New Scientist’s headline “‘Ten Commandments’ of race and genetics issued” possibly falls into the overly-clever-but-unnecessary category of journalistic wordplay. They took the easy way out; ashamedly, it grabbed my attention.
Mapping the human genome has raised many ethical questions about choices — controversial issues ranging from designer babies to personal privacy rights. But, the issue of using this greater level of genetic detail as a basis for racial stereotypes and discriminatory policies, well, that’s a quieter issue that perhaps has more pervasive reprecussions.
Stereotypes, such as the native physicality of African-American athletes, may be born out by such data, but we may not be taking into account the cultural and social factors that contribute to these conclusions. Because the data may feed our preconceptions and appear to be logical, the scientific methodologies may not be scrutinized as critically as they could be.
A working group at Stanford University debated these assumptions and proclivities. The university organized a working group of geneticists, psychologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, and scientists from many disciplines to contemplate some of these dilemmas. For instance, biomedical scientists took a more clinical and neutral approach to race when describing groups of individuals; scholars in the social sciences and humanities questioned whether such labels cultural meaning.
The outcome? Ten guiding principles for the scientific community (and journalists) to carry out responsible practices (and reporting). Point number three challenged me to ponder for a bit:
“We urge those who use genetic information to reconstruct an individual’s geographic ancestry to present results within the broader context of an individual’s overall ancestry.”
If they are willing to look at geographical and cultural ancestries for conclusions, how might our spiritual and religious ancestries inform our genetic makeup and defining markers as living individuals today? If we really did our homework and scraped together thorough legacies, what would we learn about our deeper selves and who we were as individuals today? Might we have more in common with groups we’ve felt so alien to? Might we might find greater mystery in our multi-threaded pasts that might explain the evolution of our genetic makeup, our current actions, our abundance, or lack of, spiritual moorings?