Biology, Genetics, and the Grotesque or “Don’t you believe in science?”

When people hear that I’m researching and teaching on the grotesque body, the reaction is usually a mixture of surprise and genuine curiosity. Recently, I was having one of these conversations with an acquaintance. Somehow we started talking about “strong man” competitions and how they are typically dominated by northern Europeans. Then we talked about the prevalence of (eastern) Africans in long-distance running and similar phenomena. While we agreed on the diagnosis (yes, Kenyans have been very successful of late in long-distance running), our explanation for this type of athletic prowess in certain ethnic/national/racial groups was vastly different. His theory? It’s all genetics. Africans, he said, are genetically determined to be successful in sports that require endurance rather than strength- if anything, they can be “just bodybuilders,” not weight-lifters. Europeans are naturally stronger, but not good at running. Oh, and Americans are fat because we get it from the British… When I expressed my profound skepticism about this kind of thinking, the automatic response was, “What, you don’t believe in genetics and biology?”

Well, let’s be clear. I do believe in genetics and biology. But not as a religion that single-handedly explains everything about our bodies. Strictly biological explanations for the appearance and performance of different bodies do not account for the complex ways in which nature and culture interact to produce them. The participation and success of certain groups in sports depends on the cultural popularity of the sport and the resources available for encouraging participation and cultivating talent. If you looked at the world of professional tennis 20 years ago, you would not have seen Africans or African Americans at the top- but if you made the assumption then that this was because blacks were simply not capable of excelling in the sport, you would be wrong. Venus and Serena Williams have proven that this is not the case, even as they remain two of the few visibly successful black tennis players. Besides, assuming that professional athletes are somehow representative for their ethnic group or nationality ignores the fact that athletic bodies, especially in highly competitive sports, do not “naturally” occur but are rather the product of years of intense training that privileges the development of certain muscles and perfection of certain motions over others.  

Even if we obtain evidence of “objective” differences in height, weight, and body type in different nationalities (or genders, for that matter), we cannot explain them solely with genetics– there are too many factors, like diet and exercise, that vary. And scientific studies consistently show that the behavior of certain genes, whether they are turned “on” or “off,” is tied to the environment in which people grow and develop. My body today would certainly be different if I had starved as a child or been intensively trained in a sport. And if I identified as another gender, I would mold and present my body in fundamentally different ways.

Moreover, genetics do not account for the grotesque transformations that bodies are capable of performing. Extreme weight gain or weight loss is not simply programmed to happen, even if a genetic predisposition makes it easier. And, increasingly, humans have access to other means of enhancing or transforming the body (plastic surgery, hormonal or dietary supplements, etc.) that make it even more difficult to distinguish what part of the body’s materiality is “intended” by nature.

Rosemarie Thomson and Robert Bogdan, in their discussion of those people displayed as “freaks,” make a similar point about the constructedness of freak identity. While we would perhaps assume that actual bodily difference is the prerequisite for being labeled as a “freak,” it is actually highly mediated by society and changes over time. “Freak” functions then as a blanket term for what is considered to be “Other.” In the heyday of the freak show, this included people whose only “abnormality” was being non-European.  As Thomson summarizes, “what we assume to be a freak of nature was instead a freak of culture.”

Accepting a constructivist position is often difficult, and I understand why some people try so desperately to find, in the body, that one bit of our identity which seems to be fixed. Yet the role of culture cannot be denied, and these things deserve to be questioned. If they are not, we end up with the same biological arguments that have legitimized and perpetuated biological racism, sexism, and ableism.

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