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Elizabeth Warren's DNA Debacle Bodes Ill for All of Us

Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a town hall in Woburn, Mass. (Charles Krupa / AP)

It should probably concern me—I am a Jew, after all—that our society has replaced calipers with cotton swabs. Still, I’ve got to admit that the whole idea of using perhaps the most remarkable scientific accomplishment in the history of human inquiry—the sequencing of the human genome—to parse individual human pedigrees like some demented, science-fiction Homo sapiens kennel club is just farcical enough to keep me from putting my papers in order and gathering enough cash to flee on the next steamer to Shanghai.

It reminds me of a viral, meme-ified Spider-Man panel in which he confronts the villainous Sauron, a brilliant human geneticist turned evil mutant pterodactyl (really!). “You can rewrite DNA on the fly, and you’re using it to turn people into dinosaurs?” exclaims the heroic web-slinger. “But with tech like that, you could cure cancer!”

“But I don’t want to cure cancer,” the villain replies. “I want to turn people into dinosaurs.”

Those are the shoals on which our contemporary, 23andMe-style personal genomics founder and sink: a uniquely American style of the old Soviet Lysenkoism, in which behavioral and cultural traits somehow pass, sperm to egg, across generations in percentages of inheritance. In 2016, vocal “Never Trump” conservative Ana Navarro famously tweeted: “ZERO% African-Americans support Trump in polls, I knew I had to be black. Took @ancestry test. So excited. 4% black! Explains a lot.” She tagged it with the hashtag “Sistah.”

I don’t want to be uncharitable, and it’s obvious that this regrettable tweet was meant to be at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it points to the ludicrous nature of the entire enterprise. Four percent black! What can this possibly mean? Will we return to the racial classifications that gave colonial European slave societies an entire taxonomy? “Honey, our results came back and someone in our family is a hexadecaroon!” Its offensiveness is mitigated by its absurdity, but only slightly.

Which brings us to the present politico-genetic kerfuffle, in which Sen. Elizabeth Warren has responded to Donald Trump’s racist “Pocahontas” nickname for her by having a respected geneticist prove that somewhere in her family, “6-10 generations” back, someone was a Native American. I understand the impulse. Warren’s family, like half of the white people in North America, had some half-baked frontier fable—part “Leatherstocking Tales,” part “Dances With Wolves”—about intermarriage with some or other native nation—in the Warrens’ case, the Cherokee. She accepted it unquestioningly. Well, I never saw the passenger manifest that brought my great-grandfather over from Calabria, but I assume my grandmother is telling me the truth.

This bit of legend—“family lore,” we’re now mysteriously calling it, one of those weird anachronisms that become neologisms in our stupid political media—unadvisedly found its way into Warren’s biography when she was still just a professor; it became an issue during her first Senate campaign, and Trump made it an issue again when he decided to start calling her “Pocohontas,” a figure whose actual, disputed history is enthralling and terrible.

The nickname is appalling. Trump’s rage-aholic base of exploding-capillary golf cheats loves it precisely because it gives so much offense. Most people, the sort who are only vaguely aware of politics and find Trump an embarrassing but frankly distant figure, barely know who Warren is at all. These Trumpland taunts seem immensely acute to the folks who marinate in Twitter or cable news all day, but even to  many habitual voters and semi-regular consumers of the news, they appear as the decontextualized flotsam churned up by a storm of gestural shorthand, a system of symbols almost entirely alien to the language of daily concern.

Warren, whose political instincts I’ve often found shockingly OK for a Democrat, stumbled headlong into this one. It was a fight she could not win and ought to have brushed away as more crazy talk from a racist, elderly man. Trump is our protean national id and cannot be trapped by inconsistencies or past utterances. His imaginary halcyon past and made-great-again future exist in a best-president present unmoored from logic, reason or causality. Warren got a DNA test in order to confront Trump, who’d said he would give a million bucks to charity if she got a DNA test proving her ancestry. So what did he do? He stared directly into a camera and claimed he never made such a promise. He then went online to laugh at the idea that the test showed she was “1/1024 [Native American], far less than the average American.”

The Cherokee Nation and other Native American groups also decried the test, having long dismissed genetic descent as a determining factor in their cultural heritage. Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee Nation secretary of state, said in a statement that “[u]sing a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

In fairness, Warren had already made a careful, rather legalistic disclaimer to a similar effect in her announcements, noting that distant genetic lineage is not tribal membership, which is up to tribal nations themselves to decide. But she, unlike Trump, is beholden to some form of basic logic, and the obvious rejoinder is: Well, if you believe that, then why did you take the test at all? You’ve proven that you are something that you admittedly cannot be. Which demonstrates precisely what Trump’s been bellowing all along—that you are a phony and a fraud!

Beyond these specific circumstances lies the idea—both terrifying and intensely silly—that we have now entered an era when public figures present their genes as tokens of authenticity, like Aldous Huxley by way of the Marx brothers. It’s incredibly gross. It reifies an absolutely false notion of authentic heritage and gives automatic credence to the neo-eugenicists who argue for immutable, heritable, racialized cultural characteristics and, ultimately, immutable racial hierarchies. It is a form of bullshit biological determinism. Kellyanne Conway, the omnipresent Trump spokeswoman, waved her hand and called it junk science, and for once, she wasn’t wrong.

This will all have a far more negligible effect on either the midterms or the subsequent presidential election than the people paid to squawk about politics would have you believe, or do believe themselves, if it has any effect at all. But I can’t help but feel a twinge of dire anticipation for where this ghoulish obsession with race and pedigree could lead. Blud und Ehre—“Blood and Honor”—was the popular Nazi slogan. What is ours now—blood and error?

Jacob Bacharach
Jacob Bacharach is the author of the novels "The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates" and "The Bend of the World." His most recent book is "A Cool Customer: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking."…
Jacob Bacharach

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