DNA is amazing! But your Genome is not special

The idea that a particular genetic lineage is some how ‘pure’ is absolutely ridiculous. No matter what the context, the visualisation of your DNA as something perfect that can be polluted is at best scientifically inaccurate, and at worst the first step on the road to justifying a very dangerous world view.

Although not always explicitly articulated, you don’t have to look far to find arguments against the implementation of new genetic technologies that largely stem from this kind of ignorant thinking. About this time last year, I went to a UK parliamentary debate on the legalisation of mitochondrial transplantation (often rather misleadingly referred to as the production of ‘3 parent babies’) and a lot of the arguments put forward against this incredible procedure being legalised revolved around ‘playing God’ and messing around with our apparently beautifully clean and gloriously unique repository of genetic information. This point of view is just not one that can be upheld in the knowledge of the continuous process of genetic mutation and ‘cut and pate’ reproductive recombination that gave rise to our personal genetic codes. Nature is messy and has no concern for maintaining a pristine genetic code. If we are setting our hypothetical ethical bar against what is seen in nature, then we don’t have particularly high standards to maintain in terms of not changing our DNA – and at least we’re not altering humans on a trial and error basis!

 

What’s so bad about thinking my DNA is special!?!

The reason I think the idea that the human genome is somehow perfect and special is such a stupid and dangerous one to propagate is because it is exactly the same kind of false logic that leads to claims of genetic superiority. No variation of genetic code is intrinsically more correct than any other. Some variations may infer a survival advantage and some variations may cause biological problems, but no version can claim to be more ‘right’ than any other. With different evolutionary pathways humans could have ended up with a totally different genome – equally as functional, equally as flawed. The human genome lies on continuously evolving spectrum and the idea that there is one correct version of the code is an entirely man made concept. Moreover, any ‘correct’ code would be entirely subjective.

 

The Ignorance of the Idea of Genetic Superiority

We live in an age where we understand the working of the human genome and that is indescribably amazing! In a world where we understand that human genomes are not in any particular respect more special than that of any other mammal, and that the genetic differences between humans revolve primarily around tiny single nucleotide and copy number variations how do ideas of genetic superiority still persist? Is it just ignorance of the facts? And if so could genetics education actually be used as a tool to fight racism and promote equality?

Imagine for some reason the members of the heavily right-wing political activist groups (such as the UK’s very own racist British Nation Party) agreed to have genetic genealogy tests done. I think you’d probably agree that the chances of the test results confirming their apparent belief that they are ‘pure bred’ Brits whose ancestors magically sprouted from the beautiful British soil of our fair and rainy lands are pretty slim. Logically then, on these individuals finding out that their ancestry is actually a glorious admixture resulting from individuals all over the world interbreeding they will renounce all racist ideology! They will be so overwhelmed by the incredible, tenacious and inquisitive human spirit that led their relatives out of their native lands to mix with people of other creeds they will clearly see the error of their ways! Brilliant!

 

So are you suggesting we make racist individuals take ancestry tests?

Well, no. Apart from the obvious logistical and financial issues I am under no impression that in the real world facts would necessarily change the minds of people who believe that they are genetically superior. Ideologies that are constructed without a factual basis are usually pretty immune to being modified by facts. You have to admit though, the thought of providing racists with scientific proof that they originate from the ethnic groups they hold such unjustified prejudice against is pretty satisfying (check out the video below to see exactly how satisfying).

 

A case study on stupidity

The video below shows a white supremacist discovering that he is actually of partial African ancestry. On discovering this his first port of call was (obviously) to blame the test. Obviously facts can’t be correct if they conflict with your world view, right!?!

 

 

On a side note, even if you are going to claim genetic superiority based on some genetic attribute, skin colour is a ludicrous thing to use as a differentiator of genetic difference. It is hands down one of the worst traits you cold possibly use as a measure of genetic difference.

 

So you’ve solved the problem of racism then?

Yes. You are welcome, don’t even mention it!

 

A final word

All ranting and unrealistic proposals for mandatory genetic ancestry testing aside I do genuinely believe that an altogether better public understanding of human genetics could be a powerful tool in fighting the ridiculousness of racism. Genetics can give an empirical measure of human similarity.

 

Racism is ignorance and education demolishes ignorance.