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The biology of identity

February 1, 2010

Steve Sturdy in The Philosopher’s Magazine:

Recent developments in the science of genomics have had important implications for how we think about personal identity. One effect has been to underwrite our sense of individual uniqueness. With the exception of identical twins, we all possess unique genomes. Practically, this fact has been exploited through the development of new technologies of identification – most notably for forensic purposes – that in effect instrumentalise the idea that personal identity is rooted in biological individuality. More generally, the hype surrounding the identification of growing numbers of genes that supposedly predispose to a diversity of biological traits – everything from disease susceptibility to temperament to sexual orientation – has fostered a climate in which it is increasingly easy to suppose that our genomes embody our unique destinies: we are our genomes, and our genomes are us.

But personal identity involves more than just a sense of individual uniqueness. It is also heavily bound up with our shared membership of different social groups: nationality, ethnicity, kinship, class, occupation, political affiliation, star sign and many other social categories may all loom large in the ways we think about identity. Such collective identities are as much a part of social life as individuality. They constitute the warp and weft of the variegated social tapestries through which we thread our individual lives, and from which we construct our individual biographies. They serve both to bind and to divide society. And if we look at how new genomic technologies are being employed to define who we are, their impact has overwhelmingly been on how we identify ourselves as members of particular social groups. [More]

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