Applications to Real Life

Race and the Human Genome Project

The concept of ‘race’ is often understood as a scientifically credible, biologically based variable. However, a number of challenges have been made to this claim, not least that made by Craig Venter of the human genome project who claimed, following the mapping of diverse genomes, that race has no genetic basis. This claim, however, did not end the argument but itself can be seen as an important part of the ongoing debate over what ‘race’ actually means. McCann-Mortimer et al. (2004) applied a critical, discursive psychological approach to the fallout of Venter’s controversial claim. Using publicly available data in the two years following Venter’s announcement, they aimed to investigate how the term ‘race’ was used in these texts, how this talk was organised so as to make it appear factually accurate and the broader impact of this talk.

McCann-Mortimer et al. (2004) identified two main ways in which race was conceptualised: as a social and a biological construct. They show that when race is presented as a social construct, group differences are minimised. They present an example from the journal Science that exemplifies the minimisation of group differences:

  • 1. Fortunately, from the few studies of nuclear DNA sequences, it is clear
  • 2. that what is called ‘race,’ although culturally important, reflects just
  • 3. few continuous traits determined by a tiny fraction of our genes.
  • 4. Thus, from the perspective of nuclear genes, it is often the case that
  • 5. two persons from the same part of the world who look superficially
  • 6. alike are less related to each other than they are to persons from other
  • 7. parts of the world who may look very different.
  • (McCann-Mortimer et al., 2004: 423)

This example clearly illustrates how race (which is presented in quotation marks) is deemed problematic and lacking appropriate biological and genetic support. McCann-Mortimer et al. point out the authoritative nature of the writing, such as ‘it is clear’ (line one) and the positive contrasting of ‘real’ genetic similarities over ‘superficial’ differences in appearances. They claim that examples such as this one emphasise ‘the genetic unity of all human beings’ (McCann-Mortimer et al., 2004: 423), which is why they argue that talk stating ‘race’ has no biological basis works to minimise group differences.

Despite claims about the lack of a biological and genetic basis for race, McCann-Mortimer et al. (2004) nevertheless identified numerous examples of texts where race continued to be described as a biological and scientific construct, which work to emphasise differences between groups. Here is one such example they presented from the monthly journal The World and I:

  • 1. The fact that 99.8 percent of the population shares the same genes does
  • 2. not ‘prove’ or even necessarily suggest that there are no population or
  • 3. ‘racial’ differences. The percentage of overall differences is a far less
  • 4. important issue than which genes are different. Even minute
  • 5. differences in DNA can have profound effects on how an animal or
  • 6. human looks and acts ...
  • (McCann-Mortimer et al., 2004: 424)

McCann-Mortimer et al. (2004) demonstrate how articles such as these are designed to counter the argument put forward in the previous examples. They show how in this case an alternative scientific argument is based on the function, rather than the quantity of genes that may differ. By claiming that small differences in DNA can have large differences in behaviour, the claims about small differences in DNA can be undermined and a genetic explanation for group differences remains. What this finding means is that while it has been challenged, a biological basis for racial differences has remained as a credible explanation that will remain in use. This lead to McCann-Mortimer et al. concluding that ‘Regardless of how ‘groups’ are defined, and no matter how small the reported differences between groups, such group differences can always be (mis)appropriated to legitimate racist and discriminatory practices. It will take much more than the rhetorical power of scientific ‘truth’ to eradicate racism’ (McCann-Mortimer et al., 2004: 429). This study therefore demonstrates the ways in which texts that exist in the public domain contribute to the ongoing debate about what counts as ‘race’, that in many ways reflects the arguments within social psychology.

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