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Folk taxonomy, prejudice and the human genome: using disease as a Jewish ethnic marker

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When the Human Genome Project was completed, scientists discovered whole new populations that were at risk of heritable disorders. This revelation entails an obligation to be scientifically accurate and socially responsible in the biological classification, or labelling, of these populations. Neulander will define as unscientific folk taxonomy’ all biological classification according to cultural commonalities: those traits and characteristics that-like religious affiliation-can only be acquired through learning, and are not biologically heritable. Noting the widespread popularity of sweeping cultural characteristics into biological classification-as in use of the term Jewish’ for certain heritable diseases-she examines the social consequences of giving religious labels to genetic disorders in multiracial New Mexico, where disease-based claims of secret’ or crypto-Jewish forebears are being used to assert an overvalued line of white ancestral descent, and where use of the term Jewish’ to determine who is at risk of heritable diseases is generating, in turn, the use of heritable diseases to determine who is a Jew. The phenomenon will be examined in both folkloric and academic contexts, since locals who seek crypto-Jewish legitimacy thereby striate, into colour-coded levels of human valuation, what is otherwise a cohesive society, bringing their academic enablers into active, legitimating complicity. Neulander's essay seeks to help readers distinguish between folkloric and academic motivations and methods for discerning and describing human differences. Finally, she proposes a more valid and reliable means of classifying populations at risk of heritable disorders, the better to ensure results that are both scientifically accurate and socially responsible.

Keywords: Jewish disease; New Mexican crypto-Jews; biological classification; crypto-Jews; folk taxonomy; genetic disease; heritable disease; human genome

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2006-09-01

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