Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White
Review of Chapter 13, "Genomic Databases And An Emerging Digital Divide In Biotechnology" by Peter A. Chow-white
If the purpose of this text is to evaluate social understandings of race post-Internet, then Peter Chow-White contributes an analysis of a scientific understanding of race post-genetics. He begins in the mid-1990s with the Human Genome Project (HGP), and the discussions around what to do with this data--who will own it and who will have access to it. Scientific researchers, in the democratic spirit, chose to place ownership of DNA data acquired through the HGP in the public sphere, treating it as a public good. This is done in sharp contrast to the traditional understanding of scientific data, which is usually held in the ivory tower of research laboratories. These scientists borrowed the language of open access from the computer industry in a greater effort to become more socially responsible and transparent to the greater public. What is at stake in this discourse is the potential of the field of genomics research falling prey to the "techno-utopian discourses" that circulate technology and the Internet, distorting the reality of a great digital divide.
One of the greatest revelations owed to the HGP is the discovery that, at the molecular level, humans are all 99.9% the same, confirming the notion of "race" as a social construction. However, the next HGP, the International HapMap project, relied heavily on social categorizations of race in order to map the human genome. This article focuses on two sets of data: interviews with scientists involved in the HapMap project and an analysis of articles in genomic research published by Ioannidis et al. (2004) in Nature combined with articles collected by Chow-White himself. Through analyzing what data is included in these articles, Chow-White concludes that research in genomics has been largely biased towards whiteness, as the majority of data come from individuals of European descent. This bias could have severe consequences for greater human health, as well as create the perception of a scientific basis for social categorizations of race. Chow-White performs a great service by bringing this disservice in the scientific community to light.
At the same time, is Chow-White possibly throwing a baby out with the bath water? It should certainly not go unnoticed that this scientific community has made great efforts to democratize scientific knowledge, specifically that relating to human health. This article brings to the forefront the issues that must be sorted out in order for the scientific community to do it right. Perpetuating notions of race through the frame of science could only do harm to a society that is not hardly past its racist history. This is especially crucial in a society, like our own, that holds science in such high esteem. If science says it's true, then it's true, right? Chow-White, in his effort to bring attention to the digital divide in science, is contributing to making this a true democratic effort.