' by Katharine Tyler in (2020) New Genetics and Society comments 

This article explores how a branch of genomic science that embraces and advocates anti-racism, public participation, consultation and inclusion unintentionally supports everyday discourses of race and racism. It focuses on the reproduction of racism and exposes the limits of anti-racist discourses that are embedded in public engagements with the science and technology of genetic ancestry testing. I deploy a case study which is centerd on the analysis of commentaries posted on the internet which were written in response to a newspaper article that criticized the science of genetic ancestry testing. This article was published in The Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet “quality” newspaper in the UK. I analyse the ways in which ideas and images of British indigeneity and shared human descent that support white Western racial hierarchies, power and privileges emerge 

Tyler argues

 Population geneticists have identified genetic markers with populations, that is, groups of individuals that map onto geographical areas (Jobling, Rasteriro, and Wetton 2016, 142). These genetic markers can most easily be identified in the Y-chromosome inherited only by men from their fathers, or the mitochondrial DNA inherited by both men and women through the maternal line (Jobling, Rasteriro, and Wetton 2016). These genetic markers can also be identified in autosomal markers that are inherited from both parents (Bolnik et al. 2007). 

Since 2000, there has been a rapid expansion in commercial companies that have mobilized this science to sell direct-to-consumer genetic tests that offer information about individual ancestries (Abu El-Haj 2012, chapter 4). These tests analyse large collections of genetic markers (Royal et al. 2010). Each individual’s genome is then mapped “as a mosaic of segments inferred to be derived from” an ancestral population (Royal et al. 2010, 655). The most common test taken today is the autosomal DNA test that allows individuals to trace their purported genetic ancestry to a variety of groups. This is achieved by comparing test results to patterns of variation in pre-defined reference groups in order to partition the customer’s ancestry into fractions or percentages of resemblance to those ancestry groups (Royal et al. 2010; Jobling, Rasteriro, and Wetton 2016). Thus, for example, the results reported to the consumer testing autosomal markers from both parents “typically estimate admixture proportions from several populations, most often Africans, Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans” (Royal et al. 2010, 668). Consumers can purchase a range of tests that explore their connections via genetic ancestry, such as “the Native American ethnicity DNA Test,” the “European ancestry DNA test,” (Royal et al. 2010), “the Cohanim Modal Haplotype Test,” “the Hindu Test” and the “Genghis Khan Test” (Schramm, Skinner, and Rottenberg 2012, 9). 

Human population geneticists have been integral to the development of the rapidly expanding commercial sector of genetic genealogy (Nash 2015). While the respective sample databases, goals and test resolutions are different for commercial and research projects, ancestry testing companies and university research projects rely on each other’s “technological capacities” and “expertise” (Royal et al. 2010, 661; Abu El-Haj 2012, 148). Notwithstanding this close relationship between scientific research and the commercial sector of genetic genealogy, there is a debate amongst geneticists about the reliability of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests (see Abu El-Haj 2012, 151–159 for an overview of these debates). For example, Jobling, a Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester, and his co-authors argue that: “ ... genetic methods based on the study of groups of individuals (populations) are reliable and respectable scientific tools, but ... the practice of individual genetic ancestry testing is unreliable and powerfully influenced by cultural and other social forces” (2016, 143). Significantly, for these geneticists the latter includes the mistaken mapping of ancestry not onto populations but racial categories (2016, 143). It is precisely the companies’ claims to be able to map individuals’ ancestries onto ethnic and racial origins that has led many geneticists to be sceptical of the validity of these tests (Bolnik et al. 2007; Royal et al. 2010; Abu El-Haj 2012, 151). In response to this criticism the geneticists involved in the commercialization of this technology point out that the companies do explain to customers that there is an “imperfect correlation” between “genetics, race and geography” (Abu El-Haj 2012, 152). Nonetheless, some geneticists have joined critical social scientists to question the impact of these tests on ideas about the biological constitution of race and question the ethics of the commercialization of this science (Bolnik et al. 2007; Greely 2008; Royal et al. 2010). 

In this article I shall focus on public responses to one such critique of these tests made by genetic scientists reported in an article in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, a broadsheet (i.e. “quality”) newspaper in the UK (Collins 2013). The Telegraph article was written by the newspaper’s science correspondent Nick Collins. This article reported the deep misgivings expressed by eminent population geneticists about the ethics of the commercialization of genetic ancestry tests. They questioned their accuracy for tracing the racial, ethnic and national descent of the user, suggesting that the findings of the tests are not supported by scientific evidence. I shall set out the details of this newspaper article in the empirical sections below. 

The case study that I shall develop here is centerd on public reaction to this newspaper article articulated in contributions to the comments section that follows the on-line version of the article. I will highlight how some commentators sought to defend the ability of the tests to identify ancestries of racial, ethnic and national descent. My analysis of these comments – that I refer to as “posts” – will show that it consists of two groups. One group of posts claims the weight of science in support of an image of Britishness as entwined with white Nordic European origins, and the other group advances an apparently opposing image of the common descent of humanity from African origins. I shall refer to the former as “the discourse of British indigeneity” and the latter as “the discourse of shared human descent.” 

My reading and analysis of this commentary section allowed me to see and explore how some of the cultural images and scripts articulated in the posts resonate and chime with the popular depiction of the science of genetic ancestry testing in the media. In particular, I shall demonstrate how those posts that I identify as discourses of “British indigeneity” evoke scripts and images that reflect aspects of the media dissemination of Walter Bodmer’s work (see Cross 2001; Fortier 2012; Nash 2013, 2015). Bodmer is an Oxford-based population geneticist whose research set out to trace the origins of ancient British ancestry and descent and has been widely publicized in television documentaries and in popular books (Nash 2013). Also, I contend that some of the ideas in the posts that comprise the discourse of “shared human descent” resonate with the US-based Genographic Project sponsored by the National Geographic (see Nash 2007, 2015; Reardon and Tallbear 2012). This project is one of the most publicized and well-known research projects on human population genetics (Nash 2007). One strand of this project used blood samples taken from particular populations of “indigenous” people (Nash 2007), also referred to as “First Nation” (Reardon and Tallbear 2012) people, with the aim of mapping humanity’s genealogical history and origins. 

The population geneticists working on these high-profile research projects are adamant that their work is resolutely anti-racist in its approach to genetic science and genealogy (Reardon and Tallbear 2012; Nash 2015). But in stark contrast to this assurance, my analysis of the commentaries reveals that the logics of indigeneity underpinning these projects feed into commentators’ posts in ways that support ideas of Britishness, difference, genetic and genealogical belonging that are racist and nationalist, albeit no doubt, unintentionally so. I will be exploring how images and ideas from “liberal anti-racist genomics” (Reardon 2012) that aim to be “democratic” (Fulwiley 2014, 803) in terms of public engagement and anti-racist with regard to ideas of human similarity and difference reoccur in everyday discourses to support ideas and practices that have xenophobic, nationalist and racist implications (see also Ifewkwunigwe et al. 2017; Wagner et al. 2017). To make this argument I shall draw on sociological, anthropological and geographical critiques of the popular dissemination of Bodmer’s work (e.g Cross 2001; Fortier 2012; Nash 2013, 2015) and the Genographic Project (Nash 2007, 2015; Reardon and Tallbear 2012). It will become clear that the social scientific critique of these projects affords a perspicuous set of theoretical concepts and frameworks through which to analyse the construction of difference in commentators’ accounts. 

However, my case study also brings a new perspective to the existing social scientific critiques. Read collectively these critiques focus solely on the popular dissemination of Bodmer’s work and the Genographic Project in books and television documentaries. My case study extends this body of work by illustrating how the ideas, images, scripts and icons from these high-profile projects are reproduced in the everyday accounts of individuals who do not self-identify as scientists. 

It is worth highlighting that my focus on a British-based case study is significant because most of the research on the everyday connections that lay people make between ideas of science, ancestry, race and ethnicity is conducted in the USA. For example, there is a growing body of qualitative work in the USA on the ways in which ideas of racial and ethnic identification inform how American test-takers across ethnic, racial and religious identities interpret their genetic ancestry test results in ways that are meaningful to them (see Abu El-Haj 2012 on Jewish American experiences; Tallbear 2013 on Native American experiences; Nelson 2016 on African American experiences; Roth and Ivemark 2018 on white American experiences; Panofsky and Donovan 2019 on white nationalist experiences). These studies highlight how nationally specific colonial and slave histories and ideologies of race, nation, citizenship and multiculturalism shape people’s interpretations of genetic ancestry tests. Given the specific histories of empire, slavery, race, nation, immigration and multiculturalism that have formed and continue to shape the UK and its ethnically diverse citizenry, my case study provides insight and data on the diverse ways in which genetic ancestry tests are interpreted in the context of postcolonial Britain. 

While I have found studies on genetic ancestry based in the USA and elsewhere insightful, my focus on the British context is particularly significant. This is because there is a dearth of work that explores how ideas of race and ethnicity mediate everyday engagements with genetic ancestry in the UK. For example, Scully, King, and Brown (2013), Scully, Brown, and King (2016) trace the ways in which white men with ancient-sounding surnames from the north of England receive information about their supposed Viking ancestry. The focus of this study is not on what they call the “high stakes” involved in taking these tests, including questions of racial and ethnic identification (Scully, Brown, and King 2016, 164). Rather, their emphasis is on how test results become incorporated into what test-takers already know about their family history and their sense of local and national identity. As will become apparent, the specifically British racialised histories of empire and slavery, as well as contemporary articulations of multiculturalism and immigration, including images that have become associated with Brexit, inform how the commentators that feature in my case study engage with the general science of the tests. 

Before I get to the details, some further reflection is needed on how the social scientific critique of high-profile genetic projects applies to the analysis I will provide.