.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Another scandal

This morning's Sunday newspapers are full of alleged scandals involving John Prescott and the loans for peerages affair. The Observer however, contains news of another scandal of at least equal import, and one that could have a huge impact on all of our lives.

They report that the security of the police National DNA Database is in question following the disclosure of confidential emails which reveal that a private firm has secretly been keeping the genetic samples and personal details of hundreds of thousands of arrested people.

Police forces use the company LGC to analyse DNA samples taken from people they arrest. LGC then supplies the information to the National DNA Database. Yet rather than destroy this afterwards, the firm has kept copies, together with highly personal demographic details of the individuals including their names, ages, skin colour and addresses.

In a separate twist, evidence has emerged that the Home Office has given permission for a controversial genetic study to be undertaken using the DNA samples on the police database to see if it is possible to predict a suspect's ethnic background or skin colour from them. Permission has been given for the DNA being collected on the police database to be used in 20 research studies.

Personally, I am not sure whether I am more shocked at the fact that a copy of the largest DNA database in the World is being retained by a private company or that they have been authorised to use the samples to establish crime patterns related to ethnicity and skin colour.

Those who commissioned this exercise may well be looking for something that can assist them in the fight against crime but their actions are the first steps in a process that could well lead to full-on eugenics. This is not a route that anybody should be taking.

As for the security of the DNA database, the Home Office may be relaxed about this but unless they are able to offer cast iron reassurances that samples, especially those taken from children, will be destroyed once the purpose they were taken for has been exhausted, then they will find an increasing reluctance from people to co-operate by providing samples during investigations.
Putting aside for one moment the matter of how these samples were obtained and the legality of their retention, I'd take issue with your eugenics warning.

Knowledge of the facts doesn't lead in itself to misuse of knowledge. Urging us to remain ignorant bececause of the fear of the use of information can never work; facts will out and besides, we will be in a better position to make decisions if we have the facts of the matter.

You wouldn't have any objection to a phonologist telling police that, based on the accent revealed on tape, the Ripper hoaxer probably came from Wearside.

You won't have minded that blood group and/or secretor status has been used to aid detection.

You wouldn't mind an eye witness telling you that an attacker had ginger hair.

Why might DNA evidence for ethnicity be any more unacceptable?

The DNA database continues to be of undoubted use in the solving of crimes but there are real concerns. In April 2005 the New Scientist, in a comment about exactly this matter, reported that 8% per cent of white males and 32% of black males are listed on the database. One possible solution is to hold everybody's DNA on the database.
I have no problem with DNA samples in a particular case being used to build up a profile of a suspect. However, the use of a large number of samples to develop a picture of trends in crime over a period of time based on ethnicity or skin colour is one step short of then seeking to alter DNA sequences to try to eradicate criminal characteristics.
I really think you're misunderstanding this, Peter.

We already have the stats on crime and ethnicity - the info's collected when we find someone guilty,sentence someone, put them in prison, etc. You already know the figures for ethnicity, crime and relative population size.

AS I read it, the effort here is to see if DNA can be usefully used to provide a profile of a perpetrator that would include an ethnicity profile.

Altering DNA sequences to eliminate criminal characteristics, even if the suggestion made sense, isn't just 'one more step away'.

Your party colleague, Lynne Featherstone, says, 'How long before scientists start looking for a criminal gene?' Does she - or you - think it remotely plausible to posit ineluctable, deterministic, single-gene causes of criminality?

On the other hand, if she does think it plausible, why does she think we shouldn't inform ourselves about the fact?

Perhaps politicians could stop grotesquely misrepresenting science and concentrate on their presumed expertise by thinking through the implications of legislative innovations that permit the mandatory collection and retention of samples from innocent people.
I think that the fears and the concerns I have expressed here are perfectly rational and legitimate. There are two sides to every story and you have expressed the alternative view. I also believe that scientists cannot operate in a vacuum. They may have the expertise but there are moral and political implications around their work that they may not be best qualified to work through. One of the roles of a politician is to highlight and consider those implications. We need scientists as much as they need us. It is a shame that many politicians do not live up to that responsibility.

I agree with you on the mandatory collection of samples by the way. I am opposed to that. This is one area where the politicians have allowed their moral compass to be overwhelmed by the possibilities offered by science.
Nobody's suggested scientists should operate in a moral vacuum, although I suppose that Lewis Wolpert's position could be caricatured as that.

It is true that behaviours could be and have been subject to biological evolutionary pressures; it isn't true that anyone sensible believes in a single-gene cause for 'criminality'; it isn't true that these research projects in genetics are just one step from whole-scale eugenics; it isn't true that there are two sides to every question.

Scientific research is speeding ahead of the capabilities of the conventional political classes to deal with them - look at how ethics committees are always so far behind medical research.

This is precisely the sort of issue that underscores the need to have more scientifically literate people in politics.
That is your opinion David
So: you think that there are more than enough scientifically literate people in politics; or that there are just enough; or that this subject has nothing to say about the matter (I don't think I've missed a logical inference from your remarks).

Meanwhile, Lynne Featherstone complains that, presently, tests may only be able to distinguish within black populations, not ethnic distinctions within white populations, and complains that this is inherently discriminatory.

I presume Featherstone is ignorant of the fact that there is very much more within-group genetic diversity amongst black Africans than there is between-group diversity between black Africans and Caucasians and within-group diversity amongst Caucasians.

That is to say, the distinct ethnicity that comprises 'Black' in Featherstone's remarks is characterised, essentially, by skin colour alone.

Could it be possible that Featherstone, at heart, believes in single-gene causes of complex aggregate behaviours; that a single criminality-causing gene occurs more frequently for some reason in the very varied genotypes of the phenotypes she sees as all ethnically 'black' than the far less diverse collection she'd label 'white'; and that she really believes we might drive this evil gene out of the population by selective breeding?

We are informed enough by science, are we?
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?