The specificity with which this new technology is able to determine individual origins is astounding. For example, one of us, Henry Louis Gates Jr., knows from his DNA alone that he is descended from an Irish American who fathered his great-great-grandmother’s eldest son, because Gates’ y-DNA signature is one he shares with a ton of men in Ireland. CeCe Moore, a well-known genetic genealogist, identified the name and biographical details of this ancestor, long a mystery in the Gates family, by analyzing the family trees of all the people with whom Dr. Gates shares DNA in databases. publicly available data. In his mother’s line, he is descended from a white woman, most likely from England, who had a child with a man of sub-Saharan African descent at some point during the period of slavery, although their identity has been lost.
It would be an understatement to say that he was surprised to learn that his recent ancestral mutations can be traced back to both sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. As one of his friends joked: Who would have guessed that a black academic who has spent so much of his professional life researching his long-veiled African ancestry would finally find him – only to discover he is half a white man . This friend’s joke allowed him to make a remark: there is no category for white in genetic analysis; half of his ancestry traces back to parts of Europe. Let us never forget that whiteness, like blackness, is just another social fiction.
There may be fewer more dramatic demonstrations that race is a social construct than its own DNA results. And therein lies the promise of this new science. DNA, thus used, can restore a remarkable quantity of information on the ancestors whose traces we carry every day in our genomes. The multitude of population groups, regions and genetic groups reflected in DNA testing contradict existing accounts that attempt to reduce the astonishing variety of the human community to the four or five socially constructed human races on which previous generations of students learned in biology class.
This is why, as historians who study race, we believe that we are once again entering a new era. If, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, science has made enormous efforts to divide the human species into distinct categories, the genetic analysis of the 21st century promises to reveal how meaningless these categories really are. – and how connected we are all. along.
At a time when our society is deeply divided and a wave of anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, Islamophobic and anti-Black racism threatens the social fabric, it seems urgent that we develop a new language to discuss the relationship between identity, ancestry, history and science. DNA analysis could help create this language by offering more nuanced ways to look at individual origins and a more unifying narrative of our shared heritage.
But, of course, where there is promise, there is also peril. Race is, to steal a line from Wordsworth, “too much with us.” Its history is too long, its presence and use too common, for it to magically disappear anytime soon. While, biologically speaking, the idea of individual human races of different origins is as outlandish as the medieval belief that elves cause hiccups, the social reality of race is undeniable. And genetics – or, for that matter, any science – has the potential to be misused, co-opted by racist ideologies and used to reinforce harmful narratives of racial purity or biological superiority.
But if we can, at the very least, understand that race (a toxic social construct) and ancestry (a shared genetic history) are not only distinct but also fundamentally opposite – and teach this in our classrooms – it could to last a long time as a way to free us from some of the bonds in which scientific racism has trapped us.