For this piece I’ll be touching on a dash of politics and a sprinkle of science related to the underpinnings of genetic testing. In regards to the politics of the issue, we’ll be looking at the feud between Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Donald Trump. Donald Trump loves to give nicknames to the seemingly endless number of individuals he feuds with, for instance “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Low Energy Jeb”, and “Pocahontas” . Personally, I think the nicknames gained so much traction because the media loves quick punch lines that add a bit of drama to political discourse. Therefore, they tend to get repeated ad nauseam. Whereas some of the nicknames are a bit straightforward, the “Pocahontas” nickname conferred upon Elizabeth Warren is due to her claim that she has a Native American Ancestry . Trump even went so far as to offer a million dollars to the charity of Senator Warren’s choice if she could actually “prove” Native American heritage .
Trump clearly egged on Elizabeth Warren to go deeper into her claims about a Native American heritage throughout his campaign. I’m generally not one to declare Trump a master strategist by any means, but I think that he played this well because Warren took the bait. She decided to contact a population geneticist from Stanford, Dr. Carlos D. Bustamante, who has authored a number of population genetics studies on the genetic ancestry of people in the Americas [4, 5]. Dr. Bustamante compared a few segments of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA to a database of samples from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia. Wait a second.. what about the US Native Americans? Well, it turns out that Native Americans aren’t big fans of genetic testing given their history of exploitation within the United States almost immediately after the settlers arrived. Therefore, Bustamante is comparing Warren’s DNA with “reference populations” based on the assumption that Native Americans, historically, would have more DNA commonalities with people in Mexico, Peru, and Colombia . In science, and particularly in the realm of data science, perfectly applicable data sets aren’t always available for use and, at times, assumptions are made in order to reach conclusions to research conundrums. After the analysis of Warren’s DNA by Bustamante’s lab, it was revealed that Senator Warren’s analyzed DNA segments indicate that she could be 1/32nd – 1/1024th Native American.
The underlying historical-genetic concept here is that different groups of people living in specific geographic areas are referred to as “populations”; these populations have a distinct genetic make-up. Generally, this “distinct genetic make-up” refers to DNA variations that are common within a population because these variations are passed on through the production of offspring – i.e. making babies. There are a variety of logical reasons as to why distant populations have distinct genetic make ups, but that really isn’t the issue at hand. The issue is that the strength of these tests is reliant on the number of individuals within the database that is used to compare a DNA sample (e.g. Senator Warren’s) and the quality of that database. Previously, geneticists have criticized ancestry-type companies for peddling science that is largely superficial [7, 8]. Bustamante does use a different style of analysis but it is still reliant on a less-than-perfect comparison database, therefore the overall concern is the lack of data here. Would Warren’s results be the same if the comparison database were larger or included actual US Native Americans? Possibly.
As an opinion based aside, I really don’t like the fact that an academic scientist was recruited by a politician to analyze DNA and present results without peer-review or analysis of conflict of interests. There’s something about the scenario that just feels a bit “off”. I doubt this directly violates any specific rules of the field, but the politicization of an academic researcher is not a precedent that I want to see continued. I additionally find it a bit bizarre that Bustamante has stated that genetic testing should be used for understanding human history and potential medical ramifications associated with distinct genetic variations, rather than defining a person through racial identification . Yet he engaged with a DNA analysis in order to specifically highlight an ancestry background? Hmm…
Genetic testing validity aside, the biggest issue of all of this is that Native American ancestry is a cultural designation, not a genetic one. Indigenous nations define the parameters of belonging to specific groups, not DNA tests. When Warren delivered her Native American ancestry positive result, well, let’s just say that Native American groups were not exactly “thrilled” [10, 11, 12]. That’s putting it lightly. According to The Intercept, the Cherokee Nation stated that “using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.” .
The reality is that even if Warren’s test was somehow considered valid towards identifying Native American “ancestry”, what does she expect is going to happen? Loads of Trump supporters will switch sides, or Trump will apologize, or political discourse suddenly becomes more dignified? Or was this purely about the million dollars to charity? None of it was going to happen. Trump’s goal is to get under his opponent’s skin; he wants to force them to emotionally react rather than use intelligent discussion. He is unabashedly going to win in a pure emotion argument because he can completely throw logic to the wind. In these Trump-ian debates, politicians are far better served adapting intellectual conversation to his emotion-based arguments rather than descending to his level.