In Forensic Science, Race DOES Exist
Print Friendly and PDF

From the New York Times local news section:

Using DNA to Sketch What Victims Look Like; Some Call It Science Fiction


Freezing winds whipped the snow-covered coastline of Brooklyn’s Calvert Vaux Park on the day two years ago that a severed hand washed up on the rocks.

… The medical examiner determined the body parts had come from a woman between the ages of 20 and 45. A tattoo of a red heart and a rose on a patch of skin clinging to her calf offered what the police believed was her name: Monique. But what Monique looked like remained a mystery.

When a public appeal for help failed to generate leads, the Police Department turned to a forensic technique called phenotyping, which uses DNA from the biological matter people leave behind, like skin and blood, to predict their appearance. …

In phenotyping, scientists scan a person’s genes for variations known to influence traits like skin color, eye color, geographical ancestry and freckling. They then plug those markers into a set of algorithms to generate a profile. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies like Parabon NanoLabs of Virginia have begun recreating faces.

Parabon’s tests revealed that Monique was primarily of sub-Saharan African descent, and not white as investigators had believed based on the color of the skin found on her remains.

Analysts used her sex and ancestry to create a generic sketch of a face from a database of demographic information, which they overlaid with traits gleaned from her genes: a deep brown complexion and brown eyes above a round nose.

As murder rates hover at historic lows

which is true in New York City

, the Police Department is looking to emerging technologies like phenotyping to help solve old cases.

Cops and prosecutors in NYC have more time on their hands these days to work on difficult cases.

The hope is that seeing a victim’s likeness will jog people’s memories. …

But critics have raised concerns about the lack of peer-reviewed science behind the technology …

Chief Katranakis said that criticism overlooks phenotyping’s ability to help the police avoid targeting the wrong people in their investigations. “The power of exclusion from phenotyping is greater than that of inclusion,” he said.

For example, he said, the Police Department used the technique to determine that the suspect in the 2016 murder of a Queens jogger, Karina Vetrano, was of African descent and eventually arrested a suspect, Chanel Lewis, who is black. …

Parabon boasts that its Snapshot service, which police officials said cost $4,000 to $5,000 for each case, “accurately predicts the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from DNA.”

Although interest in its testing has grown, Parabon has yet to publish its detailed methodology for peer review. …

But critics say the company is promising more than science has determined it can deliver. Dr. Yaniv Erlich, a computer science professor at Columbia University who studies genetics, said the idea that phenotyping could meaningfully predict something as complex as individual looks is “on the verge of science fiction.”

“Ancestry?” he said. “Sure, that’s fairly simple. Kinship, too. Phenotyping with faces? Forget about it.”

I don’t have an opinion on Parabon’s claims to be able to “capture a likeness” (as painters would say) from DNA. That sounds challenging, but don’t ask me.

I do want to point out that even though we are constantly assured that Science Has Proven Race Does Not Exist Genetically, it’s actually completely uncontroversial in forensic science that DNA can determine the race of pieces of corpses found floating in a New York bay.

[Comment at]
Print Friendly and PDF