Consequences of mapping the human genome


An illusory correlation occurs when there is an observance of an expected relationship between variables and in fact this relationship does not exist (Chapman, 1967). One of the most common examples of this occurs when people stereotype; when people form false associations between membership in a particular group and novel behaviors that are typically negative and tend to be the focus of one’s attention (Hamilton and Gifford 1976). With the mapping of the concept of race itself.

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One of the consequences of mapping the human genome has been that genetics and science has gone on to conform something many often said but perhaps few were really convinced of: qualities such as “whiteness” are cultural constructions and the concept of “race” itself may also be a cultural construction. Instead of representing an actual biological distinction perhaps it is our political ideologies, economic systems, and other social constructions that invent concept of biologically-based racial categories (Lindee et al. 2003). For quite some time scientists have been trying to determine the genetic basis of race and the findings suggest that genetic differences between so — called “racial groups” are nonexistent. This finding really should not be surprising when one looks at the traditional measurement devices to separate people into different races. Some define race by skin color, some by facial features, some by hair texture, and some by other means; however the defining way to measure racial differences would boil down to finding tangible genetic differences between groups. The evidence is not there.

The interesting thing here is that what is considered “black” in one country may not be considered “black” in the year 1940 is different than what is considered black in the year 2012. For one to have a scientific classification of race it must be generalizable, consistent, and reproducible. If none of those apply to the classification system then all that is left is junk science or no science at all (Lindee et al. 2003). In terms of a viable biological scientific designation of “race” there really has never been such a concept, even after the mapping of the human genome. More recent findings may have changed the game slightly. For instance, Spielman et al. (2007) collected the gene sequences of a particular white blood cell from Asians and people from European descent and measured expression levels of those genes. The genes themselves didn’t differ between the two groups; however, their expression did. The expression was determined by single nucleotide polymorphisms (called SNPs) in the regulator genes that determine how much of it genes product is produced. Over a quarter of the genes appear to have different levels of expression in Asians and those of European descent. So it may not be the genes that are different but the way they act differ among different races. However, much more research needs to be performed to determine if this is a genetic discrepancy between the so-called races. The designation of race is still a socially constructed designation and at this time itself may represent an illusory correlation between skin color and other superficial physical features and stereotyped categories. However, promoting the idea that one is of a certain race inherently specifies that there is a real biological difference between their in-group and out-groups. Any notion of “race” promotes the belief that these racial differences are not socially constructed, but indeed are real differences.

The notion of “racial superiority” is not a new one. The eminent sociologist William G. Sumner (1906) designated the term ethnocentrism after repeatedly observing the tendency for people to differentiate between other people like them and people that were not like them but in some way stood out. Sumner defined this tendency of being ethnocentric as one where people believe their own group is the center of everything, rate others in relation to their own characteristics, and foster the belief that one’s own group is superior to other groups. Sumner’s (1906) definition of ethnocentricity led many scientists to develop techniques that they hoped would somehow isolate them from this tendency when evaluating people from different cultures.

What the above findings mean is that the concept of “race” is largely social-constructed and therefore the commonalities of the experience of being white or black are themselves social constructions. Allen (1994) in discussing “whiteness” certainly takes this position. He states that when any group of diverse individuals with European, North American, or South Africa ancestry labels itself as the “white race” such a designation is not part of one’s genetic evolution. The designation of whiteness or the identification with being Caucasian or part of “the white race” is a political invention and therefore does not fall under the scrutiny of the biological sciences such as genetics. Instead this designation is in the domain of social scientists and is an appropriate objective study for social activists. Therefore, the concept of a “racial identity” is a social construction that does not exist independently from the societies that designate it.

Contrast this with Tannoch-Bland (1998) who associates “whiteness” with “white race privilege.” To her, being white in Australia (whiteness) automatically infers white race privilege which she admits is invisible, unearned, undesirable, and systematic in nature. “Whiteness” infers a type of social dominance not based on social constructions, but instead based on past acts of “white race privilege” fostered by white people. Although she does not openly address the issue of race as an independent, biological, and inherent division in humans it is clear that she does not associate being white or having “white race privilege” as a social construction. Instead belonging to a particular race is a biological phenomenon. This is problematic, because if we do not agree with Allen that the concept of race is a social construction, but instead infer that racial differences are indeed real entities, there is a problem in denying or discrediting the notion that having one set of biological features is advantageous or better than having another set of biological features. In other words, if race is indeed an evolutionary fact, then social biologists are free to claim that racism and discrimination are valid behaviors that occur in the spirit of survival. Tannoch-Bland’s social argument is that racism is bad (what person in their right mind would argue that racism is good); however, by not formally acknowledging that racism is a social construction it becomes very hard to discount racism as functional, because people naturally tend to lean towards stereotyping others. If indeed evolution is a scientific fact then you can accept the notion that racism is obligatory and also assume that genetic and biological differences between races reflect different paths of evolutionary development. Racism may be “bad” but it is also natural. Even if race is not biologically-based humans typically find differences in each other that lead to stereotyping and exploitation.

There is an inherent need in people to come together in groups based on some set of perceived similarities and to segregate themselves from those that are perceived as different from them. A large body of research in social psychology known as “minimal groups research” confirms this, where group membership is established on the basis of some innocuous and trivial perceived similarity that actually may not exist. When these minimal groups are established, people inherently tend to favor and bolster people who are perceived to be similar to them (the in-group) and to avoid and even belittle those not like them (the out-group; Tajfel 1970). In-group — out-group bias refers to the preference and affinity for one’s in-group over the out-group (Tajfel 1970).

Allen (1994) is quick to point out that concept of “race” in the scientific meaning where group-identifying physical characteristics are the product of long-term isolated “inbreeding” of those with particular genetic traits, is not in any way related to the concept of “race relations” whatever that particular term is designated to mean. Allen cites anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists to support the notion that evolutionary differences and inherent biological racial differences are not related to the current stratification based on ethnic differences or racial differences as they are established in societies. For Allen race has nothing to do with racism, to connect the two would be to in some way justify a deplorable practice. Allen believes that the study of evolution is a disclaimer of the historical practice of racism.

Tannoch — Bland (1998) on the other hand supports the notion that “white privilege” is invisible and unearned. It is invisible in the sense that white people do not actually recognize “white privilege” and unearned in the sense that white people have done nothing to earn the privileges they enjoy in Australia. The notion that privilege is unearned and invisible is more consistent with the notion that it is inherent in some sense than it is socially constructed. By its very nature a social constructed hierarchy of racial differences would have some historical evidence to support the current status quo. In this case, Tannoch — Bland seems to refuse to acknowledge the historical fact that when white people came to Australia they were technologically superior to the indigenous peoples and were able to take advantage of their superiority. This state of affairs, where one group has technological advantages over another group and subjugates them to their will, is the basis for imperialism. Tannoch — Bland’s sentiment is probably in the right place, but her designation that “white privilege” is invisible and unearned leaves her other assumptions vulnerable. In fact, whites were very straightforward regarding their right to be superior to indigenous peoples they met in their explorations. Tannoch — Bland’s list of 47 benefits that she states are the results of white privilege infer a type of racial superiority of one group over the other. If these “white privilege” benefits were suddenly applied equally to the out — group, the indigenous people of Australia, that action alone would be confirming that the mores and values of whites are inherently superior to those of the indigenous peoples. Why is it safe to assume that the out-group wants to be like us? Because we are superior and we all know that everyone wants to be like the superior group. It becomes problematic for the notion of “racial equality” when a group declares that there is set of universal rights and privileges that transcend culture. If these so — called universal rights are indeed exercised by one group who can somehow suppress these rights in another group, the dominant group must have some specific advantage over the suppressed group. If such an advantage is invisible and unearned it must be inherent.

Allen (1994) takes a much more practical view of “whiteness” then does Tannoch — Bland by recognizing that racial differences are social constructions. In much the same way the minimal groups research has identified that the basis for segregation, discrimination, and racist viewpoints are based on an inherent human need to identify with like individuals and to separate oneself from unlike individuals who may threaten one’s personal or group identity. Tannoch — Bland purports the notion that racism is fundamental to Australian society and embedded in history and the Australian way of life. She believes that by exposing white race privilege to one another people can begin to dismantle the social constructs that foster racism and unlearn racism. Allen’s viewpoint is that racism cannot be unlearned if it is a social construction and any compromise in the current status quo will inherently produce some form of discrimination based on racial differences. Allen does not take the same Pollyanna viewpoint that Tannoch — Bland seems to support. Because racism and the concept of race are social constructions based on an inherent need to identify with like individuals and to eschew contact with individuals different from us, racism can never be unlearned. What can be unlearned, or at least altered, is discrimination.

Gordon Allport (1954), the famous social psychologist, was one of the first formal researchers to differentiate between the terms “racism” and “discrimination.” According to Allport racism referred to an attitude or belief that a person or a group of people are in some way inferior to oneself or one’s particular in — group due. These groups are formed based on perceived ethnic or racial differences. In this respect racism, refers to an attitude or belief system and not to a personal or social practice based on this belief. Discrimination, is the result of racism. Discrimination involves treating and out — group member or an entire out — group in a harmful or destructive manner based on their differences. Understanding Allport’s designation between the two and combining it with Allen’s (1994) notion that race is a social construction, we would then have to assume that discrimination is a learned practice and that anything learned can be unlearned or at least altered. Allport (1954) believed that racism itself was learned, and it certainly is most likely true that we learn from our social groups what particular differences are important in identifying in — groups and out — groups; however, minimal group research has suggested that we have an inherent tendency to look for differences in others, categorize groups based on these differences, and form the notion of in — groups and out — groups based on these differences. Typically so-called racial features are often clear and concrete physical boundaries between groups such as skin color (but not always). Because any group that we personally belong to must be superior just because we belong to it, there is a tendency for in-group members to develop attitudes of superiority based on such differences.

However as Allen (1994) notes, whiteness, like other racial categories, is not a stable characteristic. One can look through the annals of history and see a time in America where people of Irish or Italian dissent were not considered “white”; however, such a distinction is no longer prevalent. Likewise, one would expect that the concept of “race” itself would not be a concrete, stable designation. Even the view of whiteness and what it means to be white is redefined as Tannoch — Bland (1998) inadvertently illustrates. Tannoch — Bland (1998) certainly means well but misconstrues the meaning of racism and discrimination as being something that just happened because of racial differences in groups. Because the concept of race is a socially constructed concept it will change over time; however, because racism is an attitude that reflects an inherent self — serving bias, racism in one form or another, consciously expressed or unconsciously expressed, will always be present. Being aware of one’s tendency to categorize and stereotype can help with understand and identify the issue, but in order to begin to understand and correct discrimination it is important to understand how these tendencies develop and relate to the current world situation.


Allen, T.W. 1994. The invention of the white race (Vol. 1). London and New York: Verso.

Allport, G.W. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

Chapman, L. 1967. Illusory correlation in observational report. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 6 (1), pp. 151 — 155.

Hamilton, D and Gifford, R. 1976. Illusory correlation in interpersonal perception: A cognitive basis of stereotypic judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 12 (4), pp. 392 — 407.

Lindee, M.S., Goodman, A.H., and Heath D. 2003. Anthropology in an age of genetics: Practice, discourse, and critique. In Goodman, A.H. et al. eds. Genetic nature/culture: Anthropology and science beyond the two-culture Divide. Los Angeles: University of Los Angeles Press, pp. 1-22.

Spielman, R.S., Bastone, L.A., Burdick, J.T., Morley, M., Ewens, W.J. And Cheung, VG. 2007. Common genetic variants account for differences in gene expression among ethnic groups. Nature Genetics 39, pp. 226 — 231.

Sumner, W.G. 1906. Folkways. New York: Ginn.

Tajfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American 223, pp. 96-102.

Tannoch-Bland, J. 1998. Identifying white race privilege. In Bringing Australia together: The structure and experience of racism in Australia. Wooloongabba, Qld: The Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, pp. 33-38.

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