A Conference on Ancestry: Evidence, Inference, And Identity

The aim of this virtual conference is to bring together anthropologists, biologists, historians, and philosophers of science to address the concept of ancestry in relation to scientific inferences about the evolutionary history of humans. In the past 50 years, ancestry and the inference thereof have become molecularized, automated, and commodified. This shift has profound implications. The history and philosophy of molecular systematics raises important questions about the epistemic priority of competing sources of evidence, the scope and limitations of computational phylogenetics, the challenges of representing relationships among taxa in both the past and present, the social epistemological dimensions of big data acquisition and analysis, and the possibility of specific legitimate and responsible role(s) for political values in postgenomic inference. Participants in this workshop are invited to explore how such practices both inform and interact with both phylogenetic and popular notions of identity.

The event is this weekend. Register online here: Webinar Registration - Zoom

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Count me in! One of the best things, for me, that has come out of COVID is the number of virtual conferences I’ve been able to do attend where I wouldn’t not have had funding to travel otherwise.

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How has the conference been going? I’m hoping I can drop in tomorrow.

They keynote by Rob DeSalle (Curator of Molecular Systematics at the American Museum of Natural History) entitled “Race Displaced by Ancestry?” was really informative for me. From my view as a non-expert, I thought he did a good job of going through some of the history of the idea of “race” within science, and then describing some of the techniques that biologists use to determine genetic relationships between individual and populations (trees, PCA, K-clusters, structure analysis). I think perhaps @Joe_Felsenstein was there and would have a much better idea of the technical details.

I came away with a better understanding of why the use of race (especially in science and medicine) is just not helpful compared to actually looking at ancestry and (brought up in Q&A) the particular environmental context a person belongs to. I wrote down a note: “What we see is that we are an interesting species, but there is no hierarchical arrangement of individual people.” I also got a better understanding of how a lot of current genetic testing is cherry-picking SNPs and how that gives a false impression of the level of diversity within the human population – if you’re looking to maximize your ability to distinguish between people from different geographic regions … you easily minimize the vast majority of genetic information that we all have in common.

The other talk I thought was really good was actually two presentations by Kostas Kampourakis from the University of Geneva and Brian Donovan from BSCS Science Learning (a non-profit science education organization). Kostas overviewed essentialism and in particular genetic essentialism (“genes constitute our essence”) and how that impacts our perception of race and ethnicity.

Brian then discussed whether genetic essentialism is increases or decreases as students encounter biology education. In particular, he discussed studies they conducted that showed that students are picking up genetic essentialism in the way we approach talking about genetics and race in typical biology classes. Students are more likely to believe that genes play a role in racial inequality in education after going through a typical biology class that talks about the racial component to diseases like Sickle Cell, Cystic Fibrosis, and Tay Sachs. They are more likely to see racial groups as genetically more homogeneous and the genetic differences between races as much larger than is the case.

I found more information on what Brian called a “Humane Genetics Education” at the BSCS website. The big take away for me was that students need a better understanding of genetics and clear and explicit discussion about race that shifts the conversation to human ancestry and the amount of genetic variability within and between populations.

I really wonder how many colleges and universities are making a human genetics course a part of their general education offerings? We (somewhat inadvertently) have done so at my university and I find that students are really wanting to understand genetics better. I think the caution I’m seeing here is that a focus on Mendelian genetics and on differences (genotypic and phenotypic) at the introductory level may be doing more harm than good and we need to find good ways to bring things like epigenetics, computational biology/pop gen, and human ancestry into these intro classes.

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@Jordan I really appreciate your perspective as an educator. Thank you for the detailed summary.

How did this proceed? How are you thinking through integrating this sort of information in to Gen Ed courses?

Well, not as planned (as is usually the case with these things). That course is team-taught between physical and biological science faculty. We discussed human zoos and that PS conversation as a group but since I only teach the physical science part of the course I’m not entirely sure if it got explicitly incorporated into the curriculum. I should talk with the biologists about that.

However, last spring I did have the chance to (co)teach the Human Genetics general education course I mentioned with a biology colleague. The course was originally a non-majors nursing program prerequisite that we have slowly converted into a general education “genetics, bioethics, and science-faith dialogue” course for all majors.

We had students go through quite a bit of GAE for the “science-faith dialogue” part. For the genetics component, we made the decision to focus less on Mendelian genetics to leave room for discussions along the lines of what I mentioned above (students gave a presentation on diseases thought to be impacted by epigenetics, we talked about CRISPR, genetic testing, human ancestry a bit, and the coronavirus). I really wish I had seen Brian Donovan’s work last year as we would have done a better job of talking about race.

My job is changing a bit so I’m not sure if I’ll get to be involved in that course again officially but I’m certainly in conversation with the biology faculty about these issues.

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