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Amade M’charek on DNA, profiling and race

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DNA research in police investigation unjustly designates whole groups with certain racial characteristics as suspects. It is an example of the enormous role which genetics plays in our daily life. But in science this is hardly criticized, because speaking about 'race' is taboo.

On May 5th 2018, Amade M'charek delivered the fifth edition of the Godwin-lecture. A Bits of Freedom volunteer translated this speech into English from the Dutch original. The Godwin-lecture is organized every year by Bits of Freedom, De Correpondent and Artis.

Since the end of March there is a strong debate in the US about race and genetics. The usually nuanced geneticist David Reich pleaded in an extended articleRead Reich's article here in The New York Times to start talking about 'race'.

Reich states that race as a concept should get a role in genetic research. According to him there is a taboo on research into differences between races, even though this research is relevant.

If we, as scientists, do not claim this space, states Reich, others will claim it, and they will misuse scientific findings to substantiate their racist sympathies.

You should not think exclusively about all sorts of alt-right- or neo-nazi groups. No, he also, rightfully, names acclaimed persons like the Nobel price winner James Watson. Mr. DNA himself.

In an interview in The Sunday TimesRead the interview here, Watson said to be 'sad' about the 'perspectives for Africa'. He claimed that all social policy - read: development aid - start from an unjust presupposition. Namely: that we are all equally intelligent, while according to Watson research systematically proves the opposite.

Because of that interviewFor that same reason he was forbidden in 2016 to give a lecture about cancer research, after protests from medical students he had to step downRead about what happened in 2007 in The Guardian as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an institute for cancer research in New York.

Race is lucrative

I agree with Reich that it is important to speak about race. However, his claim that there is a taboo on genetic differences is sheer nonsense. The past fifteen years we invested millions of Euros in research on genetic diversity, hoping to find out more about the cause of diseases and to answer identity questions about our origin, relationship and migration history.

Besides, the work of Reich itself is a perfect example of genetic differences being at the center of examination. Which worked out well for him. In the end this research made him a Harvard-professor.

Knowledge about genetic differences grows and blossoms. But there still is a taboo on race. And that is a problem. The R word is on one side untouchable, and on the other side very attractive, not to say lucrative.

Despite Reich taking a distance from Watson’s point of view where it concerns race, he has something with him in common as well. It can be a coincidence, but both seek media attention with startling statements about race, right at the moment they need to sell a book. We know: sex sells, but race sells equally well.

So reviving the debate about race is lucrative. The result is attention and money. For that reason it is not remarkable that the R word pops up regularly in science. Still we are surprised again and again.

Science disqualified race as a category

Why that is has everything to do with the Second World War, the national socialistic regime and the Holocaust. With the ending of the Second World War race as an object of research more or less came to an end.

In 1950 the important UNESCO-statement on race saw the light of day. UNESCO assigned a number of scientists to answer the question of whether race has a scientific basis, and to map the available research about this topic.

The statement concluded that efforts by physical anthropologists, geneticists and psychologists since the 19th century to classify the diversity of humanity according to a racial typology, had failed hopelessly.

How we can renovate the rule of law in such a way that using data, in combination with the power and the monopoly on violence from the state, does not lead to abuse against citizens?

The presumed racial types — like the Caucasian, negroid and mongoloid race — were unable to be defined in practice. Boundaries between one and the other population group could not be drawn sharply because the categories are not distinct, but subject to 'a statistic distribution'.

In plain language: all genetic characteristics can be found in all populations, however always in a different distribution. And that distribution constantly changes when we look at a different genetic characteristics, at a different part of the DNA.

The disqualification of race as a scientific category did not contribute to the image of genetics. While physicists helped with their technologies with the victory on the nazi's (think about radar technology), the knowledge of geneticists with their research has lead to eugenicsThis article in Nature explains more about eugenics — 'enhancing' the quality of the people via biology — and to genocide.

The long and influential history of racial science — at home and in the colonies — and the role of genetic research in the eugenics project, dispelled genetics to the dark spaces of our laboratories.

Humankind genetically mapped

But not forever. Physicists and biochemists were able to make genetics salonfähig, even hip. Think about Rosalind Franklin. Here knowledge of crystallography was necessary to unravel the structure of the DNA, the double helix, in 1953. A groundbreaking discovery for which only the previously mentioned James Watson and Francis Crick received the Nobel prize, and not Franklin.

Biochemists and biophysicists not only took genetics out of the doldrum, they changed the 'research object' in the life sciences. We no longer looked at organisms, but looked macromolecules like protein and DNA instead. This radical reduction of life to molecules, resulted that research into the sequence of the DNA building blocks was presented as 'the search for the holy grail'.

This led to the Human Genome ProjectRead more about the Human Genome Project at their official website (HGP). This billion-dollar project, launched in the late 80s, aimed to produce the first ever genetic map of humandkind. A kind of Universal Human in the language of DNA.

The first scientific director of that project — there he is again: James Watson, claimed in 1989You can find this claim in Time Magazine: 'We used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know, (in large measure), our fate is in our genes.’

Now that the end of the Cold War has de facto made high investments in military research unnecessary, a switch from ‘technologies of death’ to ‘technologies of life’ was viable. The Human Genome Project became the next ‘Big Science’ project of the American ministry of Energy. The formerly most prominent funder of military research was now investing into biotech.

Ten years later, in June 2000, a rough genetical map of humankind was presented to us. That this map was not presented to the world via a scientific publication but at the White House, marks its presumed importance for mankind.

Political world leaders like Bill Cinton and Tony Blair, HGP-director Francis Collins and the CEO of the commercial company Celera Genomics, Craig Venter all attended the presentation. Politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs, together for mankind.

The genome was presented as a monument to our commonality. The world could let out a sigh of relieve, because – as Clinton saidClinton said this in June 2000 - 'genetically we are 99.9 percent the same'.

We are for 99.9 percent the same, but the discussion is constantly about that 0.1 percent

However, in the genome lies a paradox. While it underlines our equality — we are one human family — the genetic map was from the beginning embedded in a modern enlightenment ideal. It symbolizes the ideal of an individual identity.

The genome was frequently presented as the answer to the dictum: know yourself. This was enthusiastically expressed by one of the prominent advocates of the Human Genome Project, the Nobel prize winner and geneticist Walter Gilbert.

At conventions Gilbert raised a CD-ROM and shouted: 'Here you see a human being. It is me!' Thereby making it clear that we as human beings are no more than a bag of genes, and that our biology is best understood as information that can be read from a CD-ROM.

We are for 99.9 percent equal. And so race has no scientific basis, said Bill Clinton and Craig Venter. But the ink was not even dry when the genetic research stopped focusing on the 99.9 percent that is the same between people, but focused on the 0.1 percent that is different.

Genetic databases were build in for example the HapMap ProjectLearn more about the HapMap Project... (International Human Haplotype Map Project) and the Human Genome Diversity Project... and about the Human Genome Diversity Project in which genetic differences were not related to the individual, but to populations with common geographic roots.

Working with these 'populations' conceals that in practice this is often about racial categorizations, for example in medical research, where the concept of personalized medicine became popular: medicine customized for you.

Disease is becoming a problem you can solve with computers

That is not an empty promise. While the production of that first genetic map was an investment of billions which cost years of work, you can now produce a complete genetic map in the blink of an eye. But what exactly can we read from this map?

We are made to believe that by knowing somebody’s individual genetic profile you can determine if and how this person will become ill, and which specific medication and dosage would fit.

However, what occurs here, is a rigorous change in definitions. Illness and health are no longer connected to living conditions and lifestyle it is assumed, but mainly the result of our genetic constitution. What happens in a sick body, can be solved with computers: making the body fit again is just a matter of rebooting a few cells.

That seems to also be the assumption of Microsoft, which in September 2016 launched an initiativeRead more about Microsoft's promise at Fortune to cure all types of cancer by 2026.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Pricilla Chan, joined the initiative two weeks later, when they announced to make 3 billion dollar available to help cure all diseases in the life era of the next generation. - currently known as the Chan Zuckerberg InitiativeThe official website of the initiative (CZI)

Genetics promises knowledge about the individual

What will remain in practice of this promise of individuality? A few examples may shine a light on that. And I will present you with the conclusion right now: genetics promises knowledge about the individual, but it delivers mainly knowledge about race. Race is mostly seen as a necessary intermediate step on the road to individualization: 'race in the meantime'. The question is: how long does a meantime last?

In 2005 the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) gave the green light to what is now known as the first 'ethnical' medicine: BiDilMore information from the FDA about BiDil. BiDil even was awared a patent, while it does no more than combining two known generic medicines against heart failure.

Because of this combination, the company NitroMed claimed, the medicine had an increased performance for black patients. Even though the clinical researchYou can find the research here was only conducted on 'Afro-American' patients (49) with an 'Afro-American' control group, they still concluded that the medicine is more effective amongst the black population than for the white population.

It was estimated that NitroMed would serve a market of 750.000 patients; expected profits were predicted to be around 500 million up to even one billion dollar. BiDil received a lot of criticism, about their research method as well as their use of race as a category, because their starting point is that skin color and self identification say something meaningful about biology.

Individuals are not interesting for the market

Heart failure is very common in the US within the the black population, but for example not in sub-Saharan Africa. Skin color therefore cannot be the explanatory factor. Heart failure in the US is for this reason possibly better understood by looking at social environmental factors like racism, poverty and stress.

Not everybody shared this criticism. Many Afro-American organizations embraced BiDil as a possible turnaround in clinical research, where minorities got structurally too little attention.

In any case: the dreamed profits of NitroMed never came to be and in the meantine the company has stopped its activities.

DNA-technology focused on the physical characteristics of suspects does not deliver an individual suspect, but turns a large group of innocent citizens into suspects instead.

Two lessons can be learned from this example. The first is that even though genetics promises us personally tailored medicine and makes us believe that every individual is genetically unique, the market logic, where genetic-medical medicine needs to be sold, says something else. One single patient or a small group of patients is not interesting for the pharmaceutical industry.

The second lesson is that the failure of BiDil does not rule out that diseases manifest themselves differently with populations that differ from each other. Such patterns need to be researched too. But they can seldom be simply reduced to biological differences.

It is even more problematic to use certain physical characteristics as proof for a supposed racial biological difference.

Much more often the relevant patterns reflect complex combinations of lifestyle, position in society, history, and biology. Diseases are part of life and life is complex and can therefore not be reduced to a few variables.

DNA is now used to track down unknown suspects

The promise of individuality and the problem of race also occur in forensic genetics , with the use of DNA in criminal cases. Previously DNA was used to identify someone or to rule out someone as a suspect. To do that, DNA found on the crime scene is compared to the DNA of the suspect of a crime.

Nowadays, DNA is also used to reveal the identity of an unknown suspect. In these cases there is no suspect, only a DNA-trace. Based on that trace a statement is made about the physical characteristics of this unknown person.

Take the case of the Night StalkerThis is about the British Night Stalker, not the American Night Stalker who was active in the eighties, who was active between 1992 and 2009 in the South of London. During that period at least 203 people, mostly elderly women between 65 and 90, became a victim of sexual abuse, rape or burglary.

The suspect struck in cycles, left no fingerprints, but did leave some DNA here and there, in the form of sperm or skin under the nails of his victims. Despite the fact that more than two hundred cases could be linked via DNA to a single suspect, his identity could not be revealed in spite of all the efforts to do so.

The technology makes large groups of (innocent) people suspect

In 2006, fourteen years later, the American company DNA Print Genomics was asked to help. This company, nowadays also bankrupt, had developed a DNA-witness kit which made predictions about the appearance of an unknown suspect and about their geographical origin.

The Night Stalker, concluded the company, is a man, with a geographical origin that can be traced to the South of the Sahara in Africa for 82 percent, for 12 percent to the native Americans in the USA and for 6 percent to Europe. This genetic information and a few tips from eyewitnesses resulted in this peculiar 'passport photo':

Foto: PA / Metropolitan Police

In England this vague DNA-profile was immediately translated into 'a black male of Caribbean descent'. Police reports stated that advanced DNA-techniques were used, which indicated that the suspect 'probably was of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity' and likely originated from the Windward Islands.

As a result of the advanced DNA-techniques that were used, hundreds policemen with a Caribbean background were more or less forced to submit their DNA. This was necessary to optimize the DNA-witness kit of the American company for the use in a British context: it was after all based on relevant populations from the USA.

The conclusion that the suspect probably came from the Windward Islands, brought 21,000 men into the picture who matched the profile. Thousands of men from neighborhoods with high populations of people with a Caribbean background were asked to hand over their DNA to help the police investigationThis article gives some more information about the police investigation. Men that refused to cooperate were threatened and put under pressure to participate.

Four years later the suspect was arrested. Delroy Easton Grant turned out to be a London citizen with a Jamaican background. He was not found based on the DNA-profile, but got caught when his car was spotted on the footage from a security camera nearby an ATM — where he took out cash from an account of one of his victims.

This case clearly shows that in practice DNA-technology focused on the physical characteristics of suspects does not deliver an individual suspect, but turns a large group of innocent citizens into suspects instead.

We are allowed to use DNA to determine the 'race' of the unknown suspect

The case of the Night Stalker was 10 years ago. Have we moved on since then?

Certainly. And the Dutch are at the forefront. We are a leader in both legislation and in technological developments. Our DNA-legislationThe Dutch DNA law allows make it possible to literally determine —that is what the law states— 'the race' of the unknown suspect.

It is a bit alienating. Because what is race? There is no definition of race. And it is technically and legally also possible to determine eye color, hair color and skin color of the unknown suspect.

The most important factor in police investigatory practice is what is called the 'geographic origin' in genetics and what the Dutch law just calls 'race'. This is because this technology aims to narrow the pool of possible suspects in order to make it more manageable for a police investigation. This means that is particularly interesting if the geographic origin points in the direction of a minority.

The question which we must continue to ask ourselves is if the social damage that is caused by publicly turning whole population groups into suspects weighs up against the possible success in trying to find a suspect.

The technology which clusters people mostly works against with minorities

In the well known case about the murder of Marianne Vaatstra, we have seen that the technology which clusters people works particularly well with minority groups.

The statement, based on DNA-traces, that the suspect most likely had a Dutch background did not help the police investigation any further. And we had to wait over twelve years until the resolution of the case, which finally was established through kinship research.

In April this year kinship research was in the news too in the resolution of a remarkable case in the United States, the case of the 'Golden State Killer'. This was a cold case from California, in which the suspect committed at least fifty rapes and twelve murders from 1976-1986.

In 2017 the American police came up with the idea to consult public DNA-databases. These are databases, mostly owned by genealogical associations, which are available to everyone. The police did not really expect to find the suspect there, but hoped to find profiles which were a bit similar to the suspect. This could mean that an uncle, father or son of that person is the suspect.

In March of this year the suspect was found via such a public genealogical databaseIt was GEDmatch: a distant relative of the perpetrator in that database led the police to Joseph James DeAngelo, the presumed perpetrator. Graig Coley, the man who unfairly spent almost forty years in jail, received a compensation of nearly 2 million dollar from the state of California.

This method has rightly led to a lot of discussion. Partly due to the Facebook-scandal around Cambridge Analytica, we have to ask ourselves whether we shouldn’t give people who do not know that they are able to put their relatives into disrepute through their genes extra protection.

Naturally the police needs to have the possiblity to use public information to solve a crime. We would be furious and call them incompetent if they wouldn’t do that.

But the important question we need to ask, is how we can renovate the rule of law in such a way that using this data, in combination with the power and the monopoly on violence from the state, does not lead to abuse against citizens.

Closer at home we know of a comparable reuse of DNA-data for other goals than originally intended. Recently the Dutch were allowed to vote about a new intelligence billRead more about the national referendum about the dragnet, also know as the dragnet legislation.

This bill is not only about the internet, it also arranges the introduction of an extra DNA-database at the Dutch secret services (the AIVD). And the bill make is possible for the AIVD to get access to the DNA-database for criminal cases, managed by the Netherlands Forensics Instituut.

The secret services thereby gain access to all European Forensic Institutes that exchange DNA-data with each other on a daily basis, in the context of the European Prüm-legislation. All of this without any oversight from the Minister of Justice and Security who is legally responsible for the DNA-database and its privacy conditions.

Genetics has reduced 'life' to molecules and thus to data

I am firmly opposed to this opportunity for the AIVD. In my view this leads to the erosion of a securely constructed forensic DNA-infrastructure by an institute that by definition is not able to work transparently and therefore can’t be held accountable for the use and the added value of their own DNA-investigation capability.

Access via a back door to the DNA-database at the Netherlands Forensic Institute creates an unnecessary and problematic blurring of the line between institutions. Instead of letting our institutions crumble until only the ruins are left of our rule of law, we need to cherish them. And that is now more necessary than ever. Not to have our institutions operate as powerful strongholds of bureaucrats and politicians, far away from citizens, but to make them receptive to the knowledge and expertise of these citizens instead.

It is clear: genetics no longer only a thing done in laboratories, it now plays a central role in society.

One of the crucial changes that present day genetics produced is that 'life' is reduced to molecules, and thus to data. Nowadays an awareness is starting to develop that this data can make us vulnerable too.

It is time that we start seeing genetics as an important identity machine, as a source of knowledge that not only deeply intervenes into society, but also intervenes in how we define ourselves and how we relate to one another. It is time that we start taking the way that genetics makes us the same or increases our differences seriously.

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