Prof. Denise Eileen McCoskey: Bad to the Bone The Racist Application of DNA Science to Classical Antiquity

DNA sequences superimposed over human faces

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A guy walks into a lab and starts to study a bunch of ancient Greek skeletons, explaining that the “analysis of a small sample of skulls is amply justified by the importance of clarifying the genetic makeup of the ancient Greeks, creators of the first civilization of Europe.” He continues: “They were the first Europeans with enough strength and individuality to use the cultural wealth of the urban Near East without being overwhelmed by it. The Greeks, especially the Athenians, put together a unique culture in which grew the roots of almost every important element in our own society.”

The punchline? There isn’t one, but the writer’s unsettling conviction that the alleged racial superiority of Greek civilization could be explained via the study of human remains — a conventional view at the time (1944) — presents a powerful reminder of the sordid history of racial science, even as today the authority given to scientific analysis of ancient societies, through fields like bioarchaeology, continues to grow.

Such a cautionary tale serves not to dismiss the value of science in elucidating significant features of past societies, such as health and disease. Rather, as scientific methods of analysis continue to gain traction, we as historians need to be ever-vigilant about the ways these methods are applied to complex questions of human behavior and difference, and how they can thereby reinforce misguided assumptions about the links between race and human biology.

Robert Wald Sussman, author of The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, once recounted the shock that journalist Guy Harrison experienced on learning for the first time in his college anthropology class in the 1980s that “biological races are not real.” “Why am I just hearing this now?” he wondered “Why didn’t someone tell me this in elementary school?” I can attest that this remains an all-too-common reaction when students today encounter the prevailing view among scientists and social scientists that race is a social construction, a set of evolving ideas about human difference, rather than any simple biological “fact.”

Sussman himself suggests that misconceptions about race remain “so firmly embedded in our culture” because, like racism itself, the idea that race is biological has been “an integral part of our worldview for so long that many of us just assume it must be true.” (But, seriously, if Gregg Popovich gets it, what’s stopping the rest of us?)

The desire to see race as rooted in science rather than human invention is aided, of course, by widespread belief in “science’s greatest myth,” namely “that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting,” when “(i)n fact, science has often made its living from encoding and justifying bias.”

Science, in other words, does not exist in a vacuum. Its modes of knowledge production — even its very claims to “objectivity” — are developed and mobilized within very specific social and historical contexts. We can witness the emergence of specific “scientific” theories linking race to human biology, and especially skin color, for example, beginning in the modern 18th and 19th centuries, a time when new forms of natural science were being developed to challenge structures of thought, like religion, that had previously been used to explain the world and its diverse inhabitants.

Although very few of the racial ideas from this period can withstand scrutiny today (the classification of racial categories through skin color, in particular, has been shown to have no scientific basis), Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has pointed to the ways scientific discourses worked to provide cover for the racist beliefs and practices of figures like Thomas Jefferson, suggesting that “rather than being much of a scientist, he (Jefferson) was a biased white supremacist who hid behind science as a shield.” Prescod-Weinstein continues: “The problem is that science was just the shield he needed in the 18th century, and unfortunately, it seems that it continues to function that way today.”

Science has indeed continued to provide a shield for a range of racist theories and practices, such as charting the alleged connections between race and IQ, a preoccupation Ezra Klein recently eviscerated, even as a former proponent publicly recanted (see also this analysis).

But I would like to suggest that there is a field of science being used today not only as a shield, but as a sword to attack and revitalize the once-discredited connections between race and science: genetics. And DNA threatens to become a major battleground in ongoing attempts to shed light on the present via the classical past.

The value of DNA science in defining human identity has quietly become taken for granted in American life through TV shows like “Finding Your Roots (an adaptation of the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are”), the prominent use of DNA evidence in crime detection, and the growing availability of services that use genetics to track so-called ancestry (even for pets!). In fact, even as the limits of DNA are becoming more apparent, the intersection of the latter two areas garnered much recent media attention when a DNA sample previously uploaded to an ancestry testing service was used to identify the so-called Golden State Killer.

Yet the very cultural prominence of DNA has only muddied public understanding of what it actually attests about human variation. Sociologist Jo Phelan, for example, found in a survey of over 500 participants that “reading about DNA ancestry tests increased one’s belief in essential differences between groups.” Just reading about DNA! And this despite the fact that such a belief is in direct contradiction to one of the most meaningful findings of DNA research, namely that “all of the genetic diversity in humans comprises just 0.1 percent of the human genome.”

Given the current climate, it is perhaps unsurprising that DNA science has become increasingly applied to a very specific obsession: the tracking of race. Thus, after the DNA testing service 23andMe dropped its price to $99, “screenshots of DNA testing results began appearing on white nationalist message boards,” including Stormfront and 4chan. As journalist Elspeth Reeve notes, such DNA tests seemingly make it possible for members of white nationalist groups to “prove” their own whiteness. (Unfortunately, such tests don’t always yield the desired results, even as the databases compiled by ancestry sites themselves contain considerable bias).

Although DNA has become increasingly associated with race, there remain a number of significant paradoxes. For one, writing in Science magazine, Michael Yudell et. al. note that, although the mapping of the human genome in the early 2000s led scientists to argue more forcefully against the use of race as a scientific category, the association of race and biology has actually increased in the years following.

Moreover, it cannot be said often enough that there is no single gene that determines skin color. In fact, a recent study found that skin color depends on a wide array of genes, many of which can be difficult to detect. Meaning, despite what we claim to ask of it, DNA simply cannot pinpoint the body’s surface appearance (this is why the much-heralded announcement that Britain’s Cheddar Man “probably” had dark skin had to be predictably walked back.

DNA research therefore generally uses geographic region as a proxy for race, a dubious proposition since “the borders of a country or continent are not magical lines that demarcate one genetically distinct population from another.” Even so, many adherents to DNA seamlessly translate such geographic labels into today’s skin color categories, taking “Europe” as “white” and “Africa” (or “sub Saharan Africa”) as “black,” despite the fact that this, too, requires a leap, since groups across Africa alone display significant variation in genes related to skin pigmentation.

The broader role of race in DNA research became a topic of hot debate recently following a New York Times opinion piece in which Harvard geneticist David Reich argued that, despite what he considered a dangerous stifling of such connections, genetic variation could be seen to correlate with race in meaningful ways. Sixty-seven scientists and researchers immediately penned a letter in response, noting that Reich had severely misrepresented the current orthodoxy, which did not, in fact, seek to deter scientific inquiry into genetic and human variation, only to debunk the use of “race” as a means for driving and reporting such research (nor was it the only response).

Noting that there is a “robust body of scholarship (that) recognizes the existence of geographically based genetic variation in our species,” the group nonetheless pointed out that “there is a difference between finding genetic differences between individuals and constructing genetic differences across groups by making conscious choices about which types of group matter for your purposes.” Even more, the scientists themselves demanded that a limit be placed on the authority given to science, urging that “(t)he public should not cede the power to define race to scientists who themselves are not trained to understand the social contexts that shape the formation of this fraught category.”

The application of DNA science to the world of classical antiquity was brought to even wider public attention in the summer of 2017.

A study of the DNA of the ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans published in Nature magazine in August 2017 received considerable news coverage, with one headline announcing the results of the study — which suggested a genetic continuity between Bronze Age populations and residents of Greece today — with the gleeful headline “The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins.” (For similarly breathless recounting of the study’s implications, see this article).

Despite such grandiose conclusions, however, critics urged much greater caution. For one, although the authors phrased one of their research questions as: “Do the labels ‘Minoan’ and ‘Mycenaean’ correspond to genetically coherent populations or do they obscure a more complex structure of the peoples who inhabited Crete and mainland Greece at this time?,” as Yannis Hamilakis points out, the researchers had “already answered in the affirmative . . . by the labels they attached” to the 19 skeletons they had sampled, a sample size that was itself the source of some critique. (Dimitri Nakassis made a similar argument).

So, too, the fact that the study was immediately heralded by the Greek neo-fascist organization Golden Dawn testifies to the stakes of such research, especially at a time when perceptions about group “origin” and which groups “belong” where have such real-world consequences.

In the same month, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard got into a more widely publicized row with members of the alt-right beginning when Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson called attention to a cartoon that portrayed a family in Roman Britain with a black-skinned father, tweeting: “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?”

A number of historians sought to defend the BBC (for example, Mike Stuchbery in a lengthy Twitter thread), but when Beard entered the fray, the floodgates opened, especially after Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, caustically targeted Beard with the dismissive “Historians believe their own BS,” then asked “Where did the subsaharan genes evaporate?” — a taunt that strategically shifted the conversation from one of race and representation to one of science and genetics.

No stranger to online harassment, Beard addressed the controversy in her “Don’s Life” column, insisting that “the Roman Empire — and Britain included — was culturally and ethnically diverse.” Still, for someone who proposed that a certain level of knowledge about Roman Britain was necessary for productive debate, her willingness to treat race primarily as a function of human biology was frustrating. Noting that more precise identification of ancient ethnicities (her preferred word) “required an array of historical and scientific techniques,” Beard thus proceeded to weigh evidence like “cranial observation,” “isotope analysis” of teeth, and the genetic study of the modern British population alluded to by Taleb.

While many took up the question of genetics in support of Beard, a few observers expressed concern about the prominence awarded to DNA science overall in such discussions. As Sarah Zhang wrote, “That genetics even came up at all in a debate about ancient Roman history is indicative of science’s stature in these fractious times. Genetics gets invoked as neutral, as having none of the squishiness of historical interpretation. But that is simply not true — as applied to Roman Britain or any other time or place in the ancient world. Geneticists, anthropologists, and historians who rely on DNA to study human migrations are well aware of the limitations of DNA analysis.” (Notably, very few such challenges appeared in British publications; here is an example.)

I am not claiming that Beard’s decision about how to engage with such attacks was an easy one, but I do believe that, as historians, we need to be very careful about the parameters we accept when discussing the ancient world, especially given that this return to racial science is part of a broader cultural phenomenon. And can we at least agree that, given the centrality of craniometry to various racist projects of the 19th and 20th centuries, the use of a skull to illustrate Beard’s initial column only underlines the seriousness of the problem?

Moreover, in two later columns addressing the issue of skin color directly, Beard emphatically underlined how little we know about the “stock” and surface appearance of individual Romans, but nowhere did she challenge the foundation of the entire controversy by providing historical context, i.e., by clarifying for her audience something we do know: that skin difference would not have held the same meaning in the Roman world itself. (For my money, this column discussing Roman attitudes and institutions is a much more effective introduction to the question of diversity in Roman Britain, as is this one).

My alarm about the explanatory power granted to science and DNA in this exchange was only amplified when I experienced similar pushback in response to an essay I published here a few months later, arguing that modern racial identities, with their foundation in ideas about human biology and skin color, had no corollary in classical antiquity. Almost immediately, Steve Sailer, a well-known figure who leans heavily on so-called “science” when writing about things like race and intelligence, posted a lengthy comment, seeking to “prove me wrong” via an elaborate mathematical “demonstration” of what DNA testing services had allegedly shown about the racial composition of the American population (yeah, I didn’t get the connection either, although the casual reciting of percentages was pretty stomach-turning).

Ignoring my response that “I like to follow the advice of scientists when it comes to correlating race and genetics” followed by a link to an article entitled “Race is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue” (see also this article), Sailer insisted in a follow-up comment that I was “decades out of date” and that “(i)n this century, advances in genomic research have shattered the 20th century’s race-is-just-a-social-construct cliché.” In short, while parroting the exact opposite of the conclusion geneticists had actually arrived at, Sailer sought to ridicule me by advancing the notion that DNA analysis is more “objective” and rigorous than what Taleb has dismissed as “historian hearsay bullshit” (which I think just means we are being mocked for actually listening to the ancient world?)

I declined to take his bait, not only because I refuse on principle to traffic in racial science, but also because I believe we need to ask to what extent humanities scholars should feed the flames of “scientism” — “the belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc. of the natural sciences are the only ways to gather valuable knowledge or to answer meaningful questions.” Indeed, Peter Harrison, while acknowledging the “undoubted insights yielded by some aspects of the digital humanities,” has astutely predicted that “future historians, if they haven’t all been replaced by cognitive psychologists, will regard misplaced faith in data, metrics and statistical analysis as the curse of the twenty-first century.”

But I want to go even further in underlining the costs of failing to assert, as historians, that race constitutes a set of ideas and experiences located in a specific time and place rather than any set of scientific measurements. For, in the course of deliberating the simple facticity of black skin color in Roman Britain, neither Beard nor her defenders ever once cited the scholarship of classical scholars like Frank Snowden, Jr., whose groundbreaking work on the meaning of black skin color in antiquity had been carried out some decades before. More to the point, Beard failed to direct her audience to a book literally entitled Romans and Blacks by Nigerian classicist Lloyd Thompson, himself a Cambridge graduate.

In short, the earlier groundbreaking work of Black classicists was completely marginalized when it should have been promoted and celebrated, especially since such scholarship had already set out to challenge the very dangerous assumptions that are now being peddled by the alt-right and others — namely that black (and white) skin color stand as ahistoric or universal purveyors of racial meaning.

And the love affair between DNA and ancient history goes on. Nor have the ancient Egyptians, whose human remains in the form of mummies have long been poked and prodded for racial meaning, avoided similar genetic scrutiny. In fact, the desire to cast the genetic origins for whiteness as far back as possible means that even Neanderthals are being drawn into the fray.

Nature magazine recently devoted an entire editorial to the topic, noting that “the genetic study of ancient DNA is exploding, and the findings are posing several problems.” Calling for better collaboration between disciplines, they observe: “It is clear, for example, that although genetics has useful things to say about the sweep of population history, the more conventional disciplines provide essential context.” Or to paraphrase: “Wow, you guys really love DNA; but you know you have to be historians, too, right?”

Yes, yes, we do.

So, in sum, as ancient historians, we should not be affirming the authority of science and DNA in defining racial identity, but rather speaking for the need for better understanding of the categories and contexts in which such science operates. This means not only working to clarify the meaning of race in antiquity itself, but also speaking against any attempt to impose today’s ideas about race onto ancient bodies, especially in the service of narratives that seek to define where people are “from” and so inherently “belong” — propositions that can have devastating consequences at a time when human migration and the very idea of “home” is so fraught.

But I want to close with an even more powerful rejoinder to DNA’s role in the return of racial science. Citing the pervasive effects of American racism as “Nothin’ New,” the rapper 21 Savage turns to historical violence rather than science in interpreting his biological makeup:

Anger in my genes, they used to hang us up with ropes

Using science as a shield for asserting racist “truths”: that’s nothing new. But neither is the struggle against such tendencies. And maybe it’s time as historians we gave a little less authority to DNA science and started listening instead to other voices postulating their own ideas about what we are carrying around internally and why.

Originally posted in Eidolon

The opinions expressed in this blog represent the opinions of the author and not those of Massey University or eSocSci except when they do not express the opinions of the author in the example of a quotation within the post. Read more. This post can be cited using this method and is reposted under Creative Commons 3.0 licensing permissions.

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