Genetic fingerprinting is now considered remarkably reliable. One little-noticed effect was on the law-enforcement system. The FBI now has an enormous data bank containing DNA profiles of certain neighbourhoods. If you come from a neighbourhood where crime is common (in fact, as opposed to local folklore), the FBI knows an awful lot about your neighbours’ genomes and, by statistical implication, perhaps your own. Hence, we can now assess DNA evidence with more relevant probabilities, or ‘reference classes.’ The technique applies exactly as well in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods that break into recognisable subgroups. DNA criminal identification needs innumerable cautions – some technical, some common sense. Lewontin rightly feared that poorly analysed genetic evidence would make false convictions all too easy. And however much DNA has made securing convictions easier, genetic fingerprinting has also helped free a significant number of individuals previously convicted on inadequate evidence. Ashoka dwells on the dangers of genetic data banks and its possible misuse, in the first part of his two-part narrative. Here’s an in-depth research into genes and identity, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
Paul Rabinow, the anthropologist of the genome industry, wrote about ‘biosociality’, in 1992. He invented the word ‘biosocial’ partly as a joke, to counter the sociobiology that had been fashionable for some time. When he wrote, Rabinow was interested in groups and the criteria around which they form. Of course, human beings are biosocial beings: biological animals and social animals. But the fact that many groups of people can be loosely characterised in both biological and social ways, and that the ‘bio’ and the ‘social’ reinforce each other, prompted his term. This phenomenon is immediately evident: what are families or extended kinship structures if not biosocial groups? Currently, the genetic imperative–the drive to find biological, but above all genetic, underpinnings for all things human, in sickness or in health, in success or in strife – is fuelling fascination with this concept.
After an initial deterministic enthusiasm, almost everyone came to realise that everything is not in our genes, to cite the important polemic of Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin. One, there are not enough genes; second, it is the when and where and how of the expression of genes that counts; third, junk DNA and other primordial stuff are not as junky as they seemed; fourth, proteins are now where the action is; and so on. Nevertheless, the biological, and then the genetic, imperatives are facts of modern life. And far from increasing determinism and limiting opportunity, the life sciences are creating more choices. On the one hand, we have, in a sense, more Biology to choose from than we anticipated. On the other hand, new societies form along newly recognised (or, at any rate, newly asserted) biological or genetic lines, forging new alliances and loyalties. Forging new identities.
Some would say that Rabinow accepts too readily the self-image that life technologists would like to project. For example, when Lewontin was mounting his critical onslaught on the police’s simplistic use of DNA fingerprinting, Rabinow published, in 1992, the year he gave us ‘biosociality,’ a piece called, Galton’s Regret: On Types and Individuals. In it, he describes Francis Galton, the genius who, among many other accomplishments (including the invention of the silent whistle for police dogs), developed a system to identify criminals using their fingerprints. He adapted his system from the Indian Civil Services, which was necessary because imperial administrators found it hard to recognise many of their subjects definitively. His regret was that, although a complete set of fingerprints does identify a person uniquely, it says absolutely nothing about that person’s character.
In some ways, the work of Galton’s rival, Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the French system of identification by ears, might well have proven more relevant for recognising character traits. That, at any rate, was the speculation during the heydey of the criminal anthropology inspired by Cesare Lombroso. Anyone who has a green card conferring resident-alien status in the United States can check and see that the photo thereon conforms to Bertillon’s demand that an ear always be shown. But DNA fingerprinting – here perhaps I am carrying Rabinow’s analysis a step too far – a method of identification intimately connecting you with a genetic profile, does indeed show a lot about who you are and who your ancestors were. Also where you come from, that is, the neighbourhood in which you live. Galton would have loved it. But not only Galton: the entire European tradition of criminal anthropology has been brought back to life, although few dare to mention it because it is thought to be as disreputable as Galton’s eugenics.
Lewontin’s critique was invaluable. There had been an all too glib enthusiasm for DNA identification following its initial successes in the United Kingdom. In addition to technical objections based on genetics or American jurisprudence, an elementary difficulty arose at once. There is the old adage that crimes against the person are most often committed by family members or neighbours. Family members share a lot of genetic traits, and neighbours live in neighbourhoods – whose members tend to clump in historical and geographical, that is, ethnic, ways. Thus, the probability of finding a DNA match should not be the probability of finding such a sequence in the world’s population. There the probability may be minute. Rather, the relevant figure is the probability of having such a match within a few blocks of the crime, where it will most likely be a lot larger. Let alone when the suspects form an extended family. So the chance of a false conviction based on the early DNA probability calculations was far greater than was at first supposed.
The criticisms made by Lewontin and others had an impact, and in part thanks to changes that resulted, genetic fingerprinting is now considered remarkably reliable. One little-noticed effect was on the law-enforcement system. The FBI now has an enormous data bank containing DNA profiles of certain neighbourhoods. If you come from a neighbourhood where crime is common (in fact, as opposed to local folklore), the FBI knows an awful lot about your neighbours’ genomes and, by statistical implication, perhaps your own. Hence, we can now assess DNA evidence with more relevant probabilities, or ‘reference classes.’
The technique applies exactly as well in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods that break into recognisable subgroups. For example, suppose DNA is left on the scene of a crime in a heterogeneous Los Angeles neighbourhood, 40 per cent of whose members are recent immigrants from the Republic of Armenia and 40 per cent quite recent immigrants from Mexico. DNA evidence may indicate that the suspect is Armenian. Obviously, we do not then want to use the reference class of all inhabitants of the neighbourhood to compute the probability of a random match between the evidence and our suspect. Instead, we want the reference class of Armenian immigrants, who may well be so genetically similar that reliable identification is very difficult. Especially if they all came from the same neighbourhood in the old country. DNA criminal identification needs innumerable cautions – some technical, some common sense. Lewontin rightly feared that poorly analysed genetic evidence would make false convictions all too easy. At its worst, almost any member of an already targeted group could plausibly be made to fit the crime. However, in principle, if not always in practice, the new local data banks make that far more difficult. And however much DNA has made securing convictions easier, genetic fingerprinting has also helped free a significant number of individuals previously convicted on inadequate evidence.
The House on 92nd Street, a wonderful movie, made in 1944, provides a point of comparison between the new fingerprints and the old. Made with the full cooperation of the FBI (apparently before Hiroshima, although released only after), the movie shows how the FBI caught German spies stealing atomic secrets. In it is a shot of a vast arena where young women searched the entire bank of fingerprints the FBI possessed, in 1944, in order to identify the guilty parties. The filming took place on the real site, long since torn down. The room is auditorium-sized, but the procedure is automated, using Hollerith cards, derived in the first instance from the Jacquard cards for the industrial weaving of long ago and the predecessors for the punch cards developed by IBM, which descends from Hollerith’s original company One sees the force of the metaphor ‘data bank.’ It is not just a secure place to store masses of data; the endless stacks of cards are ‘banks’ in another sense of the word. For anyone who has trouble with gene sequencing and computers, this scene is a reliable metaphor for DNA-fingerprint searching today. The two chief differences: today’s identifiers are genes, not the surfaces of fingers, and the sorting is electrical, not mechanical. And, of course, it takes place not in a room the size of a hockey rink but in a little gray box. Police services, in many parts of the world, are just as proud of their sorting devices today as the FBI evidently was of its in 1944. And rightly so, despite the occasional misjudgements that overreliance on black-boxed technology can produce.
Stiffer Criteria for DNA Identification
Rabinow’s more speculative remarks about biotechnology, as opposed to his anthropological, sociological, and historical descriptions of the scientific work, tend to be prophetic. Thus, although Lewontin was absolutely right to demand stiffer criteria for DNA identification, Rabinow was right to foresee, fifteen years ago, the increasing role of genetics in life and self-conceptions. I should at once emphasise that he was not primarily interested in the use of genetics for racial identification, the current bone of contention. No, he was looking further into the future when, for example, risk markers for disease and causes of death might prompt people to identify themselves as that sort, the ones at risk of having Alzheimer’s, an autistic child, etc.
A neighbourhood is a good introduction to the idea of already existing de facto biosocial identities. Many Armenians, for example, emigrated to a handful of locations in the United States for all the old-fashioned biosocial reasons: family ties, a network of employment opportunities, language, lifestyles. On a Sunday morning, the parks of an L.A. suburb are full of Armenians, by no means all notably fit, playing soccer. Where there are serious Angeleno hills and canyons, groups of Armenians of all ages and both sexes are taking sociable walks, complete with sticks that appear to come from their former homes. This last observation by itself is enough, from a sociologist’s point of view, to set them apart from almost any other recent immigrant group. In small clumps on a hill they do look somewhat alike to the outsider. And, to put it bluntly, their Hispanic neighbours hate them. Romeo and Juliet had a simple life compared to the handsome son of the Mexican immigrant in love with the beautiful daughter of Armenians. Finally, there is the bonding narrative that burns in every soul, the Armenian massacre.
The ties that form this biosocial unit are certainly more social than biological. No one in the group needs to know what the FBI data bank holds for this neighbourhood to identify with each other. They probably would not want to know, for with all the centuries of marauders, pillages, and rapes that run through the history of the Caucasus and nearby regions, one would find a far more distinct phenotype (what these particular Armenians look like) than genotype (which is not so different from that of nearby peoples in their former region). Nevertheless, in the new, quite compact neighbourhood within the greater Los Angeles area, the FBI would have no difficulty (yet–just wait for Romeo and Juliet to do their thing) telling an Armenian DNA sample apart from a Hispanic one. As is so often the case with living colloquial speech, the ’hood really denotes an important entity, which tends to be both social and genetic. To say that is to hold up the red flag for accusations of racism. Good. We need to get the race stuff out in the open quickly, or we may be overtaken by new versions of race science put to its most evil uses.
We must first erase one worthy item from the former dogma of liberal attitudes: that all race science is biased balderdash, in particular, that the genetic variation between two randomly chosen members of one racial group is just as great as that between two randomly chosen members of different races. This was commonly supported, in politically correct statements for general audiences, by saying that humans share 98 per cent of their genome with pigs, or earthworms, or whatever species is obviously beneath us. So how could genes distinguish Armenians from Hispanics, if they can barely distinguish us from earthworms? We owe the scientific argument to Richard Lewontin, who put it in place over thirty years ago. Editorials to this effect were still appearing in Nature Genetics and Nature as recently as 2001.
Racial Registries for Bone-marrow Transplants
The Epidemiological practice has long ignored such agreeable can’t, certainly since the early 1990s, when racial registries for bone-marrow transplants were established. Lewontin’s doctrine was not as sound as it seemed. The trouble is that his theoretical argument assumed that characteristics associated with race, either stereotypically or physiologically, are statistically independent. They are not. As Hitler liked to point out, even though few whites have blue eyes and blonde hair, nearly every blue eyed blonde has whitish skin. A. W. F. Edwards’s 2003 theoretical refutation of Lewontin, attending to correlations among traits and genetic markers, is now widely judged to be correct.
Edwards’s analysis is, for anyone with a modest statistical training, rather direct and ‘self-evident,’ and yet it had to wait thirty years before anyone thought the matter out in public. I suspect that, since Lewontin’s conclusions were so ‘obviously’ correct, no one attended to the logic of his argument. I do not mean to imply that the issues are simple, only that what was so confidently asserted in Nature Genetics a few years ago is obsolete. The fall 2004 issue of the same journal was all about race and genetics. It sings to a tune altogether different from the harmonies of three years earlier. The upshot is that stereotypical features of race are associated both with the ancestral geographical origin and, to some extent, with genetic markers. On the one hand, there was the experiment –I would categorize it both as acute and cute–in which samples of saliva were taken from people around the world, chosen on an essentially randomised protocol for the geographical region. They were then run through fairly standard computer programs designed to sort groups of objects with lots of characteristics into small groups of distinct classes. These programs can take a midden containing pottery fragments with different designs, for example, and sort the shards into a few classes, which archaeologists conjecture come from distinct epochs. Such a program sorted DNA samples from around the world, unlabelled, into a small number of groups. It produced five groups of people, recognized as the five races of nineteenth-century science, plus one group that did not fit well with any preconceptions. The experiment does not strictly prove anything, but it is a significant anecdote.
On the other hand, interbreeding among populations of different geographical origins has been common in many parts of the world for a very long time. In such regions, skin colour and the rest furnish little indication of the proportion of one’s inheritance that one owes to different geographical regions. This has been most decisively established for Brazil. Genetic markers cannot distinguish between affluent urban white-skinned business people in São Paolo, who deem themselves descendants of the Portuguese, and rural dark skinned peasants, who think their forebears came from Africa.
We have yet to have a good study of a real old-time melting pot like the Silk Road from China to the West. Those who are more impressed by looking than by analysis can make a guess of what to expect from the extraordinarily powerful paintings of nomads attributed to Muhammad of the Black Pen (Muhammad Siyah Qualam) in the thirteenth century, common era. At present, plenty of anecdotal evidence points to the same effect about Americans. It is symptomatic of the old race science that ‘Caucasian’ is still the name used in the United States for white people, who not long ago thought a single drop of alien blood could ‘pollute’ them, when in fact people from the Caucasus are most likely a very mixed genetic bag, just as they are on the old Silk Road. Call that idiocy, or call that an inadvertent stroke of ironic prescience, as you please.
DNA for Racist Purpose
The partial alignment of genetic markers and stereotypical racial identification rightly leaves African-Americans in a quandary. Although the fact is not much publicised, quite a lot of scientific work on race-based medicine is conducted under essentially Afro-American auspices. At a quite different level, for people whom slavery, exploitation, and contempt left without family history, DNA identification furnishes a probable but unreliable way of tracking their origins. In these and other ways, some genetics is welcome. However, the fear that all this DNA stuff will be put to racist purposes, including high-tech criminal profiling, is justified. But there is no hiding. And it is quite possible that white liberals want to hide more than black Americans do.
There is a whole forest of practical needs for genetic identification. For example, if a person in another continent can show the existence of kin in North America, immigration there is facilitated and in some cases guaranteed. So a host of companies is offering genetic services. Most of the nineteenth-century Canadian treaties with Aboriginal Americans conferred rights to the Indians at the same time as they took their territory. In present law, descendants of treaty persons have, under various complex conditions, rights and privileges different from those of other citizens. Similar laws exist in the United States. Hence, companies determining the extent of a person’s aboriginal ancestry also get a lot of business. I am taking a rather benign view of the use of genetics to trace identities. I hope the dangers are evident. It will be tempting to turn optional sources of evidence into obligatory types of proof. Another reasonable fear is that a lust for technology, and an admiration for false precision, will make genetics override community, among not only technocrats but also people in general. For example, it might become easy to reject children who grow up in a community but for whatever reason are genetic outliers.
If the genome begins to override culture, then all citizens must rise up and insist that social bonds are what make us people. But we must also understand that knowledge of genetic ‘identities’ will forge social ones, creating new communities of shared recognition based on partial science. That is not intrinsically bad, but it is still a phenomenon that can be grossly abused.
And whatever use individuals want to make of genealogy kits (yes, the commercial labs send you a ‘kit’ to collect some of your DNA for analysis), epidemiologists will relentlessly collect new data. Today, if you go to a National Health Service clinic in Great Britain, you will be asked to complete a questionnaire in which you state what you think are your ethnic and, above all, geographical roots (you can have as many as you want). Some well-educated liberal Brits I know mock these forms or oppose them. While their fear of the all-powerful nanny state that knows too much about you is legitimate, they also ridicule these forms out of the uninformed belief that ethnic and geographical self-identification is, among other things, worthless. Not so: it is a useful, very cheap guide to aspects of your genome. Yes, self-identification is imperfect information. But it is cheap. It is comparable to the BMI, the Body Mass Index, which the current obesity panic has made a household phrase. Adiposity, the ratio of body fat to body mass, is the important health indicator, but it is fairly expensive to measure by any current technique–and thus comparable to a personal DNA readout. But the BMI is very cheap: stand on a scale, stand under a device that measures height, press two buttons on a calculator (or use one of the innumerable online BMI calculators), and there you have your BMI. The BMI originated in epidemiology in the 1960’s but was not so named until 1972. One of its first classic uses was in a national Norwegian survey to detect seriously underweight people and note the correlation with tuberculosis. A national study of adiposity would have been more informative and would have cost about a million times more. The U.K. National Health Service survey of ethnic self-identification is much the same: a large data set using cheap information rather than a minute data set using expensive information.
Misuse of Genetic Data
When it becomes clearer what one ought to be looking for in a patient genetic data, and when obtaining that data becomes very cheap, epidemiologists will collect it. All British genes will go on file unless a public outcry arises far greater than what has occurred so far. This is already being done piecemeal in quite a few parts of the world, including Quebec and the United Kingdom, but the most systematic and most publicised program is in Iceland, where a venture capital company, DeCode, and the Icelandic government have an agreement to match DNA, genealogies (which are more extensive in Iceland than anywhere else in the world), and health records, both present and historical. The company then essentially leases the information to multinational pharmaceutical companies, who use it to prospect for links between genetic markers and disease.
Significant opposition to the Icelandic contract arose from a variety of civil liberty and ‘green’ spokespeople in Iceland. Some physicians objected: they were wary that their privileged access to patient information and control was being sold out from under their noses. International activists also protested. The Icelandic public, however, appeared relatively at peace with the deal. As always in such matters, local contingencies are often more effective in swaying public opinion than at first meets the eye. In this case, a large number of well-educated Icelanders reside in all parts of the industrial world. Many would like to go home if they could get a good job. Part of the deal with DeCode was that laboratory and computer work would be done in Iceland, thereby repatriating part of Iceland’s greatest natural resource, her highly skilled citizens.
In prosperous parts of the world, we already take for granted a great many specialised genetic searches. At the time of writing, New York State screens fetuses for forty-four different types of disease risk. It is often argued that full genetic screening is a public health obligation, and sometimes that it is a right of the citizens covered by the system. We have not been clear about the resulting moral problems, though. Public discussions tend to emphasize how screening makes possible essential early medical services for newborn and infants. It plays down the extent to which screening prompts abortions. It is not only across-the- board opponents of abortion who worry when a test leads to killing the fetus. A vocal number of disability activists, who are in fact handicapped, also protest: “I would rather be me than unborn.”
[To be continued]
©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Photos from the internet.
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