Genetic Diagnostics: How Scientific Advances Can Be Used, Mis-Used, and Abused

Posted on June 12, 2012 by

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Measuring facial features to determine racial superiority

If you’re convinced that the path to power, might, and greatness begins with disqualifying all who you deem lesser than yourself, you’re going to need some way to prove your inherent superiority.And if you’re a man with a perverse mission and a willingness to murder men, women and children by the millions, seeking to prove racial superiority becomes a matter of the utmost importance.

Think what a man like Adolf Hitler would have paid for genetic diagnostic testing. He must be rolling in his grave.

The concept of racial superiority has existed as long as the philosophical theory of Social Darwinism–and means of proving it weren’t hampered by incomplete scientific knowledge.

So, you can’t run a genome test, right? Well, there’s always phrenology–a pseudoscience that studied the morphology of the skull, and connected that to the person’s character and mental capacity. And why not throw in nose length, and hair and eye color, for good measure?

But you can see how measuring noses with rulers and analyzing the protuberations of the skull might be awkward, time-consuming, and–above all–not that accurate.

We can only imagine how racial bigots who wanted science to validate their belief systems must have longed for something better. “If only,” they may have thought, “there were something where you could keep your hands clean, not have to touch the racially inferior, have the authority of validated science behind you–and know with a great degree of certainty that your racial assessments were correct. . . .”

By 2010 the ‘if-onlys’ had become reality, thanks to the field of genetic diagnostics.

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The bard told us that “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I make changes to Shakespeare with much trepidation, but the text isn’t irretrievably altered if we insert the word “people” [and cut the 's' after make].

For genetic testing offers hope for great advancement in avoidance and treatment of illness, if people use it for the best. It has the potential to create a scenario of absurdity, when Caucasian Americans run tests to see if they have Native American ancestry, so they can stake a claim to casino money. And it offers its services–innocently–in the use of evil, as once again the claim of racial superiority arises, this time in Hungary, this time ‘proved’ by science.

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Anti-Semitism has been experiencing a resurgence in Hungary in recent years. Three-quarters of respondents to an Anti-Defamation League Poll in March, 2012, asserted that the statement “Jews have too much power in international financial markets” was probably true.” and over 65% responded “probably true” to at least three of the four anti-Semitic stereotypes tested.

And in her news-breaking article “Genome test slammed for assessing ‘racial purity’Nature author Alison Abbott notes there was an assault on the former Chief Rabbi just last week, on June 5th.

The far-right, or Jobbik, party, which won 17% of the vote in 2010 is, according to the The New York Times

the only parliamentary party of a European Union member state that campaigns with openly anti-Semitic materials. Its elected officials have made anti-Semitic remarks in Parliament, including a blood libel just this month. The party’s presidential candidate, Krisztina Morvai, has referred to Israeli Jews as “lice-infested, dirty murderers.”   

What would be more perfect, then, than a tool to be able to prove the members’ racial superiority over those ‘lice-infested’ lower classes?

Enter genetic diagnostics.

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Genetic testing can be among the most wondrous of our scientific capabilities.

It enables researchers to genetically diagnose a person’s vulnerabilities to disease, to screen for carriers of an illness, and thus discourage matches between two carriers (the dread disease Tay Sachs has been almost completely eradicated due to carrier screening), to diagnose a pre-symptomatic person, to estimate risk for diseases and disorders (Alzheimer’s comes to mind), to assess prenatally whether a fetus has a whole host of issues, from spina bifida to cleft palette to muscular dystrophy, and to diagnose–almost at birth–a number treatable disorders that are difficult to recognize in any other way.

In short it is a wonderful tool that can assess and avoid suffering and heartbreak.

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Racial Testing in Genetic Testing Photos

At one and the same time, it, like so many scientific techniques, can be used to further ends that seem silly or trivial.

A 2006 The New York Times piece discusses a couple who purchased a DNA kit for their adopted children when it came time to apply to college. Pleased, given the college admissions process, to find their twins were 11% North African, they failed to get the results in time to help the children apply as minorities, but geared themselves up for the financial aid fight–now as minorities.

Said the twins’ adoptive father,

Naturally when you’re applying to college you’re looking at how your genetic status might help you. I have three kids going now, and you can bet that any advantage we can take we will.

I reserve the right not to comment.

But thus we begin to see how genetic racial testing influences the lives of everyday people–not to screen for, prevent, and treat illnesses, but to re-define their positions in society, mainly to see if life looks better from a different genetic angle. The article notes that:

One Christian is using the test to claim Jewish genetic ancestry and to demand Israeli citizenship, and Americans of every shade are staking a DNA claim to Indian scholarships, health services and casino money.

Welcome to what may be a very real mis-use of a powerful tool.

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But we left the anti-Semitic Jobbik party hanging, and it is time to return to it, in what is likely one of the largest concerns about and biggest abuses of the science of genetic diagnostics.

A Parliamentary Jobbik member requested genetic-diagnostic testing from a firm called Nagy Gén Diagnostic and Research in 2010.

And the company did work that would have made the Nazis of yore proud.

Nagy Gén scanned 18 positions in the MP’s genome for variants that it says are characteristic of Roma and Jewish ethnic groups; its report concludes that Roma and Jewish ancestry can be ruled out.

To make it official, the firm  granted him a certificate (forgive poor Google translation) declaring him free of Jewish or Roma (gypsy) ancestry, in short, racially superior.

The MP’s name was blacked out on the certificate, and has not been released.

To be sure, there has been a backlash in the Hungarian scientific community–but that hardly seems enough. The entire study of genetic diagnostics strikes me as morally imperiled if this is the use we make of it.

Arthur Caplan writes, in a chapter entitled “What’s Wrong With Eugenics?”:

The events which led to the sterilization, torture and murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and children of mixed racial heritage in the years just before and during the Third Reich in Germany were rooted firmly in the science of genetics (Muller-Hill 1988). Rooted not in fringe, lunatic science but in the mainstream of reputable genetics in what was indisputably the most advanced scientific and technological society of its day, the pursuits of genetic purity led directly to Dachau, Treblinka, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz. [emaphsis mine]

 Remember our adaptation of Shakespeare? “There is nothing good or bad but people make it so.”

Genetic diagnostics is a field that can be used for great advances and for better health and care–for much good. But we let it be mis-used at the peril of all that’s upright and worthwhile in society.*

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*Both the Hungarian Society of Human Genetics and Institute of Genetics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, condemned the test. Should you want to contact them, perhaps, as a sign of support, I offer you the requisite information:

Hungarian Society of Human Genetics

Name of President or Contact person: Bela Melegh (president)
Phone: + 36 72 536427
Fax: + 36 72 536034
Institute of Genetics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Address: H-6726 Szeged, Temesvári krt. 62
Mail: H-6701 Szeged, P.O.Box 521
Phone: (36) 62-599-600
Fax: (36) 62-433-503
Director: Miklós ERDÉLYI
E-mail: erdelyim@brc.hu
Web site: www.szbk.u-szeged.hu

REFERENCES

Abbott A. Genome test slammed for assessing ‘racial purity.’ Nature 2012; 486:167.

 Anti-Defamation League.  “Attitudes Toward Jews In Ten European Countries.” Prepared by: First International Resources, LLC. March 2012.

Bolnick, DA et al. The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing. Science 2007; 318:399-400.

Caplan AL. What’s Morally Wrong With Eugenics? In Health, Disease, and Illness : Concepts in Medicine. Eds. Arthur L Caplan et al. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004.

Harmon A. Seeking Ancestry in DNA Ties Uncovered by Tests.  The New York Times April 12, 2006.

Keyes D. Race Science and Nazi Germany: Its Influence on Hitler’s Ideology and Euthanasia Program. Spring 2006.

Salberg MA. Letter to the Editor: Anti-Semitism in Hungary. The New York Times April 25, 2012.

Posted in: Research