• Little Rock, US, 1959. Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. (Wikimedia commons)Source: Wikimedia commons
Science is not protected from the dangers of ideology – we examine four ways people have abused genetics for political reasons.
Jack Scanlan

6 Jun 2016 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2016 - 2:05 PM

Political beliefs aren’t always based on sound evidence, but their proponents would like that to be the case. Hence, as a tool for discovering fundamental knowledge about the world, science often gets dragged into ideological discussions — with genetics being no exception.

The study of genes is intimately tied to how we identify ourselves, as each person’s genetic material is uniquely theirs. DNA makes us who we are, and, through the lens of evolutionary biology, it divides the living world into natural taxonomic categories.

But this supposed ‘dividing’ quality of genetics can easily — and, as we’ll see, wrongly — provide fuel for controversial political positions.

The genetics of race

Around the world, one of the biggest societally dividing concepts is race. For centuries, colonial European scientists tried to provide an objective justification for their racism by appealing to perceived anatomical and behavioural differences between human populations.

By the 20th century, arguments name-dropping heredity and population genetics started to creep into pseudoscientific screeds about the ‘dangers’ of ‘race-mixing’.

“There are virtually no sharp racial boundaries when it comes to genes, and race is mostly in our heads”

Unscientific assertions about the ‘undesirable’ traits of non-white races seemingly justified slavery in the USA, as well as apartheid in South Africa. In more modern times, assumed genetic differences between races also implicitly underpin the arguments of interracial marriage opponents, as well as claims of “white genocide” by those on the political right.

In reality, modern genetics shows that most genetic differences occur within populations, not between them. And while it is possible to use them to track an individual person’s ancestry, these differences do not align well with antiquated racial categories. In fact, genetic variation is largely continuous; there are virtually no sharp racial boundaries when it comes to genes, and race is mostly in our heads

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Class and intelligence

Of the ‘undesirable’ traits that are assumed to have a genetic basis, low intelligence is consistently singled out — after all, it’s much easier to justify oppressing a group of people if you claim they aren’t smart enough to govern themselves.

When a controversial (and deeply flawed) book called “The Bell Curve” came out in 1994, it reignited debates around the genetic basis of intelligence and its role in the socioeconomic status of different groups in society. The book’s authors, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, claimed that low scores on IQ tests were associated with – and therefore caused – poverty. To them this meant there existed a higher-class “cognitive elite.”

The authors have subsequently been widely criticised for confusing correlation for causation — poverty seemingly affects IQ, not the other way around.

There are many disparate ways to define intelligence, but it does appear to be in some sense heritable within families, and therefore it may have a partial genetic basis. However, this does not mean there are broad differences in intelligence between classes of people in society, nor, of course, that society must be restructured to reflect this. 

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Social Darwinism

Population genetics is the basis of evolutionary biology — genes in a population change over time in response to the environment. Political ideologies based on social hierarchy have often appealed to the ‘survival of the fittest,’ a simplified reading of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, in order to claim a repressive class-based society is natural and just.

Strangely, it was Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, who was at the forefront of this line of reasoning in the 19th century. Inspired by Darwinism, he advocated for the sterilisation of the poor and “unfit,” and also coined the term ‘eugenics’.

“Many species, such as bees and ants, form complex societies based on cooperation, not competition”

But there are many parts of evolutionary theory disconnected from this bleak socially Darwinian view. Many species, such as bees and ants, form complex societies based on cooperation, not competition.

Mutually beneficial relationships can also be found between unrelated organisms too, such as the anemone-like cnidarians and single-celled protists that comprise coral, or the digestive pact between cows and the microbes that live in their stomachs.

Fear of genetically modified food

Compared to the political right, the political left tends to accept the science of genetics without misusing it, but it has always had a shaky relationship with its biotechnological applications. Huge agricultural companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont, are routinely criticised by left-leaning activists for undertaking the genetic modification (GM) of crops. Anti-GM scare campaigns emphasise the ‘unnatural’ nature of such plants and claim they are unsafe for human consumption.

“The ideological basis for GM fear relates to a distrust of power and authority, particularly around corporatism and globalisation”

While there are some clear problems with the way GM crops are marketed and sold in developing countries, and general issues with the behaviour of multinational corporations, there’s no reason to think genetic modification is inherently more dangerous than traditional selective breeding. In fact, GM crops undergo far stricter safety assessments than non-GM hybrid plants, so you shouldn’t be scared before you chow down. 

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The ideological basis for GM fear relates to a distrust of power and authority, particularly around corporatism and globalisation. But criticising those issues need not come down to inaccurately maligning an apolitical technology, let alone one that can do many good things in the right hands.

That’s the bottom line with science — it can only get you so far on its own: it’s up to society to work out how to use it.

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