On August 14th, UCLA researchers Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan presented findings of their study, “When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists,” at a sociology conference in Montreal. They’d analyzed 3,070 comments organized into 70 threads publicly posted to the (sometimes difficult to access) “social movement online community” Stormfront.
Former KKK Grand Wizard Don Black launched Stormfront on March 27, 1995. Posts exceed 12 million, ramping up since the 2016 election season. Panofsky and Donovan’s report has a lot of sociology speak, such as “scholars of whiteness” and “affiliative self-fashioning,” amid some quite alarming posts – yet also reveals a sophisticated understanding of genetics from some contributors.
A WHITE NATIONALIST ONLINE MEET-UP: STORMFRONT
“We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority!” proclaims the bold, blood-tinged-hued message on the opening page of Stormfront, the “community of racial realists and idealists.” It’s a site for white nationalists, who are a little less extreme than white supremacists, who want to dominate the world from their pinnacle of a perceived racial hierarchy. The Stormfronters seem more concerned with establishing their white purity – defined as “non-Jewish people of wholly European descent.”
Yet the lines between white nationalist and supremacist blur, as Stormfront states, “If Blacks or Mexicans become a majority, then they will not be able to maintain the White man’s social, cultural and economic systems because they do not have to (sic) minds needed to do so.”
The idea of white rights is rather new, catalyzed by the revolts of the truly marginalized, murdered, abused, ignored, and enslaved. In the past, whiteness was equated to lack of race, much as I thought as a child of vanilla as a lack of chocolate. Use of genetic ancestry testing to confirm one’s concept of pure whiteness is also somewhat new, a subversion of technology that is disturbing to this geneticist whose grandparents escaped the pogroms of eastern Europe.
Of the 153 folks on Stormfront brave enough to post their genetic ancestry test results, 53 were relieved. “Pretty much what I expected but it was good to get it confirmed,” proclaimed one. A participant named Sloth found out he has “pretty damn pure blood” from Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Iceland, prompting him to plan a getaway to Iceland and get a Thor’s hammer tattoo. Another relieved Stormfronter, worried that “Their (sic) might be American indian or jew in the mix because I tan really easily,” was happy to learn he’s “100% white! HURRAY!”
The other 100 genetic test-takers weren’t so thrilled with their results, seeking excuses. My favorite: “These companies are quite liberal about ensuring every white person gets a little sprinkling of non-white DNA (we know who owns and runs these companies).” ErikTheWhite helpfully added that the genetic testing company 23andMe is deploying Jewish DNA to create bioweapons to kill pure whites as if the DNA replication machinery checks in with the religion of the person.
But an impressive 1260 posts were about the science, several debating what DNA ancestry tests can and cannot do. I agree that the tests provide partial information that may, in fact, be trumped by a look in the mirror or a chat with great-grandma. Deep ancestry testing only provides partial glimpses of parts of the world where some ancestors may have come from. I have a map of my own roots – just what my grandmother told me.
GENETIC ANCESTRY TESTING IS NOT A FINAL ANSWER
DNA-based ancestry testing, from companies such as FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and Ancestry.com compare parts of the genome that vary in DNA sequence among individuals from people living in different geographical areas, say Charlottesville and Kenya. In addition, mapping sequential changes in gene variant frequencies with places reveals ancient migration routes, which often jibe with historical knowledge.
Results seem overly simplistic. A “Genetic Ethnicity Summary” from Ancestry.com, for example, “reveals where your ancestors lived hundreds-perhaps even thousands of years ago” to be 57% Scandinavian, 32% British Aisles, 8% Eastern European, and 3% Uncertain. Many Stormfronters are disturbed by the uncertainty. The Jewish sprinkles?
The maps and diagrams the testing companies provide aren’t overtly racist, at least compared to the 1890 Census categories of mulatto (half black and half white), quadro (one-fourth black), or octaroon (one-eighth black).
The genomic points of comparison include autosomal swaths, but covering only parts of the non-sex-chromosomes – the autosomes – offers just signpoints, and are a far cry from comparing complete genome sequences. Mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA sequences are considered too but must be interpreted in context, and with the proverbial grain of salt.
Mitochondrial DNA passes only from mothers, to all offspring, and is used to trace maternal lineage. Groups of linked genes (haplogroups) on the dinky Y are used to trace the paternal lineage. Mt and Y DNA can trace ancient migrations and the echoes of history, like stretches of Genghis Khan’s Y that today are in 1 in every 200 males (~16 million!) living between Afghanistan and northeast of China, reflecting waves of rapes by Genghis and his male descendants since the 13th century.
But there’s a hitch: mitochondrial and Y DNA comprise <1% of a genome and are only a tiny two of thousands of lineages contributing to the genome of a person living today.
Other problems lurk behind the pretty pie charts and percentages of ancestry test results:
• Tests don’t include all parts of the world.
• A new mutation could place a person in the wrong population group.
• Companies compare clients’ DNA to their own proprietary databases, and so white nationalists can shop around, seeking acceptable findings. It’s a little like my daughter’s elementary school approach to misspelled words on quizzes: “I just won’t ever use those words, mommy!”
• DNA ancestry testing projects current databases of population genetic variability back in time, assuming gene variant patterns were the same.
• Databases may not include people who’ve died young from a genetic disease.
SHARED AFRICAN ORIGINS AREN’T DETECTED BECAUSE THEY DON’T VARY!
That we all came from Africa is written into our genomes, represented by stretches of DNA so common, so much the same in all of us, that it would be nonsensical to include them in tests meant to detect varying DNA sequences. Even the most powerful KKK Imperial Wizard, if he understood genetics, couldn’t whitewash the reality of our African origins. Yet a Stormfront post comforted a man who was distraught that his Genetic Ethnic Summary included Senegal with “… you are simply related to some White fool who left some of his DNA with the locals in what is now Senegal.”
One post revealed a bizarrely accurate take on Mendelian inheritance. AngryGoy follows only mtDNA and Y chromosome information, despite their representation of <1% of the genome, because they are “pure.” His reasoning: Y chromosome DNA is transmitted entirely and unchanged from male to male and mtDNA is transmitted entirely and unchanged from female to all offspring. But autosomal DNA is halved at each generation as the two copies of each chromosome separate into different eggs or sperm.
He goes a step farther: a bi-racial female with a white mother or bi-racial male with a white father are “the lesser of two evils” because at least the mtDNA and Y DNA are untainted. This logic escaped me when I wrote the sections on mtDNA and Y DNA in my genetics books.
Stormfront considers the mtDNA and Y argument to be a version of the one-drop rule. Which leads me to the oft-evoked metaphor of blood for genetic ancestry, which isn’t even accurate because the red blood cells that impart the characteristic color do not even have any DNA!
BLOOD AS A SURROGATE FOR GENETICS
Claims Stormfront: “In a nutshell, the problem with humanity is not so much one of ideology – this or that religious, political, social, or economic doctrine – but rather one of blood. That is, that a great deal (possibly 90% or more) of a person’s intelligence and character is determined by their DNA, which determines the structure of their brain before they are born.”
The statement reeks of genetic determinism, the idea that our traits arise predominantly if not entirely from our genes. The 90% suggests a reference to heritability, which for intelligence ranges from 50% to 80%, depending upon the study consulted. But heritability isn’t the genetic contribution to a trait. Rather, it’s the genetic contribution to the VARIABILITY of a trait.
Writings from Nazi Germany mention “good blood” and “pure blood,” with a lone drop enough to confer non-purity. I’m reminded of the episode of All in the Family in which bigot Archie Bunker is horrified to learn he’s about to receive a transfusion from a black, female, West Indian physician who shares his rare blood type. “Not to worry,” she cautions him with a grin, “when you come out (of) the anesthetic, you might have a strange craving for watermelon.”
The Nazis quest for pure Aryan blood entailed both positive and negative eugenics. The Lebensborn program, begun in 1935, took the children from “unwed mothers” knocked up by the SS and placed them in good Aryan homes, and also placed appropriately blue-eyed, blond orphans in homes, while murdering millions who didn’t fit the Aryan definition of Nordic people from England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. Excluded whites were Roma, ethnic Poles, Slavics, and of course Jews, all deemed subhuman by the self-appointed master race.
The Nazi “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” provided a list. While hereditary blindness and deafness and “Hereditary chorea” are single-gene conditions, “Congenital Mental Deficiency, Schizophrenia, Manic-Depressive Insanity, Hereditary Epilepsy,” and “any severe hereditary deformity” are not. Yet Genetic Health Courts ruled on who should be sterilized to halt transmission of faulty genes.
REPRODUCTION: RESTRICTING GENE POOLS IS COUNTERINTUITIVE
Some people on Stormfront ask what to do after learning their genetic ancestry is not what they expected. Most answers are polite, but some are variations on “If you do care about the White race, don’t breed with any White women, therefore not polluting our gene pool.”
Intentionally restricting a gene pool (a term that describes a population, not a person or family) to promote a perceived superiority is a real headscratcher to anyone who knows any biology whatsoever.
Survival stems from genetic diversity – not sameness. That’s why sexual reproduction has been so successful: A plague can’t wipe out a population if some members are resistant to the pathogen thanks to gene variants. Conversely, a field of genetically identical anything is vulnerable to change. So Craig Cobb, the white nationalist who inspired Panofsky and Donovan’s project when he was mortified onstage when confronted with genetic ancestry test results indicating he’s 14% African, should instead be thankful that he’s not 100% white.
The idea is straightforward. Members of the same ancestral population having children together increases the chance that mutations inherited from recently shared ancestors will show up in a child. The close relationships amplify the distribution of mutations, and incidence of certain single-gene diseases increases.
The phrase “Jewish genetic diseases” isn’t prejudicial; it states a biological fact. The mass murders of Jews throughout history have strangled their genetic diversity, creating serial population bottlenecks that have concentrated certain disease-causing mutations that made it through the pogroms and Holocaust. And so we have Canavan disease, Tay-Sachs disease, familial dysautonomia, and some two dozen other illnesses that strike other families too, but us with higher frequency.
The Amish and Mennonites too have much higher incidence of several single-gene diseases that they brought in from Europe. For example, maple syrup urine disease affects 1 in 400 newborns in these groups, but only 1 in 225,000 in the general population.
But wait! The Amish brought those bad genes in from Switzerland and the Mennonites from the Netherlands, and they’re certainly not Jewish. Pure white Europeans can have mutations???
Consider cystic fibrosis. DNA in teeth discovered in a graveyard in Austria along the Danube left there between 544 and 255 BC yielded the most common CF mutation. (See Discovery of the Principal Cystic Fibrosis Mutation (F508del) in Ancient DNA from Iron Age Europeans).
Isn’t Austria more or less the epicenter of white purity?
Going from the population to the molecular level, new evidence has shown that if two people are carriers of certain CF mutations that affect opposite ends of the gene, the genes can complement, encoding correctly-folded proteins that function, so that their children don’t actually face the 25% risk of inheriting the disease. The best way to have parents carrying different mutations is for them to have come from different population groups.
Genetic diversity can protect; genetic sameness empowers mutations. I guess the Nazi list of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring missed the genetic diseases of European whites. It is selective pseudoscience.
And so scientifically, the white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis have it all wrong. For DNA doesn’t discriminate – it just assorts itself in sync to our patterns of procreation.
A WHITER SHADE OF PALE
To a geneticist, the idea of supremacy, intellectual or otherwise, based on minimal distribution of a pigment molecule in skin is meaningless, if not outright idiotic. Yet it has dictated so much of our history, fueled so much senseless hatred. So I’ll end with an explanation of human skin color, from my human genetics textbook:
“The definition of race based largely on skin color is more a social construct than a biological concept, because skin color is only one of thousands of traits whose frequencies vary in different populations. We may classify people by skin color because it is an obvious visible way to distinguish individuals, but this trait is not a reliable indicator of ancestry. The concept of race based on skin color falls apart when considering many genes. That is, two people with very dark skin may be less alike than either is to another person with very light skin. Overall, 93% of varying inherited traits are no more common in people of one skin color than any other.”
Skin color arises as melanin molecules are produced and packaged into sacs called melanosomes in cells called melanocytes. The pigment-packed melanocytes snake between the tile-like epidermal cells, releasing melanin granules that are broken into bits and pushed upward as the skin cells divide below. The bits of color darken the skin, protecting it from ultraviolet radiation.
Several genes control melanin production and dispersal, and we vary in skin color. Having more melanin is an adaptation, not a liability! So where did white people come from? The prevailing hypothesis has been that white skin captures more sunshine, making it possible to produce vitamin D and keeping bones strong. A study from David Reich’s lab at Harvard identified 3 genes that brought white skin to Europe.
People who left Africa for Europe about 40,000 years ago had dark skin. Then about 8500 years ago, hunter-gatherers from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary brought in variants of the genes SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, which impair the ability to make and distribute melanin. Farther north, where the lower light would have made white skin even more advantageous, evidence from southern Sweden shows contribution from the third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which conferred not only pale skin but blue eyes and blond hair too. Finally, farmers from the Near East also brought in gene variants for white skin. Amid all this mixing, natural selection and perhaps human behavior favored whiteness. Completely wiping out these genes causes albinism, so if anyone could be called mutant, it’s white people, not the brown and black.
Could one type of pigment molecule, controlled by just 3 of our 20,633 genes, fuel so much bigotry?
A FINAL THOUGHT
I applaud Panofsky and Donovan’s revelation of the twisting of genetic ancestry testing to validate white nationalism and its slippery slope to white supremacy. The technology has been helpful in many ways: solving crimes, reuniting families dispersed by slavery, and finding relatives after disasters. Let’s hope that the taking of genetic testing to the dark side of white supremacy backfires, bringing a greater appreciation of our essential biological diversity.