A genetic history of the human race is not controversial science nor is it fraught

Recently I was talking to a journalist about genetic genealogy, and we both agreed that soon Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures will need an update. Though published in 2015, much of the research in The Invisible History of the Human Race dates to much earlier.  In the last few years, personal genomics has gone from a sector of millions to tens of millions. In years after 2020 it will go to hundreds of millions.

And yet I’m not sure the educated public is ready to understand what a genomic future is going to look like.

This is why I think that the Elizabeth Warren DNA story is important to get right. The reality is that this isn’t really about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry, it’s a story at the intersection of high politics and culture wars, and genetics is getting caught in the undertow. Recently I heard Ben Shapiro comment that Warren likely had “maybe 1/1024th Native American.” Actually, I think it’s very likely she has 0.5 to 1% Native American ancestry (read this Elizabeth Warren DNA post for why I say that) Not to be trite, but facts don’t care about Ben Shapiro’s feelings. I know he’s not a fan of Warren, but he shouldn’t be laundering misrepresentations.

Even in the comments of this website motivated reasoning cropped up when the original Warren story became a national sensation. Many on the Right side of the spectrum laughed at the results and interpreted them in the least generous terms. The falsehoods and misunderstandings promoted by the media, often inadvertently because most journalists don’t have the skills to navigate the science, were injected into the conservative memesphere.  Shapiro has admitted, to his own chagrin, his lack of science background, and I suspect if I explained it to him he wouldn’t use “maybe 1/1024th Native American” line. He doesn’t need to. If you are a conservative there are many reasons to be critical of Elizabeth Warren.

But I can’t blame Shapiro too much. He was reacting to this story in The New York Times, Elizabeth Warren Stands by DNA Test. But Around Her, Worries Abound. In this piece, the attacks on Warren are coming from the Left and Native American activists. There is a real story here. The Boston Globe has published an editorial warning her not to run. The air has changed around her.

From the piece in The Times:

Warren’s presidential ambitions, she has yet to allay criticism from grass-roots progressive groups, liberal political operatives and other potential 2020 allies who complain that she put too much emphasis on the controversial field of racial science — and, in doing so, played into Mr. Trump’s hands.

Ms. Warren’s allies also say she unintentionally made a bigger mistake in treading too far into the fraught area of racial science — a field that has, at times, been used to justify the subjugation of racial minorities and Native Americans.

There is “racial science” like there is “evolution science” or “Creation science.” The term is not used by any scientist that I know of, but comes up by critics and polemicists. The New York Times, whether consciously or not, is going to convince a lot of scientifically illiterate people who don’t read their science pages that there is a field of “racial science” (using the term “race science” liberally is a thing on the Left…reminds me of social conservatives who used to call everyone who was not an evangelical Protestant a “non-Christian”)

Here’s what went on in the Warren case is:

  1. Not scientifically controversial
  2. But scientifically new

Here is a review, A comprehensive survey of models for dissecting local ancestry deconvolution in human genome which looks at “20 methods or tools to deconvolve local ancestry.” There may be disagreement on the best method for various reasons, but there is no disagreement that local ancestry deconvolution is possible. It is not controversial. In fact, it is rather important in areas such as admixture mapping for diseases.

The science isn’t that hard to explain at a high level. The figure to the left is from a new paper that recently came on the genetics of the New World (using ancient DNA). What you see is that some human populations are isolated from other human populations. For example, the last common substantial ancestry of Native American populations before 1492 and Northern Europeans dates to the period between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Tens of thousands of years of genetic separation result in genetic distinctiveness. This is a standard old population genetic model. When populations come back together and mix, that daughter population is clearly going to be genetically a mix between the two parent populations. But the human genome is a sequence of three billion distinct base pairs, and the mixing exhibits discrete patterns within the genome.

Humans are diploid, which means we have two copies of each gene. These genes are aligned along homologous chromosomes. One homolog you inherit from the father and one homolog you inherit from the mother. These two homologs are the basis for Mendel’s Law of Segregation.

When sex cells, sperm and eggs, are formed they carry only one of the homologs. They are haploid, with single gene copies. If they weren’t, you’d end up tetraploid instead of diploid. You get one gene copy from the mother and one gene copy from the father.

But, before the formation of sex cells, during meoisis, the homologs undergo recombination. In humans that means that there is swapping between stretches of homologous chromosomes. The average human has between 20 and 40 recombination events across the genome. A concrete way to think about it is that the individual who is producing sperm or egg is taking the chromosomes they inherited from their parents, and mixing them together, so the final set of chromosomes are a synthetic combination of the chromosomes of grandparents.

Purple segments half-identical to paternal grandfather

To make this concrete, to the left is a partial depiction of one of my children’s chromosomes, and the relatedness to my father. The purple regions are genomic stretches where the child is half-identical to the paternal grandfather. The light gray sections have no genetic descent from my father. The reason is that one of the homologs is from the maternal side. The other homolog is from me, and could be from either my father or my mother. Where the purple alternates with light gray, you see clearly where recombination events happened, as maternal and paternal homologs broke and paired together to produce sperm with novel chromosomes (e.g., my contributed chromosome 11 is 90% my father, 10% my mother…while chromosome 19 is more balanced.

But that’s not the only way to look at recombinations. To the right is an ancestry painting for 23andMe from a friend of mine who is ~25% East Asian and ~75% Northern European. On their chromosome you see two homologs. The blue segments are Northern European. The dark brown segments are East Asian. Notice the alternation between European and East Asian on one of the homologs: this chromosome is almost certainly from the parent who is 50% East Asian and 50% European. There was a recombination event where an “East Asian” homolog, inherited from the parent of East Asian origin, recombined with the “European” homolog, inherited from the parent of European origin.

The resultant chromosome is something new in a physical sequence, with alternating segments of East Asian and European ancestry. Just as the whole genome has an imprint of the genetic history of a population, so sequences of the genome also exhibit distinctiveness due to their origins. Because each generation introduces recombination events, the lengths of these distinct ancestry blocks can tell you how many generations in the past the admixture may have happened.

That’s the theory. The new aspect is that genomic technology has allowed science to assess patterns of local ancestry to a much greater extent than was possible even 15 years ago. With hundreds of thousands of genomic positions, variants, scientists are now able to map regions of the genome to an incredible level of granularity, deploying theoretical understanding of Mendelian and population genetics that dates back to the 20th century.

To look at Elizabeth Warren’s genome, and discover that a small segment of a particular length derives from a Native American population, is not a “controversial field of racial science.” This sort of analysis is now becoming de rigueur in much of medical genetics in larger part because population history has a major impact on disease risk susceptibility. To be fair, doing a local ancestry deconvolution on populations which are much, much, closer genetically due to recent shared history is difficult. But Warren’s is not one of those cases!

Honestly, I don’t know what the outcome of The New York Times calling this “racial science” is going to be, seeing as how it seems likely in the next few years >100 million Americans will have likely done ancestry tests. Many scientists, fairly, do criticize of the interpretations of these tests, and how the public perceives them. But the underlying models and methods are workaday.

It is the interpretation, and how they interact with social and political values, is fraught. The link in the phrase “controversial field of racial scienceactually goes to an article where social and political commentators and activists react to Warren’s decision to take the DNA test. There is no discussion of the science at all. It’s controversial because of what they believe the implications are, not because the science is faulty or unsound.

For example, many (though not all) Native Americans object to the idea of using genetic science to shed light on the status of particular individuals as Native American or not. The decision to take this DNA test, in an environment where many already privately grumbled about Warren’s claims, was obviously clearly a political and public relations misstep. But that does not speak to whether the science itself is sound or unsound.

Conservatives will be highly skeptical of Warren because of her policy positions. And, if the above article is correct, it seems that some of the Left is now against her on the grounds of her impolitic foray into Native American identity. That is all fine, and not much of a concern of mine. But when non-science journalists get their hands on a science story, they tend to mess it up, and that is a problem in the long-term. The sands of politics and society are protean, and always shifting. Science is something more solid, and we should not try to muddy the waters.

24 thoughts on “A genetic history of the human race is not controversial science nor is it fraught

  1. The American problem with racial designations comes from the one drop rule. African Americans and the majority of what calls themselves Native Americans are heavily mixed, usually with European ancestry. But because there was a social need for clear cut categories, they were put into it indiscriminately. This made “racial designations” absurd. If you put individuals with 100, 75, 50 or even 25 percent Subsaharan ancestry in the very same category of “black”, without differentiation, what is this?

    There were times when people tried to hide non-European admixture for obvious reaons, but nowadays a lot of the mixed people put them forward, because politics and law sometimes favour their minority status.
    In any case, you don’t need a high-end genetic analysis to know that some Indian chiefs are mostly of European descent in the USA and wouldn’t be recognised as Amerindian by most “real Indians” in the rest of the Americas. There are a few real suprises through genetic testing, but usually the genotype fits the phenotype pretty well.

    Because the “minority identification” in the US left is so strong, they don’t want to crash any self identification with hard facts. They consider “race and ethnicity” a social construct anyway, so exploring the issue scientifically can only be a nuisance at best and a threat at worst. Also, they dislike all kinds of natural sciences working in the human field, because again, facts could, would and do crash their dogmatic fallacies, which became established dogmas especially in large portions of the campus world.

    You can see the same pattern in sex and gender debates for years, which became just insane recently. It got completely out of control and has a religious, even totalitarian smell. Its no longer about arguments and facts, but belief. You have to believe. If you don’t, you are no good person, should not do politics, no science, probably no job at all, have no friends, no partner, no family, best hide in a hole or just die.
    Thats the attitude if you don’t agree with the angry mob these days. The open debate is pretty much dead, with the internet being one of the last refugia, until the filter bubble or real, strict censorship closes all doors.

    I can just laugh about people claiming that Trump is such a big threat for the truth, reason and science, for free speech, freedom and democracy in the West, when the exact same people did much more harm to all this with their actions and attitude for many more years and will do so, many years after Trump is long gone. They do not protest for freedom, but for keeping dissenting opinions down and their own dogmas untouched.
    Those people from the “ideological sciences” always speak about social constructs, even if its about the most basic aspects of human existence, but their own ideological premises being never questioned.
    The best exemplification for the dogmatic and non-scientific approach they practise is this verdict: “Who would explore that? The scientific question itself is a result of the social conditions and the personality doing the research. If you ask such questions, you will only get corresponding answers.”

    That’s how they look at science! It doesn’t matter what actual research produces, if its against their agenda, its wrong to do it anyway.
    So who would explore genetic human variation? Who would explore genetic differences between individuals in general, and “races” and “sexes” in particular? To think about such things is a thought crime, to do research on it is a political crime, and coming up “with the wrong results” should be punished by law and never make it to the uneducated public. Even if the results are “true” (“What is truth? There is no truth…”), what doesn’t matter for the constructivist god’s sake, people might misinterpret or abuse facts, which don’t fit into the bigger picture of the world they like to draw.

    Warren is no Indian and her self-identification with Natives is strange, to say the least, but as a person, she was honest in a naive way, because she believed that facts would still matter. But a certain, rapidly growing portion of the radical political left, is way beyond “facts matter” and much more like religious extremists.

    Talking about religion, Matthew chapter 7, verse 3-7, would be appropriate for a lot of people and debates these days. But the worst about these debates is, if you are honest and reasonable yourself, you don’t stand a chance. Right or left, doesn’t matter. The current political climate doesn’t allow reasonable debates, yet alone decision making any more.

  2. I have no investment in any of these issues, which may be why I am missing something: why is confusing 1/1024 with 0.5-1% less of a biased quasi-unintentional slip than a capital sin of muddying the waters?

  3. (Reposting this since there was some problem when I tried to comment before): Why is confusing 1/1024 with 0.5-1% less of a quasi-unintentional slip than a capital muddying of waters?

  4. I’m not sure you’re aware of how much a meme “1/1024” is now, in the wake of Warren’s public humiliation. On the right, anyway, it’s quite popular, being used for memes generally mocking the left, not just Warren. (i.e. Senator Hatch’s squirrels tweeting “I’m 1/1024 T-rex.”) This — the one number that caught on among the right — is, I suspect, what Shapiro was drawing his number from most directly. Of course, he’s right-wing gadfly so he’s not going to shade anything her way or go out of his way to be fair.

    Obviously to an impartial scientist there is a “just the facts ma’am” scientific sense in which it is unfair to Warren; she might have 16x as much Indian blood! But then again, though based in science, “1/1024” is not science, but rhetoric. It’s meant to attack Warren, and it does so very effectively, in several ways.

  5. a “just the facts ma’am” scientific sense in which it is unfair to Warren; she might have 16x as much Indian blood!

    In the political and racial context, 1/1024th or 1/200th or even 1/100th doesn’t matter. It’s really minutiae. The salient fact is that Warren, an overwhelmingly white person, misrepresented herself as something she is not, likely for career advantages. Then she kept doubling down. I’d feel exactly the same if this were a conservative or a Republican pulling the same stunt.

  6. She provided a serious puncture wound to the “race is not real” obscurantist dogma in full view of the masses. This is why the authoritarian left is displeased with her.

  7. To be honest, the faux outrage here – except for from the established tribes, where it is understandable – confused the hell out of me.

    Belief in a semi-mythical Cherokee ancestor is normal in the South, no matter its veracity. Johnny Cash famously believed he had mixed ancestry until someone “proved” via genealogy he was 100% European descent. He wrote an entire friggin album about Native Americans in 1964 in part because he believed he was “one of them.” This 2016 article is a bit slanted (it uncritically accepts the claims of the Cherokee nation, and wraps the “claims” of Indian blood with white supremacy, even though many southern blacks have mythical Cherokee ancestry as well) but it mentions many other famous people, including Bill Clinton, Johnny Depp, and Miley Cyrus, have at times claimed Cherokee ancestry. Warren is in great company here – except in many of these cases when famous people have their DNA studied, the Native American ancestry does turn out to be a total myth. It’s not a myth in Warren’s case – though of course who knows if it’s Cherokee or some other tribe. Though given the civilized tribes were pretty damn admixed already by the time they migrated to Oklahoma, her most recent “culturally Indian” ancestor was likely 1-3 generations further down than the 0.5%-1% suggests (say five generations back rather than seven).

    I also don’t understand Twinkie’s claim that Warren misrepresented herself for career advantage. Checking a box once may or may not have provided advantage to her. But her self-conception was clearly that she a mixed-race white and Indian person. An external observer might claim that her self-identification as this was wrong. But the general standard that we hold in our culture is no one can tell another person their self-conception is wrong, except in some cases people who are inside the culture or identity being claimed.

    In the end, ironically, the most good-faith arguments on the right against Warren are using a left-wing rhetorical concept – white privilege. Warren is a visibly white woman who did not grow up on a reservation. Because of that, she is accorded the same social wages of whiteness as anyone else who is part of the hegemonic social group. Because of this, it is morally wrong for her – a woman who did not struggle in the same manner as “real Native American” women – to self-identify in some sense with them, and to check any box other than white.

    Finally, let me just step back for a second and note that while the attacks may have been effective as rhetoric to destroy Warren’s national chances, I do not believe she was one of the stronger candidates for the Democrats in 2020. Thus, the right may have unwittingly made it more likely a more formidable candidate wins the nomination in 2020 and takes out Donald Trump.

  8. @froginthewell, well it’s a decimal point off for one thing. Also seems like an embarrassing example of goal-post-moving to claim she only has a Native American ancestor 10 generations back (which is the basis of the 1/1024th assumption) when the report estimated “6 to 10 generations.”

    OTOH, the census records don’t appear to support a claim to Indian ancestry before the American Revolution, so its probably not on the low end of that range.

  9. @Karl:
    “But the general standard that we hold in our culture is no one can tell another person their self-conception is wrong, except in some cases people who are inside the culture or identity being claimed.”

    And thats wrong. There are objective standards for ancestry, ethnicity and race, as they are for sex. You can discuss details and borderline cases, but the general consensus, based on facts and being verifiable, is pretty much a clear cut thing for most.
    If you claim an Indian identity and its less than 1 percent genetically, its delusional. I don’t speak about claiming that ancestry as such, but speaking of yourself as “Indian” or “mixed” is ridiculous.

  10. {I’ll not comment on the politics of claiming ethnic-affiliation via testing but the methodology.}


    “the lengths of these distinct ancestry blocks can tell you how many generations in the past the admixture may have happened.”

    Yes, in theory, but “…admixture tracts are different from recombination segments, as multiple recombination segments can recombine to form a single admixture tract…” [The Lengths of Admixture Tracts, Liang and Nielsen, 2014 -also attributed to Gravel, 2012]

    What I have not found in the literature is whether “like ancestries” tend to recombine or is this purely random{?}. If it is not random then multiple {like} ancestors from different eras may form a single admixture tract.

    BTW this has nothing to do with Warren, only the dating of “tracts.”

  11. @Karl, the politics are not operating at that level. Warren will be going into a Democratic primary with a lot of candidates with fairly similar views. Within a fairly homogeneous group, small differences matter. Candidates will be judged on how well they can present the Democratic case, go head-to-head with Trump, and avoid splintering any faction of the party. Some Democrats are going to find her handling of this issues extremely awkward, worry that the race might become about affirmative action, reduce minority turnout, or believe that she abused white privilege. They don’t have to accept the Republican criticism to pass to another candidate.

    And I don’t think Republicans are really that concerned about Native American college admissions, let alone anti-Asian biases in admission practices. This is about lowering the status of colleges with Leftist orientations.

  12. What I have not found in the literature is whether “like ancestries” tend to recombine or is this purely random{?}. If it is not random then multiple {like} ancestors from different eras may form a single admixture tract.

    the only thing that i have seen is difference in recombination rates btwn populations. though mostly that’s btwn african vs. non-african.

    i’ll have to look at the details of the model, but bustamante et al. have a lot of experience with tract-based admixture estimates for the new world….

  13. And thats wrong. There are objective standards for ancestry, ethnicity and race, as they are for sex. You can discuss details and borderline cases, but the general consensus, based on facts and being verifiable, is pretty much a clear cut thing for most.

    If you claim an Indian identity and its less than 1 percent genetically, its delusional. I don’t speak about claiming that ancestry as such, but speaking of yourself as “Indian” or “mixed” is ridiculous.

    I can say with absolute certainty that there are registered members of the Cherokee Nation with as little or less (in some cases zero!) Native American ancestry. The requirement for being a member is to just have a single documented ancestor who was on the Dawes Rolls in 1904. Of course non-paternity can happen. But when you consider how heavily admixed the Cherokee already were by that time, the four generations since then, and how the randomness of recombination can make a few percent of genealogical ancestry “vanish” – there are enrolled Cherokee with 0% Native American ancestry.

    On the flipside, the Dawes Rolls were not perfect. Many people of legitimate ancestry did not enroll at that time. Even if you can prove via genealogy you had an ancestor who was a full brother/sister to someone on the Dawes Rolls, you still don’t count as being a Cherokee. Which is why even if Warren didn’t have a registered Cherokee ancestor, she still could be of Cherokee ancestry.

    Note that this is part of the reason why in the U.S. the established tribes really, really dislike the idea of genetic testing among the tribes. Obviously the tests are unlikely to get good enough to actually tell someone what tribe in particular they are from. But right now the tribes get to control access to membership, restricting the goodies from those outside. If genetic testing becomes widespread, all of a sudden outsiders will start to define what being “Cherokee” (or any other tribe) means. Lots of people who have power within the tribe will be stripped of that membership, and others on the outside will have to be allowed in. And those who have established power are inherently conservative when it comes to retaining that power.

  14. In the U.S., Native Americans are an ethnic group, but the Constitution also identifies “Indians not taxed” as nations in treaty relationship to the federal government. Since 1790, census takers identified whether a person was white, bound to service, or “all other free” (which would include taxed Indians or free blacks). More detailed categories emerged in time, but the census taker is filling in the form based upon that census’ instructions.

    The census takers recorded all of Warren’s ancestors as white going back to the first census in 1790. Link They must have looked at least as white as Chief Ross (born 1790) did in his picture, but lived detached from any tribe.

  15. @Karl: many other famous people, including Bill Clinton, Johnny Depp, and Miley Cyrus, have at times claimed Cherokee ancestry. Warren is in great company here – except in many of these cases when famous people have their DNA studied, the Native American ancestry does turn out to be a total myth. It’s not a myth in Warren’s case

    Seems hard to compare with other US celebs; those are probably results from 2000s I guess and probably not looking really hard at the kind of ~0.5% level? Maybe Johnny Cash or Bill Clinton would look more Warren like under the treatment Bustamente gave Warren.

  16. many other famous people, including Bill Clinton, Johnny Depp, and Miley Cyrus, have at times claimed Cherokee ancestry.

    I don’t think these celebrities used those claims to advance professional careers or (ridiculously) provided fake American Indian recipes to further those claims. They probably just wanted sound cool.

    I don’t get this apologetics on her behalf. She’s a fraud who likely took advantage of affirmative action. Whether she’s a leftist or a rightist is immaterial.

  17. I don’t get this apologetics on her behalf. She’s a fraud …

    Agree. Whether you are in favor of quotas and affirmative action or you are opposed, she improperly took a POC slot.

  18. Nobody cares any more, but according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there is no such thing as a POC slot. At the time, the CRA was considered the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.

  19. @ Matt –

    I don’t think any of those celebrities have been genetically tested. But I know when Henry Louis Gates Jr. has done his various series testing celebrities DNA he’s often found that families with semi-legendary Native American ancestry often do not have any.

    @ Twinkie –

    There are two separate issues here:

    1. Did Warren get any sort of advantage in her career self-identifying as being mixed race? The situation here is a bit murky. I can see where someone could make the argument based upon her educational background that she shouldn’t have made it into the Ivies, and she absolutely listed herself as Native American in national registries in the 1980s. At the same time, she wouldn’t have become the third most cited professor in bankruptcy and commercial law if she didn’t have the chops.

    2. Did Warren cynically self-identify as Native American to further her career, or did she do so simply because that was how she self identified? This is unprovable – we simply cannot see into her head at the time. This is why while I think it’s okay to say her decision was inappropriate, calling her a fraud is a bridge too far. Fraud after all implies deliberate deception.

  20. calling her a fraud is a bridge too far.

    Merriam-Webster

    fraud

    1 …
    2 a: a person who is not what he or she pretends to be : impostor
    b: one that is not what it seems or is represented to be

  21. @Karl – She was ‘celebrating her heritage’. It’s self-delusional at best and dishonest at worst. Either way, it should always have been seen as trivial and silly in any real terms, and ignored. Unfortunately it seems it wasn’t.

  22. Great read but then again, contrary to popular belief genealogy testing is still at its beginning. The human genome is almost 3.3 billion base pairs long and most genetic testing companies do not analyze the whole thing. It is entirely possible that Warren has 0.5-1% native ancestry in the portion of the genome analysed. It’s hence important to use the right testing services. This is a great website to compare and avail deals on the various services available in the market- https://www.dnatestreview.org/

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