The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, by Alondra Nelson, Beacon Press, 288 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0807033029
In 2005, Kiri Davis, a seventeen-year-old teenager from Harlem, carried out an experiment with children in her neighbourhood; you can watch the footage online. All of the participants were black, and aged around five or six years old. They were presented with two dolls on a table, one black, one white, and asked a series of questions. Can you show me the doll you like best? Can you show me the doll you would like to play with? Can you show me the doll that is the nice doll? Some children act decisively, pointing to the doll they have chosen or snatching it up. Others ponder for a while, pick one up, change their mind, revert to the other. However, if not consistent in their approach, they are in their choice: the doll they tend to choose is the white one.
One boy is asked, as he picks up the doll, “why is that one the nice one?” “Because he is white.” Another girl, when asked why the doll she has chosen is “the bad one”, replies “because it is black”. The footage filmed by this feisty seventen-year-old is in fact a reenactment of a social experiment carried out in the 1940s by a psychologist couple, Mamie and Kenneth Clark. They used the same set-up, and asked the same questions, to black children in New York and Washington. The first group attended mixed race schools, the second segregated ones. Most of the children, like the ones in twenty-first century Harlem, preferred the white dolls, but the children attending segregated schools showed a stronger preference for them. The Clarks interpreted this as showing that attending segregated schooling exacerbated the low self esteem created by living as a black child in the pre-Civil Rights era.
The Clarks subsequently acted as expert witnesses in a number of legal cases which challenged the existence of segregated schools. The most high-profile of these, Brown v Board of Education, went to the Supreme Court and led eventually to the abolition of segregation in public schools. The court ruled that the system as it stood was unconstitutional, as it resulted in the affected children having a “feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community”. Here is an example of (social) science used to achieve a moral goal: evidence gathered from empirical observations demonstrates that a cultural practice is harmful to its victims.
For the Clarks, and others involved in the nascent Civil Rights movement, the findings from their psychological and sociological research allowed them to frame their challenges to an unjust system in objective terms. At the time, something which was scientific, empirical, testable appeared to have more weight than the constitutional principle of all individuals being equal before the law itself. Is the same true today in the twenty-first century? Do we still apportion more significance to that which we believe to be scientifically provable? And, more philosophically, does science, devoted to the pursuit of understanding the world around us, have an intrinsically moral value, or a role in defining those moral values?
In 2014, a thirty-six-year-old Argentine called Guido was reunited with his grandmother, thanks to recent developments in genetic testing. They had never met before. His parents were victims of Argentina’s military regime between 1976 and 1983, where up to thirty thousand students, trade unionists and others (los desaparecidos ‑ the disappeared) were abducted and killed by government agents. Guido’s mother, Laura Carlotto, was pregnant when she was placed in a state detention centre in 1977. She gave birth to Guido the following year, and shortly after was killed. Unusually for one of los desaparecidos, Carlotto’s mutilated body was returned to her mother, but the family was not told what had happened to her child. As was common with the children of victims (it is estimated there were up to five hundred of these), Guido was placed with a family affiliated with members of the regime.
His grandmother’s search for him had started thirty-four years previously when she joined a campaign called Las Abuelas de Playa de Mayo (The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), a group who from 1977 gathered to demand the return of the bodies of their children and the return of their living grandchildren. In order to demonstrate their claim to the children, they turned to a population geneticist at Stanford, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He in turn referred them to Claire King, a geneticist and activist, famous for her involvement in the identification of the BRCA gene mutations which predispose some women to breast cancer.
In her first case in 1984, King analysed human leukocyte antigens (HLA), previously used to match donors and recipients about to undergo organ transplantation, to demonstrate the likelihood of a biological relationship between a girl and her paternal grandfather. This evidence was sufficient to persuade Argentina’s supreme court to return the girl to her family. Here, the girl and her grandfather were shown to be 99.8 per cent likely to be related, but the method could not demonstrate absolute proof. This prompted King to look for a more precise technique. She turned to the analysis of mitochondrial DNA, a part of the cell that is passed from mother to child. Because the composition of this DNA can be determined exactly, finding the same sequence in a child and its grandmother is conclusive evidence that the two are related.
In 1986 this process of restoration was turned into a statewide process by the new Argentinian government, in order to return the remains of victims and reunite those families that had been torn apart. A National Genetic Data Bank was set up to store genetic samples from family members of los desaparecidos. Guido was the one hundred and fourteenth child to be identified and reunited with his biological family. Here new genetic technologies served both as an empirical means to restore lost children to their families and also as an agent for reparation and societal healing.
The story of righting the wrongs of an oppressive military dictatorship may seem a world away from the United States. However, as Beyoncé’s controversial Black Panthers-themed Super Bowl 50 performance showed, the issue of race casts a similar dark shadow across the United States. In 2015 one in sixty-five deaths in young black men were at the hands of the police (with one man shot every twenty-nine hours) and it is hard not to see parallels between the present day “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the protesters in the Plaza de Mayo. Much of the resentment felt by African Americans is related to present-day discrimination, but the unresolved consequences of what has been described as the country’s “original sin” still loom large.
Many Americans take great pride in tracing back their families to the Old World. In East Coast country clubs this might be back to the arrival of the Mayflower; in Pennsylvania to German Protestants seeking religious freedom. In search of their heritage they may travel to drink beer with distant cousins in Tipperary, like Ronald Reagan in 1984. However, only one written account remains from a man or woman born in West Africa who was transported to America in the “Middle Passage” or Maafa (Kiswahili for great disaster), that of Venture Smith (1729-1805). His book, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa, but Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself, was relayed to Elisha Niles, a local teacher, when Smith was sixty-nine. By then he had succeeded in buying his freedom, and that of his wife, two sons and daughter. Smith’s descendants have sketched out a family tree starting in Africa in Dukandarra in Guinea, and stretching ten generations to present-day relatives Coralynne Henry Jackson and Florence Warmsley. However, this is an isolated anomaly; for the remainder of those in Smith’s position, what remains of their history, if at all, is documentation in slave plantation records, or bonds taken out in their names by insurance companies such as Lloyds of London. As Audley Moore, a Louisiana-born activist and a granddaughter of slaves, explained: “They owe us more than they could ever pay. They stole our language, they stole our culture. They stole us from our mothers and fathers and took away our names from us.”
Hence the particular emotional resonance of tests which claim to be able to identify the location of a black American’s African ancestors. Rick Kittles is a geneticist who has devoted much of his academic career to looking at predisposition to prostate cancer in men of different ethnicity. He is also the founder of African Ancestry, a direct to consumer product that promises to reveal not only the country of origin, but also the ethnic group that their customer originated from. The company has an explicitly reparative mission statement: “to improve the cultural, emotional, physical, spiritual and economic wellbeing of people across the African diaspora”.
This too is the main theme of Alondra Nelson’s book “The Social Life of DNA”. Can the scientific endeavour serve as a catalyst for reparation and reconciliation in the United States? Can science, in particular the rapidly evolving disciplines of genetics and genomics, lead to a fairer, more equitable world?
The field of genetics has a chequered history in this regard. Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) was one of the founders of the modern field of population genetics, using mathematics to combine Mendelian genetics with the concepts of natural selection. The eponymous Fisher’s exact test is still used to look for evidence of recent evolutionary change in populations. However, from 1933 to 1939 Fisher was professor of eugenics at University College London, having joined the Eugenics Society as an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1910. As late as 1950, when UNESCO issued a document entitled “The Race Question” in the aftermath of World War II, underscoring the underlying similarities between populations around the world, Fisher opposed it, stating that human groups differ “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development”.
James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has held similarly unpalatable views on racial differences in humans, which in 2007 led to his resignation as chancellor of the Cold Harbor Springs Laboratory in New York. In an interview that year in The Times he was quoted as saying “[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours ‑ whereas all the testing says not really”. And in 2014 the former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade published “The Troublesome Inheritance”, which argues that recent human evolution, amplified by culture, has led to three biologically distinct human races that in turn have distinct, inviolable social practices. Although it was disowned by many of the scientists from whom Wade draws his data, the book’s success suggests that it resonates with an audience that might have watched The Birth of the Nation in 1915, read The Passing of the Great Race the following year, and in 1994 made The Bell Curve a New York Times bestseller.
Critics of the views of the scientists and writers above can be split broadly into two camps. Firstly, there are those who think that these researchers’ views are based on an erroneous interpretation (or wilful misinterpretation) of the evidence. Searching for truth in the natural world is a laudable endeavour; there is no intrinsic divide between the empirical and moral worlds. Science and the pursuit of knowledge can and should inform how we define and structure moral values. There is a danger with this first approach, implicitly espoused by the over one hundred scientists who denounced Wade’s book in the New York Times. If one posits one’s moral values on what one presumes the scientific endeavour will discover, if these discoveries contradict current values, they will lead to tension. If one sets out to find out whether humans are biologically equal, but then finds evidence to the contrary, what is one to do with this? Presumably part of the reason that Fisher, Watson and Wade espoused their controversial views in public is that they felt compelled to by their interpretation of the scientific evidence at hand.
The Bell Curve demonstrates this inherent tension well. Written by a psychologist, Richard Herrnstein, and a political scientist, Charles Murray, it examined determinants of intelligence as measured by IQ scores. Concluding that one of the main determinants of IQ score was genetics, the authors went on to look at population level associations between IQ scores and various life outcomes, such as income, job performance, and involvement in crime. The most controversial part of their book then went on to link differences in IQ scores, and thus life outcomes, to race. In their recommendations they veer into eugenic territory that Ronald Fisher would have been quite comfortable in, and urge the US government to stop subsidising “births amongst poor women, who are disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution”.
A second camp consists of those who, following David Hume, believe that scientific facts exist in a different sphere from the values with which we choose to structure society. As a society we define what we believe to be morally correct, irrespective of what our knowledge of the world is (or how this may change in the future). An example of this is the UN Declaration of Human Rights, issued two years before The Race Question. Our confidence in the validity of what we believe to be morally correct should not be affected by any quantity of empirical data. As Hume puts it: good and evil are not discovered by reason (one might substitute science) alone.
Nelson is astute in pointing out that initial responses to the findings of the human genome project were in keeping with the first camp. Bill Clinton, in announcing the results to the world, declared that “one of the great truths to emerge from this triumphant expedition inside the human genome is that in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 % the same”. However, this did leave the question of the 0.1 per cent in which humans differ. For Nelson, within a few years this had led to a resurrection of the old idea of biologically determined race, in its new guise of an avenue into the determination of health and disease. Using the language of ancestry, geography and population, scientists have again begun to talk about race as a biological entity with an enthusiasm not seen since before the pre-war years. This is not to deny the value of this in specific situations: for example, in patients of East Asian origin, a high proportion are at risk of a potentially fatal reaction to an anti-epileptic drug, carbamazepine, and these can be identified using a genetic test.
Nelson mulls over this issue of the new genetic technologies as a double-edged sword throughout much of her book. Many African Americans remain distrustful of the medical profession and scientists, arguably one of the enduring legacies of the Tuskegee Study. In this study, started in 1932, a cohort of black participants, some with, and some without syphilis were followed up over forty years. All the infected men were told that they were being treated for “bad blood”, a local term used to describe various ailments including anaemia, fatigue and syphilis, despite no effective treatments being available for syphilis at the time. By 1947, penicillin had been established as successful treatment, but this was withheld from men in the study so that researchers could continue to study the long term effects of the disease. It was not until 1972 that news of the study reached the press, and led to it being shut down. In Nelson’s view, distrust of scientists and biomedical technologies continues with negatives attitudes towards genetic testing, which is perceived increasingly as a tool to facilitate the incarceration of young black men.
On the other hand, the Innocence Project, founded in New York in 1992, has used DNA analysis to exonerate three hundred and thirty men and women unjustly imprisoned by the criminal justice system. Looking through the roll call of those “exonerated by DNA”, over half of those released from prison are black.
Seeking restitution and reparation on a far larger, historical scale are a group of lawyers lead by the activist Deadria Farmer Paellman, founder of an NGO called the Reparations Study Group. Her initial 2002 class action suit, with eight plaintiffs representing thirty million African Americans, filed for reparation against eighteen defendants judged to have benefited from slavery, including Lloyd’s of London, New York Life, Union Pacific Railroad, and JP Morgan Chase. The plaintiffs estimated the value of the unpaid labour as being over $1 trillion, and sought a national apology to the descendants of slaves, and funds for social welfare programmes that would be used to improve their housing, education and healthcare.
This was not the first time that African Americans had turned to the courts looking for restitution. The first attempts were by survivors of slavery themselves. Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, Callie House, a former slave, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of four other former slaves against William McAdoo, secretary of the United States treasury. The political atmosphere at the time was not in their favour. The same year, a film called The Clansman (later retitled The Birth of the Nation) was released. A revisionist, white supremacist take on the Civil War and the postwar period , it was credited with helping to inspire a “second era” Ku Klux Klan . As a marker of its mainstream acceptance, it became the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House, with Woodrow Wilson in attendance.
Callie House and her co-litigants estimated that $68 million had been made by the state in tax income from enslaved labour in the period 1862 to 1868. This sum was the least the government should pay, they argued, for more than a century of expropriated labour. The case was rejected, and House, already a victim of harassment and intimidation by the US government, was convicted the following year on questionable charges related to mail-fraud, leading to the abandonment of the suit.
Eighty-nine years later Farmer Paellman’s case was also rejected, this time because the judge was of the opinion the plaintiffs could not demonstrate a direct relationship to the former slaves whose labour had been misappropriated. Farmer Paellman and her co-plaintiffs countered by turning to genetic testing. With new developments in the technology, they argued that this could be used to demonstrate their initial ancestry in West Africa. This, according to the plaintiffs, confirmed their connection with former slaves imported from Africa, and granted them a degree of legal legitimacy. The case was again rejected in 2005, when the judge ruled that the only way in which it could be upheld was if there was DNA evidence in conjunction with genealogical records showing direct ancestry between a former slave and a present day plaintiff, and a simultaneously a direct line of capital showing that a present day corporate entity continued to benefit from the misappropriated labour pre-1865.
In addition to these technical reasons, the case was rejected on the basis of the statute of limitations ‑ the time limit for a case to be brought to court. Seemingly unaware of the House case in 1915, one of the judges commented: “if you think you’ve been wronged, it shouldn’t take 100 years to investigate [the conduct of the defendants]”. Here, however cutting edge the science, it had entered into a sphere where it was judged to have limited standing.
The Social Life of DNA highlights the risks of turning to science, and to new technologies in particular, as a method with which to engineer social change. Firstly, it creates the illusion that a social problem can be solved with the use of technology alone. Secondly, it carries substantial opportunity costs: the investment in technology reduces interest in, and devalues, more appropriate approaches. Nelson concludes: “Evidence may be no match for ideology. Genetic ancestry testing is but one implement in an entire tool kit of tactics that, marshalled together, must be brought to the project of building racial reconciliation and justice.”
Here, for the first time, I begin to feel a little uneasy. The search for truth has become neither a reductionistic discipline of discovery, nor a rehearsal of moral arguments far removed from the natural world. Instead, it is an uneasy combination of the two, where selected empirical evidence is used as ammunition in the framing of a moral debate. Space opens up for the Fishers, Watsons and Wades to create their pseudo-scientific dystopias.
Thomas Christie Williams is a paediatrician and a clinical lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He was previously an archaeologist.