What is Scientific Racism? ID by Genome Could Lead To "Race-Specific" Education

By Gabrielle Jonas on February 14, 2014 3:17 PM EST

One Swab of a Cheek Can Uncover Centuries of Racial Identity
A student participating in the Genographic Project in Queens, New York, swabbed her cheek for DNA analysis to trace her racial ancestry back 200 thousand years. (Photo: Hatnim Lee for National Geogra)

The use of genetic information about people and groups could bring about a resurgence of scientific racism, Nina Jablonski, distinguished professor of Anthropology at Penn State, warned Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. "Any belief system that seeks to separate people on the basis of genetic endowment or different physical or intellectual features is simply inadmissible in human society," said Jablonski.

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What worries Jablonski is the use of genetic traits to describe races and to develop race-specific interventions for each group, particularly the possible application of genetics to create special approaches to education. The idea that genetic makeup dictates how different individuals and groups learn  could lead educators down the slippery slope of racism, she said. 

Jablonski fears the re-emergence of eugenic engineering ideas of the early 20th century associated with Nazism. If geneticists are not careful, Jablonski warned in a press release, scientific racism could come back to haunt the 21st century. "The application of genomic-based interventions, while potentially beneficial, cannot be done on a racial basis," she said. "What we are facing is a time when genomic knowledge widens and gene engineering will be possible and widespread. We must constantly monitor how this information on human gene diversity is used and interpreted."

And there's no doubt about it, information is being collected. Using the human genome as their magnifying glass, population geneticists are sleuthing our roots as humans. Out of the 3.2 million base pairs of every new baby's genome, there will be lots of mutations - the generally accepted number is 100 mutations, although some recent research has instigated a debate among geneticists. Regardless, because each generation has its own unique combination of mutations from its own individuals, they can serve as markers or "breadcrumbs," as Dr. Spencer Wells, National Geographic's Genographic Project Director, calls them, for geneticists to follow. And now, people can follow their own breadcrumbs.

For a $200 testing fee, anyone who wants to spring for the ancestry kit can do so at www.genographic.com. So far, more than 650,000 people in 130 countries have already given their genetic information towards National Geographic's Genographic Project. The genetic material from the student's swabs gets analyzed by a technology called SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), which has arrays on computer chips probing for 150 thousand different mutations. The results, which they can access through a password online, will give them information (though not racial) going back a staggering 200 thousand years to even find out what percent Neanderthal they are. 

"At this point, we're still in the process of collecting data," Dr. Wells told the International Science Times recently. "We're trying to sample more, and as we collect data from more people, we can put their data in our reference data base." Students will be able to glean their racial makeup as well as  their Neanderthal heritage. Those who discover they have more Neanderthal in them than they were counting on should be nonplussed. "I don't think how much Neanderthal you have in you says if you're more or less primitive," Dr. Wells said. "It's just part of the human genome."

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