Alondra Nelson

My commitment: Illuminating the social life of DNA

Genetics now is not just about medicine: it’s about the criminal justice system, it’s about how we think about family and ancestry. What’s transformative and perhaps even revolutionary about this moment is that we can now propose genetic answers to fundamental questions about human identity and human society—questions such as “Who am I?” “Why do I get sick?” “Where do I come from?” and “Who are my relatives?”

In the community I study most, African-Americans, people are often looking to answer questions that emerge out of the history of racial slavery in the United States. Although it can be imprecise, genetic ancestry testing offers people of African descent information about possible origins on that continent that was not available before.

Yet even the categories geneticists create to tell us something about our family, our ancestry, our history, our ethnicity, our race, are socially constituted in the laboratory. Race is an invention, it’s a creation. Human bodies have different types of hair, different eye color, different skin color, but none of it inherently means anything. But to say that race is a construction, a creation, doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t have very real-world effects.

These are interesting times, maybe even revolutionary times. This is also a time that begs us to think about what the stakes of the new genetics might be. We need to think bigger and differently in this moment. What we need is a bioethics that attends to the full social life of DNA.