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Elizabeth Warren's DNA and the old American obsession with blood



If Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren hoped that publishing the results of a DNA test would solve the problem of her claim to Cherokee inheritance, she was quickly proven wrong. In a video highlighting her family heritage she posted on Monday, Stanford University geneticist Carlos Bustamante says in front of the camera: "The facts suggest that you absolutely have one Native American in your family tree"; In later tweets, Warren stated that she published the test results in response to the "racism" of President Donald Trump's repeated mockery of this part of her background.

In the following days, the publication will be a new debate on the reliability of commercial DNA testing, but also on the importance of DNA in issues of race and heritage.

In Warren's case, the Cherokee nation responded quickly to the fact that "a DNA test is useless to determine the tribal citizenship" and that the use of such a test to claim a connection, "inappropriate and wrong. "(Warren himself acknowledged that the findings do not say anything about tribal citizenship). But the problem with attempting to use a DNA test to claim any racial identity goes far beyond this one example. In fact, the uproar over Warren's case is part of a long American story that seeks to use science or pseudoscience to categorize people.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of science as a social institution that is informed of social norms – not a separate, apolitical enterprise based on objective observation.

The geneticist RC Lewontin, in his classic book Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA traces the link between the history of DNA and the rise to Western secularism in the 19th century. Lewontin argues that science is a social institution that, despite its claim to objectivity, "reflects and reinforces the prevailing values ​​and views of society in every historical epoch." During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the science of time was holistic of nature, reflecting religious conceptions of the way the world worked. Later, science has shifted to reflect a new idea that requires analyzing individual parts (such as atoms, molecules, cells, and genes). "Our genes and the DNA molecules that make up them are the modern form of grace," writes Lewontin.

In this new thinking, which Lewontin calls the "ideology of biological determinism," these biological components tell people who they are and where they fit into society.

The mid-19th century, as I noted in my book That the Blood Remains Pure saw the rise of the American School of Anthropology, the theories of scientific racism used the pro-slavery ideology and the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny – with the destruction of Native American communities – based on what WEB Du Bois later called "the greater physical difference between hair, skin and bones". Scientific findings confirmed social notions of human differences in which Europeans occupied a higher level in the hierarchy of humanity, with Indians among them and Africans nearby. 19659003] But among the many problems with the idea was a racist categorization based on science. If you thought that some races were better than others, it did matter who fell into which category. The followers of this theory, whose results appeared to be scientific, indeed used ideas from ancient European ideas of blood and religious purity to answer their questions about who knows who was black and who

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In the late 19th century, the ideology of biological determinism had made its way into American law, where the politics of the blood ruled. People of African descent were defined by the law of hypogesia, which means that a drop of black "blood" turned black despite its other origins. In the meantime, a competing concept called Blood Quantum, which required much more than a drop, defined the identity of the Indians. The discrepancy of racist definitions was recorded by author Karen Blu in her book The Lumbee Problem: The Origin of an Indian Nation . "It may only take one drop of black blood to turn a person into a Negro, but it takes a lot of Indian blood to turn a person into a 'real' Indian," she said.

The racial definition of society – and the companion social impact of these categories – is not directly mapped to biology. Nevertheless, such ideas were on the rise.

In 1904, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, gave a lecture to the Sociological Society in London on the science of eugenics, a theory he began to develop in the 1880s In his words, "deals with all influences that improve the innate qualities of a race. " Galton's ideas were instrumental in what would become one of the most insidious pseudo-scientific falsehoods of the twentieth century: the notion that some races are biologically better than others, and that humans can be bred to improve. He thereby created the precondition for a pernicious race campaign, which bore everything from stricter laws against racial segregation and the rise of involuntary sterilization to the philosophy of Hitler and the Third Reich.

But the thinkers on the other side were already opposed to these ideas. When the Americans crossed the Atlantic in 1942 to fight in World War II, anthropologist Ashley Montagu – a student of Franz Boas, who opposed the eugenics and scientific racism of the last century – published his influential book Man & # 39; s Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race which opposed biological determinism, on the premise that the concept of race has no genetic basis. Individual physical appearance, individual intelligence and "the ability of the group to which the individual belongs to reach a high civilization" could not be scientifically determined.

His work was the site that has stood the test of time. In 1998, the American Anthropological Association published a statement on race that exposes the ideology of biological determinism and the concept of race as a scientific fact. In other words, race is politics, not biology. Nevertheless, old myths die hard. Even today, many people rely on racial definitions of who is black and who is Indian, which is easily due to the old ideas of the one-drop rule and blood quantum.

Meanwhile, with the question of race as a social construct that is considered sedentary by a large part of the scientific community, the genetic science has been driven forward with full force.

In the late 20th century, as reported by James Shreeve in his article "Reading Secrets of the Blood" by National Geographic "Two separate genomic projects were launched." The most popular was the Human Genome Project, one international scientific collaboration aimed at providing a complete human blueprint by sequencing the estimated 25,000 genes in the human cell nucleus, known as DNA, in the summer of 2000 when scientists Francis Collins and Craig Venter co-founded with President Bill Clinton An aspect of the presentation that attracted particular attention from the media was the clear claim that racial classifications made no biological sense

. Advances in genetic science have it also allows that Grow DNA testing in households as a business and give people the chance to see what their blood could tell them. But with this possibility, it threatened to fall back into a story many hoped for. For example, the PBS Special African American Lives which was led by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, used DNA testing to track the alleged ancestry of the eight guests to their African countries of origin and to calculate their percentage of Indian heritage. Gates was held accountable for the weight he placed on the DNA results, but the gates were already open: many Americans were convinced that DNA testing could provide perfect and complete evidence of ancestral lineage.

But in fact, as the scholar Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA: Tribal Affiliation and the Wrong Promise of Genetic Science has stated on numerous occasions: "People think there is a DNA test, That's not the case. "

Trust in DNA reinforces old notions of segregated biological races and lends credibility to the archaic notions of racial purity now being adopted by white racists. That Sen. Warren would view DNA as a way to prove their point is not surprising; For more than a century, Americans and others have accepted the idea that race blood is in search of these answers. But what people have always found instead are more questions.

Today, science is as sacred as religion. His claimed authoritative validity has remained mostly unchallenged. But just as the age of science has led to what Lewontin called "reasonable skepticism" over the overarching claims of the institution of the church, so we must question the far-reaching claims of science if we really want to know who we are.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Arica L. Coleman is a scholar of US history and the author of That the blood stays pure: African American, Native Americans and the Dilemma of Race and Identity in Virginia and a Former Chairman of the Committee for the Status of African American, Hispanic, Native American, and American Native Americans (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories in the Organization of American Historians


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