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AAAS Member Jada Benn Torres Takes a Microscope to Genetic Technologies and Race

Jada Benn Torres, Ph.D. Photo by Lureida Torres.

To take a genetic ancestry test, or not to take a test? That is the question that many people face nowadays in a world where genetic ancestry tests, like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, are widely popular. With just a simple, quick sample of a person’s saliva, genealogical DNA testing can fill in some of the gaps in a person’s family tree.

“The whole point of all these sorts of kits or testing companies was to use a consumer's DNA to tell a broader story of where their ancestors fit in the history of humankind in terms of how we're related to one another,” says genetic anthropologist and AAAS Member Jada Benn Torres.

Oftentimes, people are taking these tests just because they're interested in connecting or identifying other relatives. Although this sounds enticing to some, Benn Torres says you should know the benefits and the risks of at-home genetic testing kits.

Benn Torres, an expert in genetic ancestry with specific interests in African and Indigenous Caribbean peoples, got in her field at the ground floor. She studied forensic anthropology in graduate school at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque before TV shows made it look very glamorous, she says. In the lab, she learned about genetic ancestry and its methodologies. This was when genetic ancestry tests and direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies were just starting to pick up speed.

Things have come a long way since then.

“Years ago, there wasn't a whole heck of a lot you could actually do with someone's DNA,” explains Benn Torres. “But the technology has changed and there's a lot more that you can do with it.”

Now, more than two decades since DNA tests first started making a public appearance, the average person is learning to be a little bit more careful with sharing their DNA. For example, these DTC companies store millions of people’s data for internal research and there is always a risk of online data theft.

“This data was not available ten years ago, so you didn't have to be as careful. But now, when you put your DNA in these third-party sites, it's not just you, it's your family members, those who you're aware of and those you might not be aware of. They're all kind of implicated,” she says.

But, genetic ancestry and its broader meanings, and what it might say about social identities such as race, is worth investigating. These topics are what Benn Torres dedicates her career to studying.

Genetics has allowed Benn Torres an opportunity to look at history from a unique perspective. For Benn Torres, biology, or genetic data, is another data point.

For example, genetics can be used to tell a fascinating story about the Accompong Town Maroons in Jamaica. Within this community’s oral history and traditions, they have claimed partial ancestry from Taíno, who are an indigenous group to a specific part of the Caribbean, the Greater Antilles. However, archival data has suggested that the Accompong Town Maroons were not descendants of the Taíno. Benn Torres was aware that historical data can be flawed.

“You have to read this archival data very carefully because it's written by people who had specific motivations for making sure that indigenous populations were gone. If they were gone, it was easy to claim their land and the other resources,” she explains.

In her research, Benn Torres was able to detect some indigenous ancestry along maternal lineages, proving that the oral traditions of the Maroons were at least in part true. She published her research findings in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies as well as in the American Journal of Human Biology. This was a rewarding experience for Benn Torres because she spent a whole summer in Jamaica with the community. She took her two children, her mother and her husband Gabriel Torres Colón, a cultural anthropologist, along for the research trip.

“There's something to be said about immersing yourself in the community,” Benn Torres says. “I'm deeply involved and care about what I do, so it's always exciting to tell people who are interested in it as well what I've learned.”

Along with fieldwork, Benn Torres also has experience as an author. She and her husband recently published a book, “Genetic Ancestry: Our Stories, Our Pasts,” about the science behind, and the drawbacks of, genetic ancestry testing. It looks at the many ways – social, historical and cultural that data related to genetic ancestry can be understood.

Additionally, the book delves into how genetic technology can, in some ways, encourage racial thinking. There has been critique about genetic ancestry upholding ideas that race is biology. According to Benn Torres, humans sometimes promote the idea that race is a constructed social experiment, from the perspective of anthropology; that it is not biological at all.

“There are no series of genes that I could test that would tell you your race. Instead, it's something that we as a society have made up. We know that there's human variation, but as a society, we give value and meaning to that variation,” says Benn Torres.

Take the United States as an example. Benn Torres explains that there are specific physical traits that a person might look at to determine somebody's race. But, these things are socially construed and experienced, says Benn Torres.

More broadly, Benn Torres believes that more conversations about genetic literacy need to be had.

“There are all sorts of discussions where science and society come together, and there's really not enough science literacy or public discourse on how we ought to be using genetic technologies,” she says. “The technology inherently isn't bad. It's what we do with it, how we value it that can be potentially harmful.”

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Jada Benn Torres. Credit: Lureida Torres.
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Alexandra Kirby Scammell