ESR 3 Blog January 2022: Maria Mkrtycheva

The idea of social justice lies at the baseline of building an accessible public art institution. Recognizing that everyone deserves equal opportunities to the visual and empirical perception of art, and therefore access to artistic expression, and social interaction, institutions drive towards building inclusive infrastructures, as well as searching for forms of cultural production, that can be distributed equitably. In order to achieve this, institutions sometimes operate as melting pots, where equality is preferred over diversity, and nurture over nature. It is nature, in fact, that melts in this pot first. The biological explanation of differences between people does not match with the values of egalitarianism. And although socially-determined conditions perhaps cause even more inequality in outcomes than the effects of biological-determination, concepts like tabula rasa maintain liberal hypocrisy: we might not achieve equality in terms of social status, political circumstances or economic background, but we sure can have control over our free, self-authored mind. This statement allows a commonality to be built based on leveling the access to skill, talent, ability, endowments, capabilities, ambition, competition, merit, luck, innateness, chance, and opportunity. However, what this statement denies, is a fundamental fact about human nature proved by genetics: people are not born the same.

The skepticism of social sciences towards genetics is embedded in the intolerance towards eugenics due to its potential dangers. But the idea of hierarchical ranking of inferior and superior inborn traits as well as the genetic explanation of race, introduced by Francis Galton in the 1860s and later taken over in Nazi Germany, has been proven scientifically wrong and ethically unacceptable since then. In her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the 21st Century Dorothy Roberts confirms that biological conceptions of race have long been used as ideological grounds to justify oppression. Since then “race” has been replaced with terms like “ancestry” and “population” and biology’s effects on life-outcomes has been divided equally between social and environmental conditions. But biological reality seems to remain a zone of the incognizable, while a socially-constructed world offers a promise of being understood and known. Recognition of genetics as a lottery adds to this tension. Due to the great variability and unpredictability of genetics, genetics can be perceived as a disorder, as opposed to the order of limited variability of socially-determined opportunities. We might have accepted the idea that genes affect our eye color or rare diseases, but it is hard to admit that people with certain types of brains and bodies get more rewards through education or labour markets. It is hard to admit that the “disorder” can take over the “order”.

In her book The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality Kathryn Paige Harden suggests that studies of the biological impacts on life outcomes are highly relevant for addressing inequality. Her overall goal is to reimagine how education, labour and other social structures can be transformed to the inclusion of everyone, regardless of the hit of the genetic lottery.

Cultural institutions share this aim for transformation and greater inclusiveness, and I’m wondering if equilibrium between nature and nurture can be a solution to achieve this. Kathryn Paige Harden insists that “the widespread tendency to ignore the existence of genetic differences between people has hobbled scientific progress in psychology, education, and other branches of the social sciences. As a result, we have been much less successful at understanding human development and at intervening to improve human lives than we could be”[1]. Would it make a change if cultural institutions did not put all the diverse abilities, talents and traits, both biological and social, into one melting pot but rather recognise them individually? It would be interesting to see cultural institutions programmed at the intersection of genetics and social sciences for the sake of social justice.

[1]  Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, p. 23

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