Racism and Genomes

Posted by Pete Shanks January 9, 2009
Biopolitical Times

Recently there was theoretical discussion about analyzing the genomes of Presidential candidates. Now this prospect has moved much closer to reality -- in Turkey (h/t Jonathan Moreno at Science Progress). And the context is not medical but explicitly racist.

Behind it lies the enduring dispute about the Armenian "Great Catastrophe" of 1915, an ethic cleansing that most non-Turks regard as genocide. There are increasing calls in Turkey for an apology, which President Abdullah Gul has not endorsed but has refused to condemn. In response, a Turkish opposition politician, Canan Aritman, has "accused" Gul of having Armenian blood, and demanded that he undergo a genomic test, asserting:

"These days, scientists use DNA tests, not family trees, to identify ethnic identity."

On this detail, Aritman is not entirely wrong: Some ancestry-testing companies claim to validate membership in certain Native American tribes (which can lead to economic benefit). More generally, the business of finding your roots through genetic tests has increasing appeal, especially to African-Americans whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as slaves. Much more horrific possibilities might include demands that someone take a Jewish ancestry test.

It's regrettable that Gul responded by taking the line that his family is "100% Muslim and Turk" rather than saying, as some wish he had that "it would make no difference if his granny had been an Armenian."

This particular storm may blow over; Aritman has been widely condemned for her racism. But it stands as a textbook example of the abuse of science to bolster prejudices.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: