Football, Racism and Science

So, what’s been the big news stories in the UK this week ? The Eurozone crisis? The Afghan War? The cold weather? No, the two major news stories dominating the media in all its forms have concerned a resignation and a refused handshake.

The resignation was that of the England football manager (for those who may be reading this in North America, that’s the national team Soccer coach). So newsworthy was this event that even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, felt the need to pontificate on it. Mind you, I suppose that’s the modern trend. There was a time when Prime Ministers only spoke about really important stuff, since Tony Blair they’ve tended to throw themselves in front of cameras to give their (well rehearsed) views on all sorts of stuff, from soap opera plots to, well, the England football team.

The act of resignation and the wave of speculation over the successor rather over shadowed the reason why he went. It was precipitated by the Football Association (the body that controls the English game) removing the captaincy from the incumbent, John Terry. This was due to the fact that Terry had been recorded by numerous live TV camera’s racially abusing another player during a league match and the police deciding to prosecute him (racial abuse is illegal in the UK).

The refused handshake was another football story. This involved two of the biggest clubs in the English game, namely Manchester United and Liverpool F.C. (world brands really – I don’t think I’ve ever been to any country in the world without seeing a kid in ‘Man U’ shirt….well, except perhaps North American ones)

The Liverpool player Louis Suarez had just returned after a long suspension for racially abusing the Man U player, Patrice Evra and by desperate coincidence his second match back was against Man U and of course Patrice Evra. At the start of football matches all the players shake hands and despite Evra offering his, Suarez ignored it and walked past.

Both of these episodes have revealed an undercurrent of racism in football that more serious commentators in the UK have linked to that which still, despite all attempts, exists in our wider society.

Now at this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with a blog about science. Well, it’s just that I think that we as scientist have really failed to confront and expose racism for the myth that it undoubtedly is.

In the book ‘African Exodus’ Chris Stringer and Robin McKie briefly review the genetic evidence pertaining to our evolution, not only do they point out that genetically we are all Africans, but also one of the defining features of the human genome is its startling lack of variation between individuals. We are incredibly similar. They point out that there is more genetic variation in one group of mountain gorillas than in the entire human global population. Very few genes control our physical variability; in fact skin colour is controlled by 12 (out of 30,000 or something like that? Bernie will put me right on that.)

I’m actually (and strangely) quite proud that in science we don’t even recognise the term ‘race’, it is a sociological idiom, not a scientific one. Of course, our past in the scientific community has been less considered and yes, the field of eugenics did much to encourage the myth of differences and the allied and bogus ideas of genetic superiority and inferiority. Yet, as genetics has come of age it is perhaps one of the few areas of modern science that has downgraded its expectations, but one of the most important findings in my view has been the almost species defining characteristic of genetic uniformity.

Now Bernie told me to keep it short this week. So here it is. I realise that racism has complex, multi-layered origins that don’t simply start and stop with Biology. However, I do think that as scientist we could do much more to combat racism, especially in challenging the often-offensive ‘low level background’ pseudo-science that seems to encourage it.

After all despite what’s said on football pitches and elsewhere, the simple fact is that we are all equal under a microscope.


1 thought on “Football, Racism and Science

  1. Interestingly the number of genes in humans has now been reduced to about 20,000 now (the same as the common roundworm)!

    Stein, L. D. 2004. “Human Genome: End of the Beginning,” Nature 431, 915-916.
    Available online.

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