Horizons Lecture on Genomics at the Cambridge Public Library

Horizons Lecture on Genomics at the Cambridge Public Library

Jennifer Hochschild gave an insightful lecture on the merits and ethics of DNA testing at the Cambridge Public Library last Wednesday.

Jennifer Hochschild, a Professor of Government at Harvard University, gave a lecture about the relationship between genomics, ethnicity and race on March 27th at the Cambridge Public library as part of their Horizons: Breakthroughs in Science and Technology Lecture series. Her talk explored how DNA testing relates to the way Americans see themselves and the role such testing plays in identity.

Hochschild began her talk by considering the history of genomics and DNA testing and the varying uses that genomics has. Hochschild drew audience members in by showing the impact of the “genomic revolution.” Among the insights which genomics provides were questions surrounding genetically engineered food, “whose dog is soiling the sidewalk?” and “is the fish inside your sushi really salmon?” The answer to that last one, according to Hochschild, is probably not.

Hochschild continued to speak on the history of the genomic revolution, discussing the complex relationship which genomics and DNA testing have to race. Hochschild, quoting the White House Genome Project, challenged the idea of racialized science saying “What the [White House Genome Project has] shown is the concept of race has no scientific basis.” Indeed, Hochschild noted that “race is a complex construct” based on social factors, self-identity and third party factors. She warned that “attaching races to biological factors reinforces[...] racial hierarchy.”

Hochschild spoke about the complications of identity which arise from DNA testing and genomics. To complicate the questions of identity, Hochschild compared two different stories about people who had traced their heritage back to find surprising results. Quoting a story from an interview she found in a newspaper, Hochschild found one woman was “crushed to learn that her male ancestors traced back to a white Italian, not a black resident of Madagascar as she had expected” going on to say that she “could not get past” this discovery. Hochschild used this example to illustrate the distress which DNA testing can cause to an individual’s identity. Hochschild said that “this can be painful because people find that they are not who they thought they were.”

However, Hochschild found that sometimes complications in issues of identity arising from DNA testing had positive results. For instance, Hochschild spoke about an immigrant whose “reunion [with a genetically similar American] has given childhood lessons about the slave trade and the African diaspora more personal meaning. ‘You can’t change history, but for me that was one of, if not the best moment I’ve gotten since I came [to the U.S.].” Hochschild used these two counter points to demonstrate the complex relationship between identity and genomics and how it can have differing takeaways depending on the individual.

After much discussion about the relationship between identity, ethnicity, and race, Hochschild concluded her talk with a salient question: “Can we trust that the U.S. has moved past the era of racial science and eugenics?”

Jennifer Hochschild is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government, Professor of African and African American Studies, and the Chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University.

The full lecture is available to watch on the Cambridge Community Television Facebook page.