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Graphic by Tom Abi Samra

Conference: Genetics and Identity

NYUAD is hosting a two-day multidisciplinary symposium on Genetics and Identity. As learning about ancestral roots has become a recent trend, don’t hesitate to check out the findings the symposium has to offer about genetics vs our identity.

Feb 16, 2019

Perhaps you have heard of someone drooling into a test tube this past Christmas, in hopes of getting some clarity about their DNA makeup. This CSI best practice has become trendy as people attempt to gift their loved ones with information on their ancestral composition, obtained through one of the popular direct-to-consumer genetic tests. With the Christmas season sales the industry is currently valued at 170 million dollars and is projected to grow to as much as 340 million U.S. Dollars by 2020 – with dominant market players such as 23andme and
As the market value shows, many consumers are desperate to find out what their genes say about who they really are and where they actually come from. Modern science has made this possible. Finally, it seems that there is something scientific to substantiate historically constructed claims about racial and ethnic categories. Perhaps this trend has made it a nightmare for people to decide which racial box they should tick on their college application form or maybe it has comforted adopted children with a sense of belonging to their long lost families. But how do these tests affect the way we conceptualize racial difference?
It has been shown that people try to promote the aspects of their ancestry results which they like and discredit the ones they do not like.
A 2017 study revealed that white supremacists delegitimize test results which taint their self-identification with a purely European lineage. This is evidence of the rather influential claims that new genetic technologies are making about race and ethnicity, with the possibility to impact historically constructed racial thinking. The debate is unfolding as we speak and perhaps it is why the Division of Sciences, the Division of Social Sciences and the NYUAD Research Institute decided to host a two-day multidisciplinary symposium on Genetics and Identity from Feb. 19-20.
Associate Professor of Sociology at NYU New York, Dr. Ann Morning’s research focuses on the sociology of race and ethnicity, connecting it to demography and the way people classify themselves into ethnic groups. She has found that new scientific developments in genetics provide an interesting way to help understand questions surrounding the nature of race. She explains that the racial categories we have devised in the west are a product of political, economic and social circumstances that emerged during the imperial expansion of European governance and religion into Asia, Africa and the Americas. Our beliefs about race emerged in the wake of such political clashes and once those ideas were formalized, humans have always looked to science to confirm the objective reality of the of these invented categories.
Carl Linnaeus, who is famous for his work in Taxonomy, attempted to explore the existence of this objective reality back in the early 1700s. The categories of race that he devised at that time — ideas about the existence of an African, a European, an Asian and an Indigenous American race — are still in use today. This is all despite the fact that these categories are not a product of scientific research, but rather, they are based on reports from slave traders and plantation owners in the new world. Science then tried to prove the existence of invented racial classifications through theories of skull shape, features of the skeleton and bones and serology. Needless to say, none of these theories were able to definitively prove anything about race.
According to Morning, we are currently at a stage where “genetics is being pressed into service to supposedly prove things about racial difference [which] is just part of a longer history of those kinds of efforts to enlist science to bolster our social categories.”
What she considers even more interesting is that many experts in genetics contest that there really exists such a thing as a black, white, yellow or red race. In fact, they claim that from what they know of the human genome, everything we’ve been able to learn so far shows that there aren’t three or four or five races or whatever it is that we believe. These are just some of the topics expected to arise at the upcoming symposium. Moreover, it is intended to include perspectives from North Africa and the Middle East in the discussion — two regions which have been underrepresented in genetic research to date.
Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Jonathan Marks, is another scholar who is going to be present at the upcoming symposium. He believes that the interdisciplinary nature of the conference provides a unique and valuable opportunity to think about issues of genetics and identity in a different and better way.
His belief is that, “most of the important elements of a person’s identity are unrelated to genetics. One’s citizenship, religion, occupation, social class, football team affiliation, alma mater, political party or gender can all be important non-genetic elements of identity.”
He then goes on to explain that, “genetics can be very helpful in a narrow, naturalistic sense, and that can be important to some people.” However, there are other non-genetic, rational aspects of identity which define a person based on their interpersonal relationships.
All of these ideas show the importance of having an interdisciplinary, scholarly debate on the rather complex subject matter, bringing it to the attention of the community at large by attracting scholars from around the world. Morning hopes that a consideration of the “global panorama of human difference” will promote a more critical analysis of ideas of race and ethnicity. She hopes that this would force us to accept that race is simply not a good way of defining the human population and lead to more sophisticated understandings of genetic difference and identities. This particular conference will allow for these wishes to prevail by moving beyond the dominant voices of the west on the subject matter and involving other representative voices. By attending this symposium, students can witness and become a part of the broader discussion about genetic science and social science, pushing our understanding of genetics and identity to a whole new level.
Dania Paul is a contributing writer. Email her at
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