The Meaning of Race in the DNA Era: Science, History and the Law
35 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2009
Date Written: 2008
The meaning of “race” has changed dramatically over time. Early theories of race assigned social, intellectual, moral and physical values to perceived physical differences among groups of people. The perception that race should be defined in terms of genetic and biologic difference fueled the “race science” of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, during which time geneticists, physiognomists, eugenicists, anthropologists and others purported to find scientific justification for denying equal treatment to non-white persons. Nazi Germany applied these understandings of race in a manner which shocked the world, and following World War II the concept of race increasingly came to be understood as a socio-political construction with no biological meaning. Modern theories thus understand race as a social grouping of persons necessary to preserve unbalanced relationships of power.
The unfortunate historical role that science has played in the creation and maintenance of racial categories is, however, being reprised in the context of the modern genetic study of race. Race is increasingly viewed as being reducible through genetic testing to a biological essence. Private DNA testing companies promise to discover one’s true racial background, biomedical companies have begun to develop and market “racial” drugs, and the courts in the United States routinely admit estimates of race based on DNA analysis. Race, however, remains a purely social construct devoid of any biological or genetic meaning. This Article thus argues that the prevailing socio-political understanding of race is being threatened by an ascendance of modern “race science” which serves to legitimate culturally-learned folk notions of racial difference.
Keywords: race, science, history
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