Sunday, March 11, 2007


From: Troy Duster
Date: Sun, 11 Mar 2007 12:12:12 -0400

In a later posting, I will respond more specifically to Suzanne’s question about core issues, but this post is to address an underlying assumptions in her query: “How shall we manage the social consequences of scientific facts?” -- and indeed, are the rest of us simply “playing catch-up”…

Today’s (Sunday) New York Times has two pieces on the Opinion Page that are germane to this discussion. They both refer to the recent announced discovery that the different national groups of the United Kingdom and Ireland are much more closely related genetically than previously thought. One of the authors uses this as the occasion to suggest that such research has the potential of uniting us in our common humanity – bursting the bubble of ethnic and racial essentialism that is often the source of warfare, strife and of course, a long-standing rationale for oppressive social domination. The other author documents the history of that domination of the Irish by the English, using literature and quotes from essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries to reveal just how deeply embedded was the idea that the Irish were an inferior race.

The problem is that social domination is not dependent upon demonstrated genetic or biological similarities or differences – but upon the capacity of one group to control the resources, politically, culturally, economically, and of course, militarily. My case in point is a study, now nearly a decade old, that compared the DNA of Arabs, Jews and Welsh subjects, and concluded that the Arabs and Jews shared much more of the DNA patterned markers with each other than either did with the Welsh. To say that these findings did not much "budge" or destabilize patterns of control or domination in the Middle East would be a wry rhetorical understatement. In a similar vein, the study of the DNA of the priestly line among Jews was used to try, at the laboratory level, to establish a group in sub-Sahara Africa as one of the lost tribe, and thus "essentially" Jewish. Many things come to mind about the impact (or lack of it) from the study, but "the primacy of biological ties above all else" -- is definitively not one.

The purpose of my bringing this to the fore is to counter the notion that the bio-sciences are somehow in the lead, or at least should be in the lead in determining what really constitutes human genetic variation and diversity, and if the rest of us just followed that lead, we would come to some better understanding of the human variation among us – which until enlightened by genetic analysis, is flawed, imprecise, and certainly not scientific. We may well be informed that Strom Thurmond, Thomas Jefferson, and countless others dipped into another gene pool (read this as socially framed, not genetic), but the Thurmond and Jefferson families have no more “budged” than have the Israelis, the Arabs, the British and the Irish – and the reason is simple enough: genetic analysis will not adjudicate policies that sustain long-standing practices of human social and cultural stratification.

More in a bit on core issues.

Troy Duster

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