It’s the same old racist genetics

Another domain the alt-right neo-Nazis want to claim for their own is genetics. Sarah Zang has a very good overview of how the deplorables are eyeballing modern genetics and genomics, and mangling it to support their racist theories, titled Will the Alt-Right Peddle a New Kind of Racist Genetics? My only objection would be that this isn’t a new kind of racist genetics at all — it’s the same old garbage, in which they misinterpret results to support their preconceptions. The interesting thing, though, is that geneticists are gearing up to fight back.

Jedidiah Carlson was googling a genetics research paper when he stumbled upon the white nationalist forum Stormfront. Carlson is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he is—to be clear—absolutely not a white nationalist. But one link led to another and he ended up reading page after page of Stormfront discussions on the reliability of 23andMe ancestry results and whether Neanderthal interbreeding is the reason for the genetic superiority of whites. Obsession with racial purity is easily channeled, apparently, into an obsession with genetics.

Stormfront has been around since the ’90s, which means it’s been around for the entirety of the genomic revolution. The major milestones in human genetics—sequencing of the first human genome, genetic confirmation that humans came out of Africa, the first mail-in DNA ancestry tests—they’re all there, refracted through the lens of white nationalism. Sure, the commentators sometimes disagreed with scientific findings or mischaracterized them, but they could also be serious about understanding genetics. “The threads would turn into an informal tutoring session and journal club,” observes Carlson. “Some of the posters have a really profound understanding of everyday concepts in population genetics.”

Carlson has been arguing with the bozos on Twitter, and I’ve been occasionally bouncing off them here and there — the “human biodiversity” gang, their intentionally neutral term for pseudo-scientific racism, kinda despises me. Even before I read this article, though, I was working up some new material for the genetics course I’ll be teaching in January specifically to address some of these problems at a fairly basic level.

One concern I’ve had for a while now is that often in undergraduate genetics we’re teaching a kind of simplified Mendelism as a starting point, and in the lab we do crosses that have been time-tested for clarity and consistency. Students start out with this kind of crude beanbag genetics in their heads, which actually is a good beginning point to get the concepts across, but then when we get into real genetics, that is considerably messier and more difficult, they may flounder. At least, that’s been my experience; but we also see it in the general public where they got a bit of Mendelian pea-crossing in high school, and then they hear something about epigenetics and just go off the rails.

This year I think my first class will involve throwing examples at them of unexpected genetics, stuff that doesn’t fit their high-school version, and start ’em out by preparing them to not trust simplistic interpretations, and to realize that Mendel’s results were a starting point for a model. It’ll also help to let them know that they don’t know everything right from the first day.

But then we’ll go right back to Mendel, and work our way up from that foundation to the hard, fun, bewildering stuff. And maybe I should try to include at least a little section on the genetics of race near the end. The garbage that Stormfront is peddling has been around for a long time, and maybe we need to start addressing it at the undergrad level now…and yes, at the high school level. I’ll have to leave that to the high school science teachers out there reading this.


  1. says

    I have a copy of “practical eugenics” if you want it. It’s interesting because they sort of understand heredity but then go horribly off the rails by assuming that cultural artifacts are hereditary, and genetics equals predestination. Basically they’re stuck in victorian-era “measure the inside of the skull to see how smart the person was” stuff. It would be funny except they want to make public policy based on it.

  2. stwriley says

    As one of those high school biology teachers, I certainly do go beyond simple Mendelian genetics with my students (though, admittedly, these are honors bio students in a very good high school.) We start with Mendel, of course, but go on to study non-Mendelian genetics and epigenetics, though doubtless at less depth than what you’re giving your students, PZ. I also make sure to include discussions of eugenics, racialist ideology, and the other missuses of genetics so that my students have a good handle on how the science they’re studying can be distorted. I wish I could say that what I do is the common-place for high school biology, but I fear that this is not so, even though it should be.

  3. wzrd1 says

    Genetics can reveal certain haplogroups that have migrated, can detect certain genetic diseases, such as G6PD deficiency and even probable relationship to parentage.
    Where it fails in determining race, save for one thing, if the genetic sample is human.

    Genetics predisposing certain characteristics have been found, while the offending genes are yet to be discovered, such as my family’s predisposition toward excess weight and metabolic syndrome (overweight, leading to type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, coronary artery disease).

    I’ll not even go into some of the mail in genetics services companies out there, save to say that some reports that I’ve read give me pause enough to worry if a pair of samples from myself might reveal that I’m not related to myself.
    Although, I do recall a criminal cG6PDae, where the mother was arrested, as genetic testing “proved” that she wasn’t related to her own daughter and subsequently, it was found that chimerism was present, resulting in a cheek swab being markedly different from her ovarian tissue genetic structure.
    Thankfully, in that case, she was acquitted.

  4. multitool says

    I gotta laugh about the neanderthal thing. If it’d turned out that africans had more neanderthal DNA, then of course it would be a sign of their inferiority.

    Instead, a bunch of racists are stumbling all over each other to identify with a word we traditionally used for ‘stupid’.

  5. Zeppelin says

    I think you’re giving them too much credit still. It’s the other way around — they’re starting with the “observation” (i.e. prejudice supported by confirmation bias) that their own “race” is superior. Sometimes not the most superiorest — the “Asian” and “Jewish” “races” sometimes get credited with being even smarter, but of course they’re still morally inferior due to their racial character, especially Jews. They then look for explanations. That this hierarchy of intelligence exists is not up for debate (they really like to cite IQ tests for this).
    So from that vantage point any feature present in Africans but not in Europeans will be taken as a candidate cause for Africans’ inferiority, and vice versa.

  6. Terska says

    They love to post on Facebook supposed proof that Africans and Arabs score lower on IQ tests than Europeans. It goes on to justifications of slavery, deportations, segregation, imprisonment, shooting unarmed people and a host of other nightmares. This is only going to get worse for a while.

  7. drken says

    I think if history has taught us anything it’s that people will pick and choose scientific data to confirm their worst prejudices. The eugenics movement had a “scientific” basis and so will whatever garbage the white supremacists cobble together from genetics. I’m sure somebody, somewhere is looking for a gene prevalent in the Arabic population that they can call the “terrorist” gene. As the song says: “Haters gonna hate”.

  8. says

    This year I think my first class will involve throwing examples at them of unexpected genetics, stuff that doesn’t fit their high-school version, and start ’em out by preparing them to not trust simplistic interpretations, and to realize that Mendel’s results were a starting point for a model. It’ll also help to let them know that they don’t know everything right from the first day.

    Please post more about this when the time comes. I’ll be very interested to hear what examples you use and how they go over with your students.

    I am being just a bit selfish in my motivations here, because I’m always looking for ideas to help with my own teaching (of high school biology students). ;)

  9. terminus says

    HS Biology teacher here (AP and 9th grade)…as always, I’m all ears…BTW, I teach that most evolution is neutral (Kimura), whereas the sexy stuff, we normally pay attention to, is via natural selection, so teach me more Professor!

  10. multitool says

    Yeah, well that’s my point, it’s the mother of all confirmation bias.

    If studies showed that white people eat more poop, nazis would whitesplain all over the place how eating poop makes you more classy.

  11. Rich Lawler says

    I had similar experiences on StormFront as the grad student. I teach an undergraduate course called “Anthropological Genetics” and while Mon/Wed are nuts-n-bolts method/theory in genetics, Friday’s lectures are “social implication” lectures. I was updating my lecture on eugenics and how it filters into sites like Stormfront. [I had to tell my Department Head that I was going to be visiting these sites from my university computer, just to make sure I was in the clear. And obviously, by visiting such sites, I do NOT endorse their content]. I didn’t spend too much time there, but the arguments on Stormfront are roughly of 3 types with respect to “races” and race differences 1) there is the typical resuscitation and citing of scientific racist studies, notably the works of Rushton and Lynn; 2) there are some members who come up with their own ideas/hypotheses based on a (sometimes surprisingly decent) reading of the primary/secondary literature; and 3) then there are the conspiracy theorists who are unsalvageable (e.g., if 23andMe results suggest that a member has 4.2% native american DNA, they merely write this off as Jewish-academic conspiracy of “planting” false evidence). My preliminary conclusion is that for many folks on these sites, scientific reasoning isn’t going to change their minds, as data aren’t the best weapon against ideology. This is also evident in the excellent article in the Washington Post “The White Flight of Derek Black”…it was proximity and interaction with “the other” (more so than scientific data) that ultimately made the difference in changing the attitude of an avowed racist. []

    One study that deserves far more mention for its implications on human genetic similarity/differences is Joe Chang’s (et al.) amazing paper in Nature on recent genealogical patterns of humans. Two thousand years ago, if someone had any descendants, then those descendants include all of us. All humans are genealogically related by extremely shallow time-depths. This result has been written up in a few places, but recently Nautilus had an excellent article on this:

  12. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    often in undergraduate genetics we’re teaching a kind of simplified Mendelism as a starting point, and in the lab we do crosses that have been time-tested for clarity and consistency

    Much like electronics teaches a simplified Ohm’s Law, where you can ignore the things that have to be understood to design more than simple low-speed circuits.

  13. vaiyt says

    “Human biodiversity” means, for white supremacists, “there are several kinds of humans, but some are bad and should be killed”. That’s the exact opposite of maintaining biodiversity.