Thursday, October 2, 2008

Race and Biology

The last issue (vol.5 issue 38) of Social Studies of Science deals with the complex and disturbing question of race, genetics and disease. I've only went through the introduction to this issue, as I've been ambivalent on this topic and I found others shared my ambivalence. I do understand that, on a macro scale, populations are shaped by their environment: we've seen this from the time white colonists brought the flu to North-American indigenous populations. We can still say today that African Americans, on the whole (and whatever that means), are more affected by certain conditions and diseases. There's also the possibility of tracing down where your genome 'comes from' spatially - like Whoopi Goldberg did.

I'm trying to say that there are certain benefits from thinking of race in terms of genetics. But I'm a scholar (and from the vantage point of not being directly affected by any of those alleged benefits) and I feel deeply disturbed by the whole context of this linkage: genetics is intrinsically linked to racism. Let me put it differently: genetics, searching for the biological proof of races, was developed for - and cannot be easily divorced from - racist purposes. You might say we no longer believe in the hierarchy of races and that our purposes driving our genetics research have nothing to do with eugenics, with creating the 'pure' breed. Maybe. The point is we might no longer believe in the hierarchy of races, but when we believe in - and look for - the biological proof of racial difference, we classify people into races in a way that cannot be contested (not to mention that this way of looking at things already frames the reality that we subsequently investigate). We start from saying each race has particular health problems - and mind you, what the hell does it mean a 'race' in the first place, how does it homogenize us etc. From different races-different health, we come to different diets, different education, different medication... and before you know it, we have DIFFERENCE written all over the place. Now, I'm not sure this is different from racism...

Photo credits: MASH DNArt

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