The Human Genome Project

In this article, graduate editor Josie Gill investigates the importance of genetics - and of the Human Genome Project, in particular - for our understanding of Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

From Samad's obsession with his great-grandfather Mangal Pande, to the differing personalities of the genetically identical twins and Irie's struggle with her body which is "genetically designed with another country in mind" (White Teeth, p. 266), most of the characters in White Teeth grapple with the question of how far their identities are the result of their genetic inheritance. The exception to this is the Chalfen family whose knowledge of, and confidence in, their own genealogy, stands in stark contrast to the complex histories of the other families in the novel: 'it was the Chalfen family way, handed down the family for generations' (White Teeth, p. 312). The Chalfens' interest in genetics is more utilitarian: Marcus Chalfen is a scientist whose research is focused on a genetically enhanced creation, FutureMouse. His mouse, which has been produced to improve scientific understanding about the growth of cancer tumours, is reminiscent of a real, transgenic mouse, created by a group of scientists at Harvard University in the 1980s called OncoMouse, which was developed to be predisposed to contracting cancer. However, the climactic end, for which Marcus' mouse has been engineered, is perhaps more reminiscent of another development in genetics which had reached its peak by the year 2000, the year of White Teeth's publication.

The Human Genome Project, which was announced in 1989, aimed to map the whole of the human genome sequence and identify its 20-25,000 genes. A draft of the sequence had been achieved by 2000 and the first analyses were made public in 2001. The project was considered a major achievement, allowing scientists unprecedented insight into the workings of the human body, and the announcement of its completion was accompanied by the promise of new cures for diseases and better healthcare.  However, the project was also a source of controversy and arguments about the relative value of the mapping of the genome have continued into the present. Concerns have focused on the way knowledge of individuals' genetic make up could be used to discriminate against people identified as having a particular genetic trait or predisposition. Wider questions have also been asked about the implications of defining humans on the basis of their genes which, it has been argued, may lead to genetic determinism, the idea that genetics is responsible for all aspects of human behaviour, as well as physical traits.

Anxiety about the Human Genome Project, and its attendant controversies, is much in evidence in White Teeth. The grandiose language used in the press release about Marcus' experiments is comparable to the triumphant language used by scientists and politicians at the time that the completion of the genome project was announced. The press release which Irie reads to a journalist proclaims 'The FutureMouse© holds out the tantalizing promise of a new phase in human history where we are not the victims of the random but instead directors and arbitrators of our own fate' (White Teeth, p. 433). It is this sense of control over human destiny which can be discerned in a comment by Dr John Sulston, the leader of the Human Genome Project in the UK, who said, 'we've now got to the point in human history where for the first time we are going to hold in our hands the set of instructions to make a human being' (see 'What they said...').  Later, when Marcus is waiting for Magid at the airport and comes across a girl reading his book on genetic engineering, the exchange between them also mirrors typical debates about new genetic technologies. In asking 'Where are we going here? Millions of blonds with blue eyes? Mail order babies?' (White Teeth, p. 418) the girl draws on images which have been commonly used by the media in discussions of biotechnology, images which, as critics have shown, are often taken from fictional or literary imaginings of science. (Nerlich et al., p. 30) Thus Marcus dismisses the girl as 'full of the usual neo-fascist tabloid fantasies - mindless human clones, genetic policing of sexual and racial characteristics'' (White Teeth, p. 419).

However Marcus' unwavering belief in the power of genetic science is undermined and mocked in the novel.  Whilst the media portrayal of biotechnology might well draw on science fiction and fantasy, it is Marcus and his family who are in fact like 'mindless human clones'; 'they were all perfect', Smith writes, and 'like clones of each other, their dinner table was an exercise in mirrored perfection'. (White Teeth, p. 314) The Chalfens are the antithesis of Irie, Magid and Millat, whose lives are characterized by unpredictability and uncertainty. As the chaotic climax of the novel demonstrates, history and relationships have a role to play in 'fate', which cannot be determined by genetics alone. It is uncertain whether Millat's decision to try to shoot the scientist Dr Perret is the result of some genetic predisposition because he is 'a Pandy deep down' and 'there's mutiny in his blood', (White Teeth, p. 526) or is the result of his involvement with the fundamentalist group KEVIN.  In White Teeth, the lines between genetics, history and culture are blurred and genetics, despite the major scientific advances in the field such as the Human Genome Project, can never fully account for the complexities and intricacies of human behaviour.

Have a look at the passage White Teeth that depicts an argument between Samad and Archie. They debate what to do with Dr Sick, a Nazi eugenicist whom they have captured in the Bulgarian village in which they are stranded at the end of World War II. In the light of the article above, what do you find interesting about the depiction of genetic science here? What are the similarities and differences between the discussion of religion and race in this passage and the way these themes are dealt with later in the novel? (If you have a comment you'd like to share, please leave a reply in the box at the bottom of the page.)

[It's a rather long extract and for copyright reasons we can't include it here. It starts 'Once outside, Samad and Archie got into the jeep containing Dr Sick, who was asleep on the dashboard, started the engine and drove into the blackness', and it ends ' "You know," said Archie, searching his brain, "democracy and Sunday dinners, and... and... promenades and piers, and bangers and mash - and the things that are ours. Not yours." ' It can be found in White Teeth, pp. 118-120.]

Further Reading

  • Zadie Smith, White Teeth (London: Penguin, 2001).
  • 'What they said: Genome in quotes', BBC News, Monday 26 June 2000,
  • Brigitte Nerlich, David D. Clarke and Robert Dingwall, 'Fictions, fantasies, and fears: The literary foundations of the cloning debate', Journal of Literary Semantics, 30 (2001), 37-52.
  • Pilnick, Alison, Genetics and Society: An Introduction (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002).
  • Balint, P.J. (eds.) (2001), The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Social and Political Dilemmas, Westport, Praeger.
  • Wilkie, T. (1994), Perilous Knowledge: The Human Genome Project and its Implications, London, Faber and Faber.

This word refers to the coming of a new millennium, which usually means the year 2000, or 1000, etc. It also carries an ominous or climactic potential. Millenialism refers particularly to a belief among some Christians that Christ will return to rule for a thousand years on earth before the last judgment. Millenarianism refers more generally to the feeling that a world-changing, or perhaps world-ending, change is approaching, perhaps at a specific date.

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