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The Political Valence of DNA Testing

- February 29, 2008

The Economist wrote recently that just as the 1900s were the century of the physical sciences, for better or worse, the 2000s will be the century of the biological sciences. Among the many questions suggested by that observation (such as, “how much do our institutions need to spend to ensure that every student has a course with a genuine laboratory component?”), I want to raise just one here: what will be the political or ideological valence of genomic research?

DNA tests are being used in the criminal justice system both to exonerate men falsely imprisoned for rape, and, at least potentially, to intrude on the privacy rights of the accused. They are providing much-wanted information to descendents of those with hereditary breast cancer or Huntington’s Chorea – and they have the potential to prevent some people from ever getting health insurance. Genomic tests can determine paternity, which is presumably in the interests of abandoned children, but they have also been used to deny a child of immigrants to Canada the right to join his adoptive parents there. So both the conventionally defined left and the conventionally defined right have good reasons to encourage — and to constrain — further developments in genomic research.

Given my own interests, I am especially interested in the role of DNA testing in American racial dynamics. Consider “vanity DNA testing” – swabbing one’s cheek with a Q-tip, and receiving soon thereafter information on one’s ancestry groups, down to the level of tribe or even family if one is willing to pay for it. DNA tests connect with race in two completely opposite ways, as shown in the recent PBS series, African American Lives 2. On the one hand, DNA tests frequently reveal that people’s ancestry is a mélange of what we conventionally define as races or ethnicities. (I was told, for example, that I am 6% Native American, 27% “Middle Eastern,” and 14% “South Asian” – none of which was expected in my very Northern European family.) Discovering that most of us are genomic mutts, that “they” are partly “us,” might encourage the reduction of racial animus and hierarchy. On the other hand, commercial firms are in the business of identifying precise tribal origins of African Americans, for many of whom ancestral knowledge is impossible due to the exigencies of the slave trade. Discovering what some think of as their long-lost “cousins” and heritage might encourage reification of race, ethnicity, or other forms of tribalism.

There are parallel developments in medicine. Some researchers are leaping right over the crude category of race or ethnicity to diagnoses and prescriptions based on patients’ unique genomic profile. Others are finding genomic regularities in what we conventionally define as races for everything from susceptibility to diabetes to a purported gene for intelligence. Race-based medical treatment and individualized medical treatment are both emerging from the study of DNA.

The science here is moving in leaps and bounds; “My young colleagues can’t wait to get to their lab benches every morning to see what’s been discovered overnight,” according to one leading researcher. I don’t fully understand the science – but more importantly, neither will our politicians, judges, regulators, police officers, doctors, and educators. How will the politics of DNA testing shake out? Will and should the proliferating firms that do vanity testing, medical testing, or work for police departments be regulated? Should federal and state governments encourage this innovative science (as leftists tend to think with regard to stem cell research), or should governments sharply regulate its use (as leftists also tend to think when they consider pharmaceutical and insurance companies), or both? Does political science have robust models for understanding how brand new issues develop an ideological valence and political constituency, especially if the issues are as technically complex and personally or socially fraught as DNA testing? If not, we had better get to work developing them.