Friday, January 4, 2008


I read this article in Wired, "A New DNA Test Can ID a Suspect's Race, But Police Won't Touch It." I must have been way ahead of the curve, forensics-wise, because ever since DNA became the buzz-initials of Court TV, I always assumed that was just one of the many amazing powers of genetics. The Human Genome Project, wrapped up its mapping stage in 2003 (the end product was over 200,000 pages of nucleotides), and the DNA Ancestry Project is busy categorizing the species by haplogroup, so the genomic databases are filling up pretty quickly. Apply all of this information to the DNA found at a crime scene and it's possible to solve for a suspect's ancestry, and that sounds like a pretty useful tool.

But — I didn't realize this — everybody's ancestry correlates to their race, and skin color, which I guess is the whole point. It's tough to put out an APB for an individual in Haplogroup Ia, but it's easy to tell the cops to be on the lookout for a white guy.

I don't know how well the technology works, but the Innocence Project has exonerated over two hundred people convicted on the basis of other evidence. Perfection isn't the standard the justice system looks for. If the law enforcement community were merely wary of genomic profiling — it's that "p" word that's at issue — I'd be disappointed, but there's downright hostility. A (black) prosecutor in Baton Rouge, where genomics helped police catch an African-American serial killer after going through a thousand white suspects, reacts to the concept with useless Luddite fear: "If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would," and then admits that his serial killer would still be on the loose, presumably killing people, without the DNA testing.

I feel safer. I wouldn't want my police — who have no problem using lie detectors, unreliable eyewitnesses, and even psychics as tools — to take advantage of little things like facts when it comes to figuring out who committed a crime.

I'm glibber than I should be, though. "Once we start talking about predicting racial background from genetics, it's not much of a leap to talking about how people perform based on their DNA — why they committed that rape or stole that car or scored higher on that IQ test," says Troy Duster, former president of the American Sociological Association. I'm still undecided on Duster. Is he merely stating his experience in similar cases, that given the opportunity to draw ignorant conclusions from this genomic information, somebody, somewhere will? Or (this was my initial reading) is he arguing against the technology itself, believing that it can be used to draw legitimate conclusions about suspects' "performance," conclusions society shouldn't have access to? Either way, he illustrates a real point, that some dimwit, given access to information, will misuse it. Like it's DNA's fault that people commit crimes.

The difference between DNA profiling and other [insert stereotype here] profiling is that your DNA is the cause, and the only cause, of your racial background. The genetic code doesn't determine your skin color, and then also demand that you behave according to the appropriate stereotype. Somebody explain to me how a big old molecule can be racist, but the idea that [insert race here] people must behave like all [insert race here] people isn't.