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.