Science Is Only for Us Scientists, Don’t You Know

That’s the import of a trio of opinions in this week’s Nature magazine. One of them, “Genetics without Borders,” criticizes a “UK government scheme to establish nationality through DNA testing [as] scientifically flawed, ethically dubious and potentially damaging to science.” The “scheme” is a peer-reviewed program of the UK Border Agency to test whether some 100 asylum-seekers are Somali nationals. The testing uses a combination of SNPs, mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome, plus other forensic means, to determine whether they are actually Somali or not. (That is, within a high degree of probability, since all inductive conclusions are probabilistic.)

The editors of Nature fulminate against such methods. Yet these are the tools of the trade used by law enforcement officials and academic geneticists, to say nothing of commercial DNA testing companies. “The idea that genetic variability follows national boundaries is absurd,” they scoff. They are not impressed by the work of fellow scientists John Novembre et al., “Genes Mirror the Geography of Europe,” in Nature 456, 98–101; 2008), saying that the idea that genetic variability follows man-made national boundaries is absurd.” What is absurd is the idea that genetic variability is not molded and delineated by language, culture and historical events – the foundation of national boundaries. It seems to escape the opinion makers that Novembre et al. found that genetic patterns echoed linguistic divisions in Europe. This makes eminent sense in that courtship between most males and females is conducted in the same language. That means within the same nationalistic boundaries.

Random “mating” of an exogamous nature as envisaged by them is not in the nature of humans. It may be a generalization that can be formed of evolution, which is judged in sweeping retrospective, but it is not true of living people at any given time, in any given land or country. Until the 20th century (and perhaps even today) most people marry someone of the same rather narrowly defined ethnicity as themselves. In fact, until the modern period, an Englishman was most likely to marry a woman whose house was situated only an easy walk away. His horizons — and thus the eligible gene pool – was limited to a 24 mile square specifically labeled his “country.”

Geneticists are wont to see human genetics in terms of geologic time, whereas the time depth and landscapes of history are more pertinent. The authors end by urging geneticists, “and indeed all scientists,” to nip the government’s “scheme” in the bud before the public finds out about it and an uprising ensues. This call to action seems to combine scientific cant with a patronizing view of the public.

Lay persons, and sometimes people outside one’s narrow scientific specialty, just cannot be trusted to get anything quite right, can they?

Another day’s blog will address the other two articles in this week’s Nature, which exhibit similar mandarin attitudes.

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