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How Deep is the Skin? The Geneticization of Race and Medicine

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Abstract

‘Racial’ or ‘ethnic’ drugs, a product of the new genetics and its mapping of genomes and populations, are now being developed and manufactured on a large scale. This article focuses on the conceptualization and identification of genetic signatures at the population level, many of which, I argue, evoke the ancient and quite common folk idiom of bodily inscription—in particular, fingerprints and birthmarks. The current geneticization of ‘colour’ and the biosociality engendered by it, I suggest, invite critical rethinking of the concept of insular populations and the distinction between bodily surface and deep structures (phenotype and genotype). While the new genetics has shifted the conceptual ground for discussions of human variation, moving away from phenotypic traits such as markings of the skin, drawing attention to what some molecular biologists refer to as the ‘universe within’, the notion of racial difference is repeatedly reinvented along familiar lines, under the banner of populations studies. I argue that, although human variation is both a legitimate and important subject in its own right and some approaches to variation do a better job than others, researchers need to be attentive to their assumptions about sampling. Circularity and subjectivity seem to be inevitable parts of the exploration of human diversity, and sampling cannot take place without a subjective, pragmatic judgment about how to proceed.

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Notes

  1. 1 The material presented here is based on extracts from my forthcoming book Anthropology and the new genetics (Cambridge: CUP, 2007).

  2. 2 The report concludes that the HapK haplotype is very rare in Africa and that its occurrence in African-Americans is due to European admixture: ‘Interactions with other genetic or environmental risk factors that are more common in African-Americans are likely to account for the greater relative risk conferred by HapK in this group’ (Helgadottir et al., 2005).

  3. 3 By the end of the nineteenth century, a number of scientists followed Galton's early lead, studying the fingerprint patterns of epileptics, criminals and mental patients. The results were invariably frustrating as they failed to establish heredity. The last article on the issue that was published in the eugenic journal Biometrika appeared in 1924. Cole suggests (1999: 160) that the declining interest in fingerprints was the result of the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics.

  4. 4 An illuminating example is a recent murder case in the Netherlands analyzed by M'charek (2005). Here, both the victim and the immediate suspects were Turkish and much of the fuzz in the legal and public representation of the case had strong ‘racial’ undertones. Establishing the ‘matching likelihood number’ turned out to be a complex and protracted matter involving a series of contested definitions of ‘population’. Thus, the population issue was variously seen as a matter of family names, laboratory routines, genetic proximity, racial similarities, national boundaries and the number of genetic markers applied: ‘These different versions do not add up to produce an integral picture of population. They are not pieces that can complete a puzzle’ (M'charek, 2005: 47).

  5. 5 Using a program (‘STRUCTURE’) that operates on genotype data from individuals and infers populations to which the individuals are assigned, they explored the genotype data involved (in technical terms, from 20 unlinked autosomal microsatellites).

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Pálsson, G. How Deep is the Skin? The Geneticization of Race and Medicine. BioSocieties 2, 257–272 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1017/S1745855207005728

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