TR: Howard University recently announced its plans to create a large database of the DNA of black Americans to better understand the diseases affecting this population. The effort, as you know, met both approval and strong criticism. What is your take on this?Duster: One can possibly see some advantages, but one always has to weigh that against the downside. And in this rather volatile world of genetics and race and medicine, I think we need to be extremely careful heading down a path collecting genetic material on a particular racial group, because that very activity starts to send a message that race and genetics are much more interlinked than they actually are. My concern is with the symbolic ramifications: they’re going to get the DNA of people of African descent as if somehow that database is going to be coherent, or more homogeneous. I’m sure that [the Howard researchers] are not that nave. They are very thoughtful people who know genetics. I just think that when we learn that Howard University is collecting this database on black people, the question is, why are they stopping with black people? The implicit answer is that there is something special about the DNA of black people. The symbolic message is strong. And that’s why I think we need to be very careful when we embark on this kind of work.
TR: Have the numerous advances in genomics over the last few years affected how you think about genetic differences and various population groups?
Duster: Yes, it has forced me to sharpen my critique of the reductionist impulse in biomedicine. The Human Genome Project and other developments have given a new imprimatur of scientific legitimacy to the “genetic” or “biological” attempt to explain complex social behaviors, from crime and violence to performance on IQ tests. When I wrote Backdoor to Eugenics at the beginning of the 1990s, I was simply warning about the implications of molecular genetics as a seductive explanation for complex behaviors. Up until about 1997, behavioral genetics and molecular genetics were almost completely separate. But now we are seeing a merger of interests and concerns in the two fields. And my critique is clearer, because I see that we are moving towards abandoning any attempt to “explain” behavior, except by using the imprimatur of molecular genetics.
TR: Your perspective as a sociologist is obviously very different from that of a geneticist. What are the dynamics between sociologists and geneticists?
Duster: Everyone thinks they’re a sociologist. No one thinks they’re a geneticist unless they are trained. Even my best-intentioned colleagues will say things like, “I hope you have on your research team someone who is a geneticist.” And I wonder if I should respond, “I hope you have in your laboratory someone who is a sociologist.” The assumption is, if you’re going to be working in this area, you have to know genetics. But if you’re a geneticist, you don’t have to know anything about the sociological context of science. You’re just supposed to do good genetics.
TR: Indeed, are geneticists and medical researchers generally attuned to the social and ethical implications of their work?
Duster: There are exceptions, but in general, with bench scientists, the answer is no. Many are oblivious of the extent to which their research is generated by social concerns. Few understand the social, economic, and political origins and ramifications of their research. So as long as the funds are flowing, these ethical, legal, and social issues are somebody else’s concern.