In considering the question of the socially transformative potential of ge-
nomic knowledge and technology, I have argued that caution is advisable.
Transformation may occur, but very unevenly: it depends on how much you
have invested in genomics and how engaged with it you are. For associations
of patients affected by ge ne tic disorders, or even diseases said to have a
significant but as yet indeterminate ge ne tic component, genomics may have
significant effects on perceptions of belonging, relatedness, family, citizen-
ship, risk, the future, and self. Notions of identity, and indeed of what it
means to be human, may be subject to impor tant changes. But change is not
in a zero- sum relationship with continuity: more of the first does not neces-
sarily mean less of the second.
The concept of race illustrates this very well. Ge ne tics has both altered
and reinforced this concept in different ways, from the moment the science
emerged as a named specialism in the early twentieth century. At first, ge ne tic
data were drawn into “racial studies” and were used in an attempt to describe
“races,” now defined in terms of the frequency distribution of specific traits.
This was not a new endeavor: as I pointed out in chapter 1, the sociologist
William Z. Ripley was already talking in terms of frequency distributions of
physical traits in his 1899 book, Races of Eu rope. But he was attempting to infer
under lying racial types or essences, a task which became increasingly fruitless
as ge ne tic data on human diversity multiplied. Ge ne tics thus refuted the pos-
sibility of distinct racial types— already seen by Ripley as an “unattainable”
abstraction (cited by Stepan 1982: 94)— but retained the idea expressed by
Dobzhansky that “race differences are objectively ascertainable biological phe-
nomena” (Livingstone and Dobzhansky 1962), although some scientists re-
jected the idea that “race” expressed an objective biological real ity (Lewontin
1972). In this century, the much- cited datum that all humans are “99.9  percent
identical” in ge ne tic terms has been widely used to refute the concept of race
as a biological real ity and attack it as a social categorization. However, other
Previous Page Next Page