Gene Expression

Ancestry testing on crack

There’s a terrifying article in The New York Times titled Seeking Ancestry in DNA Ties Uncovered by Tests. Here is a sample:

Alan Moldawer’s adopted twins, Matt and Andrew, had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Mr. Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan-tinted skin, with a new DNA kit that he had heard could determine an individual’s genetic ancestry.

The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process. But Mr. Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md., says they could be useful in obtaining financial aid.

“Naturally when you’re applying to college you’re looking at how your genetic status might help you,” said Mr. Moldawer, who knows that the twins’ birth parents are white, but has little information about their extended family. “I have three kids going now, and you can bet that any advantage we can take we will.”


The fact is, most human beings are stupid, and some of them are really stupid. And, there’s money to be made here. Our society is schizophrenic about race, so no surprise that science isn’t solving the problem, it is exacerbating it. On the one hand, we take Richard Lewontin’s “85% variation on a locus within a race” as “proving” that race doesn’t exist (statistical geneticist A.W.F. Edwards points out the problem [PDF] with this nugget of conventional wisdom), and on the other hand we go on about white skin privilege and promote policies to remediate the social impact of race in the past and the present. Race is a social reality, but it is grounded in the perception of biological differences, so the emergence of these “ancestry tests” was going to inevitably be swept into the vortex.

Science and human social systems are fundamentally different. I agree with mathematical geneticist Neil Risch that many populations can be easily distinguished given enough loci. Just like the sample of salient phenotypic characters can give you a gestalt perception of an individual’s ethnic origin,1 so the enormous set of loci offered up by modern genomic techniques allows us to refine our ability to map underlying population substructure. Nevertheless, these are statistical truths, and the law is predicated on deterministic heuristics.2 I believe this bias derives from the fact that we are natural Platonists, our minds are geared toward generating idealized protoypes and exemplars of particular categories. Our statistical inference intutions are very rough and ready, and problems like the law of small numbers or the gross inability to intuit Bayesian expectations point to the fact that even if we reflectively acknowledge graded continuity and nuanced variation across distributions, our minds will always shunt us toward discrete pebbles of preconception.

We are now hurtling into the postgenomic era and within 10 years we might have affordable personalized sequencing at our fingertips. What are we going to do with this information? How are we going to swim our way through the sea of correlations and conditional probabilities which will be thrown our way? This is only an appetizers for the main course, ancestry testing is small potatos. When the “kits” start to get functional as well as ancestral, then it will be like a crack + PCP + angel dust + fucked up heroine cocktail. Pray.

1 – If I told you my skin was brown you really couldn’t judge my race too well. What if I told you that my hair was straight? That would probably eliminate the sample of possibilities. What if I told you that I lacked an epicanthic fold and that my cheekbones weren’t high? The possibilities are narrowing even more. Same with genes.

2 – When I say the truths are statistical, I am not saying that the error in ascertainment of whether someone is from Ghana or Sweden is very high, and in fact, it is operationally deterministic (just as visual inspection is usually not clouded by ambiguity on this issue). The problem is that just because the two ends of this spectrum are clear and distinct does not negate the fact that there are populations in the middle whose gene frequencies bridge the chasm. For example, the US Census defines Middle Easterners as white, even though a minority of Egyptians have enough Nubian admixture to “pass” for African American. The problem is that the law has to draw a hard line around categories, while modern genetics is elucidating statistical truths which exist in a cloud of probability distributions which must be framed and contextualized. In short, law is based on language, while the new genomics drinks speaks in the tongue of mathematics.

Comments

  1. #1 JP
    April 12, 2006

    I actually found that article more amusing than terrifying:

    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.

    and

    Ashley Klett’s younger sister marked the “Asian” box on her college applications this year, after the elder Ms. Klett, 20, took a DNA test that said she was 2 percent East Asian and 98 percent European. Whether it mattered they do not know, but she did get into the college of her choice.”And they gave her a scholarship,” Ashley said.
    Pearl Duncan has grander ambitions: she wants a castle.

    The tests certainly abuse popular misconceptions of statistics and genetics, and it’s certainly outrageous, but for me this passes into the land of farce.

  2. #2 razib
    April 12, 2006

    yes, but you are in graduate school. i recall that a few years ago the native american student union at berekely wanted to the university to aduit some of the ‘native american’ applicants because the increase in the # of this group did not track with an increase the membership of their organization. in other words, they suspected people were putting ‘native american’ in the hopes of adding some diversity points to their application. see this article about “black native americans” to see situations where this is not farce but muddying and confusing already treacherous waters….

  3. #3 NuSapiens
    April 12, 2006

    Is a person who is 2% +/- 5% East Asian claiming “Asian” on a college application any more silly than comparing someone like Will Smith to a West African? Or more terrifying, for that matter?

    These tests are great, because they raise a doubt about popular Platonic thinking about these issues. As Socrates noted, the first step towards wisdom is acknowledging what we *don’t* know.

  4. #4 Boknekht
    April 12, 2006

    “The fact is, most human beings are stupid, and some of them are really stupid.”

    This is why quite a few men of powerful intellect become misanthropes. Well, not just that they’re stupid, but stupid, illogical, irresponsible & wicked. I’ll look for studies on why misanthropes feel the way they do.

  5. #5 razib
    April 12, 2006

    Is a person who is 2% +/- 5% East Asian claiming “Asian” on a college application any more silly than comparing someone like Will Smith to a West African?

    yes. unless you are thinking platonically, will smith is clearly non-trivially west african, probably at least 50%. there is a quantitative difference.

    As Socrates noted, the first step towards wisdom is acknowledging what we *don’t* know.

    most people are too stupid to be followers of socrates.

  6. #6 Boknekht
    April 12, 2006

    Speaking of the PostGenomic Era. Personalized sequencing? What if one finds that one has a few population atypical alleles that link him to, say, Iran? Does this mean that he will feel some sort of solidarity with Iranians, Kurds? It’s unlikely, but possible, that I possess alleles or a Y Haplogroup, or even MtDNA typical of east Asians. But what should that mean to me? I wonder what Personalized Sequencing would mean for the psychological types who frequent Dienekes’s Donona Forums? Might be hillarious to see.

    I hope this isn’t to moronic a question, but, as of 2006, do we know more about the genome & how it functions than we don’t know? Would you happen to have a link where i could find the current mysteries, if any, in genomics.

  7. #7 NuSapiens
    April 12, 2006

    Right – the next big thing will be of course, Gene Expression. So if someone’s 50/50 African/European. But which genes express, and under what circumstances. Of 100 people with identical genotype, what range of expression will we see – starting with the obvious anthropometric traits?

    The interesting thing about genes is that closely related ethnicities are more likely than distantly related ones to hate each other. Think of Greeks/Turks, Ulster Irish/Scots, Japanese/Koreans, etc.

  8. #8 Boknekht
    April 12, 2006

    NuSapiens: closely related ethnicities are more likely than distantly related ones to hate each other.

    Well, proximity can encourage conflict & competition. Familiarity breeds, or can breed, contempt. It’s what one would tend to expect, actually.:)

  9. #9 ggk
    April 13, 2006

    Razib
    I have solved the immigration issue,
    US should do a genetic test on south americans
    and only let those with a high % of Native American
    markers.

  10. #10 JP
    April 13, 2006

    do we know more about the genome & how it functions than we don’t know?

    no (though, of course, it’s impossible to know how much we don’t know. but it’s pretty safe to say we’re not at 50% of total understanding of the genome). the major question (as I see it) is still the same as it was 60 years ago: the genetic basis of heritable traits. For humans, this especially means disease– especially “complex” diseases like diabetes or asthma– and “psychological” characteristics, like personality. for the time being.

    In organisms like yeast or bacteria, how does the genome respond to environmental changes? What genes (or non-coding regioins) are up/down-regulated in response to the environment, and how? The trick will be coming to an understanding of the genome as something that responds to external stimuli, and figuring out how different reactions are controlled/polymorphic (see this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=16381818&dopt=Citation . Eventually this view will be extended to humans as well…but we’re pretty tough little bitches to understand.

    The genome is easy to wrap your head around if you consider it a list of letters. Understanding that it’s a physical entity (that doesn’t exist independently of different proteins), with parameters like expression that change in time and space (different parts of the nucleus = different levels of expression, for example) makes it a lot more interesting.

  11. #11 iamanimal
    April 15, 2006

    “For example, the US Census defines Middle Easterners as white, even though a minority of Egyptians have enough Nubian admixture to “pass” for African American.”

    Ha! I laugh at how people try to explain away the fact that when they visit the pyramids of Ghiza – they are surrounded by black folks. Today’s urban Egyptians are largely a result of the Arab influx into the country from the north, which has occurred over centuries. Contrary to popular belief though, an Egyptian does not have to have “nubian admixture” to pass for an African American. Indeed, any trip to the cities surrounding the pyramids of Ancient Egypt would reveal that many Egyptians – not Nubians – are black people. Not white, not asian – but black. If you haven’t been there – do not claim otherwise until you visit and see for your own eyes the descendents of Ancient Egpyt. So yes, Jewish folks, as you celebrate passover, it might be interesting to reflect on the fact that your ancestors were enslaved by black people. That’s how baby Moses was able to pass for an Egyptian – if that flawed, manmade bible even told that story right. Of course, you all probably looked very much like them at the time, until you started adding all those European genes to your gene pool. ;)

  12. #12 PJGoober
    April 17, 2006

    As Steve Sailer has observed, more people being able to claim underperforming minority ancestry raises the affirmative action burden on those who can’t or won’t.

    I can’t find the article though. It was a UPI article on affirmative action and immigration.

  13. #13 razib
    April 17, 2006

    Today’s urban Egyptians are largely a result of the Arab influx into the country from the north, which has occurred over centuries.

    this is not true. you’re dumb.

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