Deborah Bolnick is an anthropological geneticist and biological anthropologist who explores how sociopolitical forces, historical events, and social inequalities shape human genomic and epigenomic diversity, as well as human biology more broadly. In her research, Bolnick analyzes DNA from ancient and contemporary peoples, in conjunction with other lines of evidence, to reconstruct population histories and the impact of settler colonialism in the Americas. Bolnick also investigates the ethical, legal, and social implications of genomic research and genetic ancestry testing.
She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Davis, and is a past president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics. She is also the co-author (with John Relethford) of Reflections of Our Past: How Human History is Revealed in Our Genes, and is a co-organizer of the Summer internship for Indigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) program.
Areas of Expertise
University of California - Davis
Criminologists, Looking to Biology for Insight, Stir a Racist Past
At the same time, experts in human evolution say, biology is a terrible tool for explaining these kinds of racial disparities. For one thing, racial categories are just rough attempts to describe the biological variation among human beings, rather than fixed, coherent categories of people who have evolved along different trajectories. For another, even if scientists can sometimes identify average genetic differences among socially defined groups, those differences tend to be very slight — and have no obvious link to a complex social phenomenon like violent behavior. It’s “just kind of fascinating that we would presume that there is something that’s so simplistic about complex behaviors, that it could map on to something like skin color in a fairly straightforward way,” said Deborah Bolnick, an expert in human evolution and genetics at the University of Connecticut.
What’s in a Genome? The Quest to Decipher Human Difference
Indeed, it’s possible to search for differences among any socially constructed cluster of people, and perhaps find something, if only by chance. Deborah Bolnick, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut, brought up an imaginary set of people — some of whom have purple-dyed hair, and some who do not. “If we searched hard enough, we might be able to find one point in the DNA that everybody who has purple hair has, and everybody who just hasn’t dyed their hair purple doesn’t have,” she said. “So that would be a genetic difference between these two groups. Is that meaningful?”
The DNA of Roma People Has Long Been Misused, Scientists Reveal
New York Times print
“This is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about ethical issues in genetic research,” said Deborah Bolnick, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut who was not involved with research. Much of this conversation has taken place in North America and Australia, not Europe, she added. “The unethical practices described here are unfortunately very familiar and not a surprise,” Dr. Bolnick added.
UC Berkeley is disavowing its eugenic research fund after bioethicist and other faculty call it out
Los Angeles Times print
Deborah Bolnick, a University of Connecticut geneticist and associate professor of anthropology, said such modern issues raise moral and ethical questions. Some make a distinction between discredited state-sponsored eugenic practices, such as sterilization laws, and what many find to be the acceptable exercise of individual freedom to choose desired traits of a child. But it’s not so simple, she said. When Bolnick poses such questions to her students, they typically believe it ethical to use technology to prevent agonized suffering and certain early death by choosing against embryos, for instance, with genetic markers for Tay Sachs disease.
Genetic Astrology: When Ancient DNA Meets Ancestry Testing
Dr. Deborah Bolnick, a geneticist at the University of Connecticut explained that “Equating genetic similarity with genetic ancestry is deeply problematic. Because this test compares the test-taker’s DNA with a very limited sample of people from the past, we don’t know if shared genetic markers are derived from that person – or even their community or broader cultural group. Other communities likely shared the same genetic markers, and a test-taker might have even greater genetic similarity with an ancient community not included in the comparison...
‘I’m a prince’: After years of searching for family history, a pastor discovers royal ties to Africa
The Washington Post online
“The history of the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and enslavement are really violent histories that led to families being torn apart, histories and cultures being stolen from many individuals and huge harms to African Americans,” said Deborah Bolnick, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut. “DNA testing has been used as a tool to help them start to recover that loss...”
Elizabeth Warren apologizes to Cherokee Nation for DNA test
Dayton Daily News online
“Different families and groups interacted in different ways with European settlers in the region," Deborah Bolnick, University of Connecticut professor and past president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics, told Politifact. “When there was intermarriage, the offspring sometimes became part of indigenous communities, and sometimes they identified with nonindigenous groups...”
Native Americans, Cherokee Nation react to Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution online
“Different families and groups interacted in different ways with European settlers in the region," Deborah Bolnick, University of Connecticut professor and the past president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics, told Politifact. “When there was intermarriage, the offspring sometimes became part of indigenous communities, and sometimes they identified with non-indigenous groups...”
Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test: What it can and can’t tell us
"These are among the most robust methods today," said Deborah Bolnick at the University of Connecticut and past president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics...
To overcome decades of mistrust, a workshop aims to train Indigenous researchers to be their own genome experts
Science Magazine online
SING has helped forge new research relationships. Through the program Deborah Bolnick, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, has established a collaborative research project with Indigenous partners in the southern United States. It took 4 years of conversation before they collected a single sample, but now they have nearly 150. One project is to see whether maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) corresponds with the communities' matrilineal clans. If so, mtDNA analyses might be able to restore clan identities to community members who had that knowledge stripped from them by colonization...
What Do Elizabeth Warren's DNA Test Results Actually Mean?
Furthermore, as geneticist Dr. Deborah Bolnick of the University of Connecticut explained, simply showing that a person inherited some of their genome from a Native American ancestor does not show that she herself is Native American...
Palaeo-Eskimo genetic ancestry and the peopling of Chukotka and North AmericaNature
2019 Much of the American Arctic was first settled 5,000 years ago, by groups of people known as Palaeo-Eskimos. They were subsequently joined and largely displaced around 1,000 years ago by ancestors of the present-day Inuit and Yup’ik1,2,3. The genetic relationship between Palaeo-Eskimos and Native American, Inuit, Yup’ik and Aleut populations remains uncertain.
Comparing signals of natural selection between three Indigenous North American populationsPNAS
2019 Recent studies have shown that humans have adapted to many different environments around the world. However, few studies have centered on Indigenous groups in the Americas. We present a comparative analysis of genetic adaptations in humans across North America using genome-wide scans for signals of natural selection in three populations inhabiting vastly different environments.
How Academic Diversity Is Transforming Scientific Knowledge in Biological AnthropologyAnthroSource
AAPA Statement on Race and RacismAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Advancing the ethics of paleogenomicsScience
2018 Recent scientific developments have drawn renewed attention to the complex relationships among Indigenous peoples, the scientific community, settler colonial governments, and ancient human remains (1, 2). Increasingly, DNA testing of ancestral remains uncovered in the America s is being used in disputes over these remains.
Reflections of Our Past: How Human History is Revealed in Our GenesReflections of our Past
2018 A lot can happen in two decades. Almost 20 years ago one of us (John) decided to write a book about how anthropologists and geneticists use genetic data (in the broad sense of the term) to answer questions about human history, origins, and ancestry. John’s goal was to produce a book that would explain in clear terms exactly what anthropologists and geneticists do, something of interest to a general audience and that would be useful in undergraduate classes.
Health and genetic ancestry testing: time to bridge the gap AuthorsBMC Medical Genomics
2017 It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep information about genetic ancestry separate from information about health, and consumers of genetic ancestry tests are becoming more aware of the potential health risks associated with particular ancestral lineages. Because some of the proposed associations have received little attention from oversight agencies and professional genetic associations, scientific developments are currently outpacing governance regimes for consumer genetic testing.
Chaco Canyon Dig Unearths Ethical ConcernsHuman Biology
2017 The field of paleogenomics (the study of ancient genomes) is rapidly advancing with more robust methods of isolating ancient DNA and increasing access to next-generation DNA sequencing technology. As these studies progress, many important ethical issues have emerged that should be considered when ancient Native American remains, whom we refer to as ancestors, are used in research. We highlight a recent article by Kennett et al.
Native American Genomics and Population HistoriesAnnual Review of Anthropology
2016 Studies of Native American genetic diversity and population history have been transformed over the last decade by important developments in anthropological genetics. During this time, researchers have adopted new DNA technologies and computational approaches for analyzing genomic data, and they have become increasingly sensitive to the views of research participants and communities.