Sunday, October 07, 2007

The problematic question of race

Wired has a pretty good article on racial DNA profiling, which has been used in a few crime cases, and the problems with it.

The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling

According to the article, it's possible to determine a person's ancestry quite accurately from a DNA sample. This has been used in the past to give a better profile of a criminal, enabling the police to catch him.

I know little about this technique, but from what I've heard, the article gives a fairly correct evaluation of the efficiency of the profiling.

Now, the question that the article also raises, is, should we use this technique, just because we can?

New York University professor Troy Duster is a member of the advisory committee on the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues program at the National Human Genome Research Institute and president of the American Sociological Association. Duster, who has written extensively on race and genetics, including the book Back Door to Eugenics, worries about the proverbial slippery slope.

"Once we start talking about predicting racial background from genetics, it's not much of a leap to talking about how people perform based on their DNA -- why they committed that rape or stole that car or scored higher on that IQ test," says Duster. "In this society where race is such a powerful idea, once you head down this path toward predicting race, will the next step be predicting racial behavior?"

Duster is of course quite correct, and I think it is important to note that the concept of race is a social construct. What the DNA profiling does, is to find the ancestry of the person the sample comes from. Given the ancestry, it is possible to make some qualified guesses about the person's appearance (skin colour etc.). Just because two people share common ancestry n generations back, doesn't mean that they are alike at all.

So, why is the question of race even mentioned, when talking about ancestry?

Because it is still the big taboo subject in the US, and for good reason. The US is, after all, one of the few countries where descendants of slave owners live together with descendants of slaves, and where social inequality is rampant among those two groups. It's a country where a book like The Bell Curve can be published, and still get mentioned in all seriousness by people, some times even politicians. Until people understand that it is impossible to judge anyone by whatever ethnic group they belong to (or gender etc.), it will be necessary to be careful when using new techniques like the one described in the article.

The spectre of racism can seem very physical at times.

I think this technique should be used, but it is important to use it in a responsible way. And it must never become the situation that you become a suspect, just because you match the ethnic profile given by the test. The test can be used as a tool for investigation, never as evidence, except for innocence (much the same should be said of finger prints and DNA matches).

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