Geneticists Criticize Use of Science by White Nationalists to Justify ‘Racial Purity’

Geneticists Criticize Use of Science by White Nationalists to Justify ‘Racial Purity’


In an unusual statement on the role of science in the resurgence of white supremacy in America, the American Society of Human Genetics on Friday denounced “attempts to link genetics and racial supremacy.”

The statement, which appears in the November issue of the group’s scientific journal, The American Journal of Human Genetics, said the concept of “racial purity” was scientifically meaningless. The group is the largest professional organization of scientists who study human genetics.

As newly visible and often-virulent groups of white nationalists have invoked genetic research to claim racial superiority, some of the genetics association’s members have suggested that the field was not doing enough to counter the claims. Some white nationalists, for example, have used research on the ability to digest lactose in milk as adults as a sign of racial identity. The topic has been much discussed on the side at the group’s annual meeting this week.

“As human geneticists, we cannot ‘just focus on our research,’” one geneticist, Melissa Wilson Sayres of Arizona State University, said Thursday night on social media. “We cannot pretend that our research isn’t being misused. Doing so is being actively complicit with white supremacy/nationalism.”

The statement by the genetics association came after an article in The New York Times examined how scientists who study human genetic diversity were struggling to respond to the racist misuse of science, even as their tools to discover how human populations vary genetically became powerful.

[Read: Why white supremacists are chugging milk, and why geneticists are alarmed.]

Dr. Wilson Sayres was one of several geneticists who were unsuccessful in efforts to convene a panel on the topic at the group’s meeting this week.

The group’s statement explains that genetic variation between human populations is linked to patterns of migration and the mixing of populations throughout history. Given how much mixing has occurred, it says, the white supremacist notion of racial purity is “scientifically meaningless.”

It also explains a distinction between race and ancestry that geneticists say has been muddled by the rise of commercial ancestry tests.

“Although a person’s genetics influences their phenotypic characteristics, and self-identified race might be influenced by physical appearance,” the statement said, “race itself is a social construct,” meaning it has no biological basis. “Black,” for instance, is a socially defined term that includes many Americans who have a majority of European ancestry.

The statement encouraged human geneticists to begin speaking out.

“In public dialogue, our research community should be clear about genetic knowledge related to ancestry and genomic diversity,” it said. “There can be no genetics-based support of claiming one group as superior to another.”


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