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Is 23andMe's 'Root for Your Roots' World Cup Promotion Racist?

A bioethicist argues that the genetic testing company is fostering pseudoscientific bigotry by urging customers to pick a soccer team based on their ancestry.

FIFAWorldCupFIFAThe direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe is "using genetics to sponsor racism," claims the bioethicist Arthur Caplan. That is a serious charge if true. So what has gotten Caplan all het up?

Evidently something called the "World Cup" has just gotten started. I believe it is some kind of sporting competition involving teams that hail from different countries. As I understand it, the U.S. team did not make the cut and so will not be participating in the competition. So if American sports fans want to experience whatever vicarious thrills (dopamine fluctuations) come from backing one team over another in an athletic competition, they can pick one of the national teams that did qualify for the World Cup thingy. But how to choose? Throw a dart at the matchups poster? Flip coins? Pick the team with a uniform that features your favorite color?

This is where 23andMe's "Root for Your Roots" promotion comes in. The company suggests that American customers casting about for a national team to support may want to take into account the origins of their ancestors. I am certain that many of my more sports-minded friends are already preparing to yell at their televisions in support of teams from France, Germany, Russia, Poland, England, or Sweden based on their families' immigration histories.

Caplan asserts that Root for Your Roots "is built on bogus science about the genetics of how we define nations and ethnic groups." He says "it appeals to the racism in us to pick a team we can root for." But is that so? Regarding Caplan's bogosity claim, 23andMe explains that it compares its customers' genotype results with those in 31 reference data sets that include genotypes from more than 11,000 people who were chosen to reflect populations that existed before transcontinental travel and migration were common (at least 500 years ago). The company is careful to explain what its test can and cannot tell people about their ancestries. WorldCupChartFIFA

To determine customers' recent ancestor locations, 23andMe looks for pieces of DNA that they have in common with individuals of known ancestry from over 120 countries and territories in Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania. The company notes that sections of DNA sometimes resemble reference DNA in several populations, in which case customers are assigned to broad ancestry classifications. In my case, the company's algorithm reports that 99.6 percent of my genes derive from European populations, with 43 percent associated with British and Irish populations and 31 percent being broadly northwestern European. As it happens, I carry more Neanderthal gene variants than do 86 percent of 23andMe's other customers. Just saying.

So genotype testing as a way to probe ancestry is certainly not scientifically bogus. But does 23andMe's promotion appeal to the racism in us? It is true that a few white supremacists holding confused notions of genetic essentialism have used genotype tests to confirm their pale purity. But it seems highly unlikely to me that 23andMe ancestry composition results will nudge the average customer toward athletic racism.

In a counterpoint to Caplan, George Quraishi, the founder of the magazine Howler, which evidently covers whatever sport is being played by the teams involved in the World Cup tournament, argues cogently that "rooting for your ancestors doesn't make you racist." Quraishi observes that a "fan can usually explain why he chose to love his team, but there is seldom any logic to it." Had the U.S. team qualified to compete in the World Cup series, would the fact that American fans cheered for it have made them racist hooligans? As Quraishi points out, the worst that is apt to happen if for whatever reason you decide to pick a team "is that you'll waste a few hours of your life screaming at a TV show featuring two groups of men who are being paid millions of dollars to determine who is more proficient at placing a small orb between two sticks."

I don't get it, but lots of psychological research finds that rooting for sports teams is beneficial to fans. One research review "indicates that high levels of identification with teams with readily available social connections are associated with many indices of social well-being, including lower levels of loneliness and alienation, and higher levels of collective self-esteem, personal self-esteem, frequency of experiencing positive emotions, extroversion, conscientiousness, and social life satisfaction." Go figure.

My 23andMe results suggest that I might consider rooting for England, Germany, or France. If DNA test results don't incline a customer toward a team, the company offers the rest of the participating countries as a bunch of wild cards. If I had to choose, I would pick Costa Rica, for no better reason than that I worked at the Tico Times for a while back in the 1990s. I think I will instead watch the competitions on World of Dance. I just can't decide between team Charity & Andres and team Josh & Taylor.

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  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    [groan]

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Go Ticos!

    They got shafted with their grouping though. Definitely not expecting a repeat of last time.

  • Atlas Slugged||

    Bioethicist? Pretty much any communication from them is not worth your time.

  • ||

    At the very least pretty much anybody arguing that something is pseudo-scientific bigotry is, themselves, bigoted and pseudo-scientific.

    Last I checked there was no genetic lineage purity test to be on the English soccer team or a fan of them so the only way rooting for them is racist is if English soccer players suddenly became a race unto themselves. Even if they did, there's very little historical significance to justify the connotation of racism. It's not like a bunch of Aussie footballers defected from their oppressive English teammates and formed their own independent, white nationalist soccer team in order to oppress the Nigerians or trade them to browner teams.

  • LarryA||

    Wait, what?

    I thought rooting for a team that doesn't share your DNA would be Cultural Appropriation.

    Did the rules change again?

  • Sevo||

    LarryA|6.14.18 @ 10:21PM|#
    "Wait, what?
    I thought rooting for a team that doesn't share your DNA would be Cultural Appropriation.
    Did the rules change again?"

    We have a dimbulb here, claiming that 'open borders' means he loses his "cultural identity":
    "Feanor|6.14.18 @ 7:15PM|#
    [...]
    Frankly, I think Gillespie and others here at Reason are drunk on their own Idealism. Not only do they not give a shit that other people have every right to deem 'America' a legit idea, they don't give a shit that people, collectively, might not wish to lose their identity - and be forced to subsidize it."
    https://reason.com/blog/2018
    /06/14/kmw-50th-podcast#comment

    Ha, and ha! A link to a Reason thread is too long to post on the Reason Site.
    Fuck you, Welsh, you'll whistle Dixie for hours before you get one more penny from me.

  • Hugh Akston||

    What team do you root for if you're the guy who doesn't want to be in a genetic database that the feds can access at any time?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Senegal

  • Pro Libertate||

    One of the African teams? I mean, we're all Africans.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    None, because you're American and soccer is stupid.

  • Just Say'n||

    People are generally trigger happy and mean in these comment threads, but discussing soccer really brings out unadulterated hatred.

    Also, deep dish pizza is pizza. And it's better than that cardboard from NYC

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    I'd agree that both deep dish and NY style are pizza and both have their place.

    Soccer, however, is really the least entertaining of all sports besides maybe golf. It only has such a global following because it's inexpensive to play. You basically need a ball and two thing to kick between and you can play as a kid. There's a reason beyond just culture that poor countries don't play ice hockey or American football.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Interesting perspective. I find soccer to be the most exciting sport, besides mma. I love the build up to a goal and the organic bottom-up cooperation of the players. Hockey is great, but it is almost too fast and chaotic, and American football is too regimented and top-down, and depends too much on one player (the quarterback).

  • perlchpr||

    Not to mention that American football suffers (IMO, of course) from the constant stoppage of play.

    I found the rugby game I went to on my vacation to NZ to be significantly superior to American football for basically that very reason. They just keep playing, unless someone has a broken femur.

  • Libertymike||

    American football is far more complex than the so-called beautiful sport.

    American football requires far greater artistry and innovation than soccer.

    American football features a far greater diversity of athletic skills than soccer.

    Besides, there's no NFL films for soccer.

  • LarryA||

    American football features a far greater diversity of athletic skills than soccer.

    Well, sorta.

    Football requires some big players on the line, some agile players to run the ball, and a couple of players who can throw accurately. Each player is specialized.

    In soccer all the players have to have more diverse skills than any one individual football player..

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    They just keep playing, unless someone has a broken femur.

    To be fair, this is every 5 minutes.

  • perlchpr||

    To be fair, this is every 5 minutes.

    Combined with the cheap beer, it made for a pretty spectacular sporting event. :D

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    It's interesting to me that I really love baseball, which most people think is boring because the pace of play is pretty slow, but I think soccer is boring. With all sports, IMO, your level of enjoyment is strongly related to what you played as a child and/or how much you understand about the intricate details of the game. I think that's especially true for slower paced games like baseball and soccer. Fast paced games with lots of collisions (like football) appeal to more people because you really don't have to appreciate the nuances of the game to enjoy watching a linebacker demolish a running back.

  • Libertymike||

    Baseball should stop trying to appease the American obsessive attention deficit disorder dystopians.

    One of the reasons why I love football is its complexities and nuances.

  • Zeb||

    I've come to like football a lot more than I used to. But baseball is still my favorite of the major American team sports.

    I'm not very interested in rooting for teams in any case. I'm more interested in the game and the feats of athleticism.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    George Carlin, Arbiter of Sport:

    https://youtu.be/IhN1ExFCXNA

  • Jerryskids||

    I'm waiting for the day football players are body-cammed and a swarm of drone cameras cover the whole field and I can choose which views of the play I want to see. Then I'll watch the linemen. As much as it's an adage that controlling the line of scrimmage is the key to the game, you never see the broadcasters paying much attention to the battle in the trenches. But a good offensive line can make a mediocre backfield look good and a good one great, if you've got a bad OL it doesn't matter who you've got back there, they're getting creamed.

    Which is to say, if you're watching the qb you're watching the wrong guy. If you're watching a good qb, chances are you're watching one who routinely has 4 or 5 seconds to pick a target, if you're watching a bad qb you're more likely watching one who only has 2 seconds to get rid of the ball or eat it.

  • Rhywun||

    The only thing more tedious than region war is "your favorite sport is dumb" war.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    What's your favorite sport?

  • Rhywun||

    None of your business.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    "None of your business."

    That dumb, huh?

    Prolly Curling.

  • Zeb||

    I already know that my favorite sport is dumb.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Racking up as many different IPAs on the On Tap app as you can is not a sport.

  • Zeb||

    No, but drinking them is.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    A) Russia is poor and they play hockey. Most poor countries don't play hockey because they're equatorial. In essence all you need for hockey in the winter beyond soccer is a stick.

    B) you may think soccer is the least entertaining, but it has the biggest following of anything except motorsport. So you are obviously in the minority with your poorly formed opinions.

    C) I'm not a nihilist, but when we reach peak stupidity because people have so much time to waste they can dream up new ways of calling people racist, I think it might be nice to have the super volcano erupt and send us back to the dark ages. Where all we have to entertain ourselves is a frozen pond, a rock, and a stick.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Boxers could learn a thing or two from soccer players about taking a dive.

  • Rat on a train||

    The Vatican. Did they make the cut?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Solution: Everyone root for Senegal. Because everyone is your pal in Senegal™

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Do you have some Senegal in you?

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    More like some SeneGal has a little BUCS in her, amirite?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Senile Gal? Boy, BUCS fetishes are really racking up. His specific requirements are becoming harder and harder to satisfy. A senile midget with pubes down to her ankles that can accommodate the massive member of someone with 6'8" stature? Well, good luck to you, sir.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Oh, you're gonna want to ask for Bridgette. Tell them Leo sent you.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Einstock beer is running an adopt Iceland promotion.

  • NoVaNick||

    And Albert Einstein is now a racist
    http://gourl.gr/by9g

  • Napoleon Bonaparte||

    Does this mean we get to tear down his statues, posthumously revoke his Nobel Prize, and never ever speak of him again without mentioning what an awwwwful racist he was?

  • Rat on a train||

    also discard relativity

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    I got an email from the cousin of the king of Senegal, he is imprisoned and needs only $10000 to be rescued, at which point he will give me $10,000,000. Should I root for the soccer team too?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    As someone who does not often watch sports. Can we stop this holier than thou reductionist bullshit towards sports? It's like when friends on Facebook make a big deal of saying "oh, is today the Super Bowl? Who knew?"

    It's just obnoxious to make some big deal over how you don't watch sports.

  • Hugh Akston||

    What are this 'sports' of which you speak? I don't own a TV, so I wouldn't know.

  • Just Say'n||

    "I don't own a TV"

    Hugh just took douche-bag to a ten. Well played, sir.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Lol, that's funny right there.

    I didn't own a TV for about 10 years. Lost got me back into it. Now I watch too many shows.

  • lap83||

    Dammit

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    It's called sportsball.

  • Shirley Knott||

    No more obnoxious than making a huge deal about sports to people who don't care.

  • lap83||

    I would watch sports but I don't own a TV....

  • Tony||

    I'd watch this sport competition but I really screwed up neck the other day so it's going to be hard to turn it left and then right and then left and then right.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Tigger's been a flop for some time now.
    And if you think there's no violence in soccer, check out Luis Suarez, who would make Tyson jealous.

  • ||

    And if you think there's no violence in soccer, check out Luis Suarez, who would make Tyson jealous.

    This is the worst thing about soccer. It's a lowest common denominator sport touted as being a panacea. Dick Butkus is widely regarded as one of the most intimidating and mean football players ever to step on the field. No reasonable person would suggest that Butkus' fighting abilities would make Tyson jealous and the NFL *and* the NHL are full of guys who'd make Luis Suarez' antics look like tickle fighting. It's fucking soccer for chrissakes! Distance runners and cyclists are all yours to intimidate. Otherwise, your biggest, most intimidating athletes aren't even big or scary by even NBA or MLB standards.

    Since it's soccer he's not wearing gloves and since it's soccer, he sucker punched someone, and since it's soccer and he sucker punched someone and I'm not seeing the news coverage about how he put the guy in a coma, broke his jaw, or fractured his eye socket, he's not making much of anyone jealous. Toughest guy on the soccer pitch ranks you right up there with Jean Claude Van Damme in my book.

  • Just Say'n||

    "which evidently covers whatever sport is being played by the teams involved in the World Cup tournament"

    Bailey is brutal.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    He is being sarcastic. He watches soccer like every decent cosmo.

  • Just Say'n||

    Globalist cuck!

  • Just Say'n||

    With an imported beer, too!

  • Just Say'n||

    You can ask whether or not rooting for your ethnic background is racist, but don't you dare tell Bailey that soccer is a sport. Harsh.

    I respect this brutality. Even as a soccer fan.

  • Cathy L||

    So genotype testing as a way to probe ancestry is certainly not scientifically bogus. But does 23andMe's promotion appeal to the racism in us? It is true that a few white supremacists holding confused notions of genetic essentialism have used genotype tests to confirm their pale purity. But it seems highly unlikely to me that 23andMe ancestry composition results will nudge the average customer toward athletic racism.

    What possible nonracist interpretation is there of the idea that you should root for the team you share ancestry with?

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    It's less racism and more tribal appeal. I have some ethnic tie to this thing, so I'll root for it. If it were, I'll root for this team because they look like me, then it would be nearly impossible to pick a single team out of the ones listed for most races.

    Is there really a significant difference in race between western European countries? It wouldn't be racist in my mind for an American named Schneider to root for Germany over France, for instance. Why would it be racist specifically for him to root for Germany over Senegal?

  • Rhywun||

    It's less racism and more tribal appeal.

    Yep, and there's also the inconvenient fact that most of the European teams are loaded with gentlemen of African ancestry nowadays. "Race" and "national origin" are becoming less and less tied together all the time.

  • MasterThief||

    That's the way I see it. My family is predominately of German and Swedish ancestry and I'm a third generation American. Our family retained some of the traditions, languages, and culture of our heritage. Is it wrong to hold some affinity for those countries when I was raised with some of their customs? I'll be rooting for Germany because of this affinity (and the fact that they aren't likely to get knocked out in the first round.)
    I see how this promotion can be seen as racist, but there really is no problem with offering people some basis to be interested in tribal activities when one's own immediate tribe is uninvolved.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    You're not allowed to embrace your European culture because Europeans don't have culture.
    On the other hand, I went to an inner city high school graduation last week, and half of the women there were in Senegalese dress, and I know most of them have never been soccer fans.

  • Jerryskids||

    The same interpretation of the idea that you should drink a Coke for world peace. Notice Coke doesn't say sharing things in common with others promotes harmony in a general sense so if you'd like to share a Pepsi with a stranger that'd be good, too. 23andMe doesn't really give a shit about soccer and they don't give a shit if you give a shit about soccer, either. They just want you to buy their product. It's not racism, it's advertising, stop looking for some hidden message in it.

  • Libertymike||

    Wouldn't you like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?

  • Zeb||

    People usually root for their country's team. Is that racist too? Are English people racist because they don't root for the French (OK, they might be in that case, but I think you get my drift).

    If every distinction based on genotype is racist, then fine, it's racist. But I think that broadens the definition of "racist" a bit too much.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    "Are English people racist because they don't root for the French (OK, they might be in that case, but I think you get my drift)."

    It is NEVER racist to root against the Frogs.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    "Are English people racist because they don't root for the French (OK, they might be in that case, but I think you get my drift)."

    It is NEVER racist to root against the Frogs.

  • colorblindkid||

    I kind of agree with this guy. I have no idea what my ethnic roots are, and don't care. Anybody who takes "pride" in their ethnicity is inherently racist, and anybody who changes the way they live depending on where they find out they "come from" is a fucking idiot. We need to get beyond this shit.

  • Zeb||

    I kind of agree with you. Especially "we need to get beyond this shit". People worrying about what their ancestors did and had done to them are a cause of an awful lot of the world's problems.

    But I have no problem with people taking an interest in their ancestry and this seems like harmless fun. People who are going to be racist are plenty capable of it without having genetic tests to back it up.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I sort of agree with you. But writing an article bitching about people rooting for different countries is also uber douchie.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Taking pride in your ancestry is not racist.
    Dear Lord you fools need to be castrated if that's what you honestly think.
    Because I support A doesn't mean I'm prejudiced against B.
    Take a logic class for Christ's sake.
    They're free online.

  • Napoleon Bonaparte||

    I'd be interested in knowing who Arthur Caplin is rooting for.

    Seriously, some people just need to fuck off.

  • perlchpr||

    It's only racist if you're white, though. PoC who use this method are in the clear. Asians, of course, count as white for this exercise.

  • lap83||

    I find people who are really proud of their heritage to be annoying and obnoxious, but I don't necessarily think "racist"

  • lap83||

    *cough* Irish people on St Patricks Day*cough*

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Are bioethicists self appointed or is it an actual job position that went through hr?

  • Iheartskeet||

    I believe it is self appointed, and then validated by behavior and opinions that not ethical in the extreme, but are to complicated for regular folks to understand.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I find much of their marketing campaign, which promotes the idea that your ancestral history as revealed from genetic testing is enough to give you membership in a cultural group that you otherwise have no connection to, to be strange and counter to that whole "content of their character" thing.

  • Sigivald||

    1) Never trust any "-ethicist" with ethics.
    2) I still don't see how any of it is supposed to be "racist", in the sense of the term anyone should care about, which is racial bigotry.
    3) Equally, "root for people sharing your genetics" is ... why would I want to do that?
    Thus 4) I guess by "racist" he must mean merely "thinking you have something in common with your genetic relatives as expressed in a nation-state". Which, well, I think we just call that "most countries' nationalism"?

  • Zeb||

    "root for people sharing your genetics"

    Or in this case "root for people playing for a country whose population shared your genetics 500 years ago", which is even weirder. But it's really as good a reason as any for supporting a particular sports team made up of people you have no personal connection to.

  • MasterThief||

    The game is more interesting to watch if you have something invested in it. If money isn't involved, then having some sort of affinity for a team helps to keep it exciting. If a person wants to watch the sport and arbitrarily choosing a team to support isn't exciting enough, then why not choose one based on ancestry?

  • LynchPin1477||

    But it's really as good a reason as any for supporting a particular sports team made up of people you have no personal connection to.

    People tend to root for a particular sports team because of the connection they have to the other people rooting for that team, not because of the connection they have with the people playing. Of course there's exceptions when someone has a favorite player and such, but for the most part it's the community of fellow fans one connects with.

  • Rat on a train||

    I will root against the countries of my ancestry. If they didn't suck my ancestors wouldn't have left and I would be living there. Go other countries.
    Also, soccer sucks. A real sport just held its championship.

  • Zeb||

    Well, now you're just racist against yourself.

  • Rat on a train||

    I'm used to that since I have English-Irish and German-French in my ancestry.

  • Tony||

    My test results were so boring, meaning my ancestors must have been seriously racist. Not just on this side of the Atlantic. They were so racist they didn't even interbreed with other types of white people.

  • Rat on a train||

    Are you so white you glow in the dark?

  • Tony||

    Except when I'm sunburned.

  • Rat on a train||

    Which only takes 5 minutes?

  • No Longer Amused||

    The logical thing is to not get worked up over a children's game like soccer.

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    "As it happens, I carry more Neanderthal gene variants than do 86 percent of 23andMe's other customers. Just saying."

    So ... Ron is rooting for the Ruskys.

  • Hattori Hanzo||

    My rooting interest in order:

    1. Iceland
    2. Serbia
    3. Every team playing Mexico

  • Sevo||

    Does Guam have a team, and would the island capsize if they left?
    Asking for a friend in politics.

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