I Wish vs. It Is

 Posted by on 15 October 2007 at 7:07 am  Uncategorized
Oct 152007

Investigators were stymied in their hunt for this serial rapist/murderer — they were trying to find a white guy in a white pickup and getting nowhere as bodies piled up. Then molecular biologist Tony Frudakis offered to determine the race of their suspect with DNA analysis. The frustrated team accepted, and were hit with a surprise that would turn their whole investigation in an entirely different direction:

There was a prolonged, stunned silence, followed by a flurry of questions looking for doubt but Frudakis had none. Would he bet his life on this, they wanted to know? Absolutely. In fact, he was certain that the Baton Rouge serial killer was 85 percent Sub-Saharan African and 15 percent native American.

… after the conference call with Frudakis, Lee jumped to the top of the suspect list. They got a subpoena for his DNA, collected a cheek swab and a day later, they had their answer: he was their man. Lee skipped town just ahead of the arrest warrant but was tracked down in Atlanta and returned to Baton Rouge within days. “CAUGHT” declared the Baton Rouge Advocate in giant print.

Relatives of the victims described their thrill and relief that a dangerous killer was finally off the streets, but also frustration that it has taken so long. Few people knew that the most crucial piece of evidence was not unearthed by the hapless task force or forensic scientists but by a drug developer some 800 miles away.

I love to see an active mind at work like this (he wasn’t just solving the puzzle of this case, but also looking for a product to help his company survive). Frudakis developed a test that

uses a set of 176 genetic markers selected precisely because they disclose the most information about physical characteristics. … No one sequence alone can predict ancestral origin. However, by looking collectively at hundreds and analyzing the frequency of the various markers, Frudakis says he could predict genetic ancestry with 99 percent accuracy.

Something that caught my attention was the clear sensitivity to the use of racial profiling, yet with no apparent awareness of what would make its use right or wrong. Consider that in their growing desperation, “police set up a dragnet to obtain DNA from some 1200 white men” (no probable cause, no warrant). But when they later thought they were after a black guy, they only used the racial information to filter their suspect list and focus their energies — and they obtained a subpoena for the DNA sample needed to confirm his identity. This contrast in the use of racial information wasn’t even noted, much less discussed.

But the part of the article that was most disturbing were the negative reactions cited, ranging from denial, to worry about a slippery slope into eugenics, and concluding with this jaw-dropper:

[Frudakis] has identified the gene sequences associated with height, and has compiled a database of 5000 digital photographs of people with almost every racial ancestry combination — which, one day, he says could allow him to construct a physical portrait of a DNA donor, including melanin content, skin color or eye color.

But even the people one might think should be his biggest allies aren’t supporting that, including Tony Clayton, the special prosecutor … Clayton, who is black, admits that he initially dismissed Frudakis as some white guy trying to substantiate his racist views. He no longer believes that and says “had it not been for Frudakis, we would still be looking for the white guy in the white pick-up truck.” But then he adds, “We’ve been taught that we’re all the same, that we bleed the same blood. If you subscribe to the (Frudakis) theory, you’re saying we are inherently unequal.”

He continues: “If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would.”

Wow. Talk about a mind so addled by fashionable prejudices that it has disintegrated into incoherence. Sadly, he is not alone.

It isn’t as if we aren’t aware that, setting aside twins, we are all genetically unique (not unequal). That’s the basis for DNA fingerprinting, after all. Likewise, it isn’t any revelation that our skin, eye, and hair color are driven by our DNA. And general patters of ancestral similarity in these traits have long been noted. Basically, leaving behind the genetic markers Frudakis focuses on is like being spied by a (limited-resolution) security camera. But does anybody likewise worry about racist motives and inviting a eugenic slippery slope with the invention of security cameras? No. Would anybody in law enforcement likewise wish for their disappearance? Of course not.

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