By Anne Madeo
Anne Madeo is a genetic counselor who has worked for the National Institutes of Health for the past 11 years. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A few months ago, Bob Resta mused on clients’ responses to queries about ethnicity and what they tell us about the client. A recent conversation on the Nat’l. Society of Genetic Counselors’ listserv about ancestry testing and sex verification got me thinking about a similar issue in a different light.
What defines who we are on a fundamental level? Am I a woman because I wear dresses? Am I a woman because I have two X chromosomes? Am I woman simply because I say I am and that is how I feel on a gut level? Am I a woman if I have two X chromosomes and identify as a female, but I have a point mutation in a gene that increases testosterone production but not so much that in utero or postnatally I have male external genitalia? In the final question we might say that I am clearly female. But in the case of high-level performance athletics, my increased testosterone might provide such an advantage over women with typical human female hormone production that I shouldn’t be allowed to compete as a woman. In a recent decision, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) side-stepped the issue of determining somebody’s sex and ruled that if a woman’s androgen levels are within the range of a typical male, she will not be allowed to compete as a woman in IAAF-regulated competitions. Should we should start testing athletes for mutations that predispose them to excel at sprinting and handicap the athletes that have these alleles to make the playing field even?
What about ethnicity or race? Am I Italian-American because I celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve? Am I Italian American because my paternal great grandparents immigrated here from Italy? Am I Italian-American because I say I am and it is how I’ve been raised and feel? Am I Italian-American because my DNA testing demonstrates that I’m a descendant of both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci? I think most students of genetics would say that no, that last idea doesn’t make me Italian-American. We’re probably all distantly related to some famous individual or the other from the past. I could be Queen Victoria or Genghis Khan’s distant relative. (I doubt many people request testing to see if they’re related to Josef Stalin.)
So, can we use genetics to determine what racial or ethnic group we belong to? Although I usually assume that people with training in molecular or clinical genetics would say no, that’s clearly not always true. The postmodern interpretation of race is that it is a social construct. We determine our race and it is determined for us through family, societal and cultural cues. So, can I identify as Native American if my maternal great great grandmother was Native American and that’s the identity my family has always embraced? It seems that some would say yes, that if your experience is Native American and that is how you identify then you are Native American. But the extreme of the post-modern argument is that I, an individual with no known to me African heritage could claim that I am African-American simply because like most Americans I likely have some African ancestry. What say those who decry postmodernism? The extreme of the position that race and ethnicity are not culturally determined but the result of ancestry is the one-drop rule and the perception that light-skinned multi-racial individuals who identify as “white” are passing.
The obvious answer to all this is that who we are is determined by a complex mix of genetics, family, cultural and individual influences. Which still leaves us with the question—how do we decide ‘who’ or ‘what’ somebody is? Or, is that the right question to ask?