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Short Stories about Genetics

3 October 2009

Few discussions of the impact of new genetic technologies continue for too long without mention of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Huxley’s dystopian vision of a world shaped by biological science has inspired many critiques of genetics. Yet it was published in 1932, two decades before Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.  A new project by the ESRC Genomics Forum attempts to update our visions of the genetic future, with a series of short stories “inspired by genetics”. They’re all freely available, and cover a range of issues around genetics.

Where are you from? And how did you get to where you live today?

30 September 2009

In an earlier post, Jon described the recent development of ‘personalised’ genetic testing services. These tests have become cheaper and cheaper, offering more people the chance to look in more detail at their biology than they ever had before. However, direct-to-consumer gene testing companies are not only offering a look at genetic diseases. They also tap into a enormous market that is genealogical research. For example, 23andMe offers ‘Ancestry Paintings’, showing the ‘global regions reflected in your genes’.  Even National Geographic offers ‘deep ancestry’ testing as part of its ‘National Genographic’ (NG) project, which is charting the history of human migration and genetic diversity.  While often technically imprecise, these projects tap into a powerful strand of what Dorothy Nelkin described as ‘genetic essentialism’ (here and here), a cultural image of genes as the essence of who we are. Thus adverts for NG ask:

“Where do you really come from? And how did you get to where you live today?”

As the Observer newspaper reported last week, these are now central questions, not for NG, but for immigration officers. The UK Borders Agency (UKBA), perhaps taking a lead from CSI, have announced plans for a “Human Prevalence Pilot Project”. The project will use DNA samples and isotope testing to establish where asylum seekers are ‘really’ from.

As has been described elsewhere, the UKBA is confusing ancestry or ethnicity with nationality. Even ancestry testing companies tend to limit themselves to ‘regions’ rather than ‘nations’, and national borders are rarely defined along ethnic or biological lines, not least in countries which were previously European colonies. Moreover, attempts to align biological and national identities have rarely had auspicious outcomes.

Even were genetic and national identities to somehow coincide, and even were genetic tests sufficiently precise to establish national rather than regional origin, the project ignores previous migration and that people, and not least refugees, move from one country to another.

While the UKBA state that this is a pilot project, they appear to have ignored any form of evidence in introducing the scheme. As one critic suggests, “they put 2 and 2 together to make 3 1/2”.

There is an ongoing discussion at the Science blog ScienceInsider, including some key questions. The story is also being discussed at Politigenomics and Genetic Future.