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26. Identity: a Scientific Perspective

Use and Misuse of “Identity”

Brubaker and Cooper (2000) in their article Beyond “identity” make the case that too much is expected of the term; it is over-worked to the point that it is no longer useful as an analytical tool. They say: Conceptualizing all affinities and affiliations, all forms of belonging, all experiences of commonality connectedness, and cohesion, all self-understandings and self identifications in the idiom of “identity” saddles us with a blunt, flat, undifferentiated vocabulary.[i]

DNA sequences and human reproductin provide new scientific base for defining identity

DNA sequences and human reproduction provide new scientific base for defining identity

The objective of their argument is not to provide a succinct definition of identity but to propose the portioning out of the work that the word is expected to do amongst other more appropriate terms.

However, their focus creates a lingering problem that is not dealt with. If “identity” is unburdened in the manner they suggest, what residual task is it to perform? This question is not answered and is difficult to answer given that current usages of the word … are not simply heterogeneous; they point in sharply differing directions.[ii]

Inevitably the term will remain confused and inadequate until a satisfactory and universally agreed definition is found. While agreeing with the authors’ proposal to unburden “identity” in the manner they suggest, the present article calls for a return to an objective dictionary definition, which conserves its original meaning and is applicable universally (i.e. across all disciplines). This goal is now achievable in light of relatively recent scientific discoveries in human genetics.

The dictionary definition that is used here covers both personal identity and communal (or group) identity and is defined as: The sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else.[iii]

Personal Identity

In April 2003, the Human Genome Project gave us, for the first time, the ability to read mankind’s complete genetic blueprint. Every individual has a unique genetic makeup, which is a distinct pattern of the human genome. Even so-called “identical twins” are not really identical.[iv]

Furthermore, the basic pattern is left unchanged throughout all stages of growth, development and degeneration. It remains the same from the first instant of the individual’s existence to his or her last breath. It does not depend on cognitive abilities or consciousness. The victim of Alzheimer’s disease, who has lost most of his or her memory, contains the same genetic base as he or she had as an infant without self-awareness or as a fully-functioning adult during the peak of a successful career.

It is maintained, irrespective of epigenetic changes which happen during cell differentiation or which cause certain genes to turn on or off over one’s lifetime and can occur as a result of dietary or environmental exposure. Furthermore, the individual’s DNA sequences, which are the building blocks of their overall genomic pattern, are stable despite replacement of chemical elements. They are persistent irrespective of exceptional changes to DNA in differentiated (somatic) cells; the exceptions hereby proving the rule. They persist irrespective of damage to DNA due to random accidents.

In simple terms, our basic DNA sequences are unique, measureable, and constitute an objective description of an individual’s deep-seated physical makeup. As such, the dictionary definition of personal identity (i.e. the sameness of the individual at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that the individual is itself and not something else) is fully satisfied in our DNA sequences.

It is also possible to pin-point the instant in which the identity of the individual comes into existence. This is described succinctly by Condic (2008):

Following the binding of sperm and egg to each other, the membranes of these two cells fuse, creating in this instant a single hybrid cell: the zygote or one-cell embryo … Cell fusion is a well studied and very rapid event, occurring in less than a second. Because the zygote arises from the fusion of two different cells, it contains all the components of both sperm and egg, and therefore the zygote has a unique molecular composition that is distinct from either gamete. … These modifications block sperm binding to the cell surface and prevent further intrusion of additional spermatozoa on the unfolding process of development. Thus, the zygote acts immediately and specifically to antagonize the function of the gametes from which it is derived … Clearly, then, the prior trajectories of sperm and egg have been abandoned, and a new developmental trajectory—that of the zygote—has taken their place.[v]

In other words, the separate functions of sperm and egg are modified and the new cell, the zygote, is immediately protective of itselfa state that will be conserved in the individual until the death of the whole organism. This provides a non-arbitrary definition of when the identity of the individual begins and ends.

Our understanding of the human genome is relatively new and was outside the comprehension of Greek philosophers, or social scientists from the time of John Locke and David Hume up to recent decades.

The difficulty in verifying whether one physical body at one time is the same thing as a physical body at another time (ship of Theseus paradox) is overcome in the human genome. It is no longer problematic to ground persistence of personal identity in the continuous existence of our physical bodies. The permanence of the abiding substancethe basic underlying genomic patterncan now be empirically determined and verified, even as all else changes over time. We are one and the same being throughout our entire lives.

Communal Identity

Personal identity is the product of sexual reproduction. In other words, the identity of the individual emerges from a male and female that havein their turnoriginated from the organic substratum of the human species (the wider human genome).

A species is defined, in biological terms, by a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. Reproductive events can happen, in theory, anywhere within the species. Ability to reproduce is, therefore, the essential unchanging constant that defines the identity of the group in a comprehensive manner and gives rise to personal identity. It’s the organic link between the individual and the group; the common bond, without which neither exists.

As such, the dictionary definition of communal identity (i.e. the sameness of the group at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that the group is itself and not something else) is fully satisfied in human reproduction.

Social scientists have traditionally used differences (phenotypic; ethnic; racial; cultural, national, etc) that have arisen over time and in particular geographical areas to classify and understand human behaviour.

However, when examined over the period in which our species (Homo sapiens) existed, these differences are seen to be temporary conditions or states and not inherent or fundamentally discrete divisions.

In their observations about The Nuer of North East Africa, Brubaker and Cooper create a hypothetical genealogical diagram in which everyone is related in different ways and to different degrees. They consider two separate segments of descendents; group A and group B and state:

The trouble with such an interpretation is that the very move that distinguishes A and B also shows their relatedness, as one moves back one generation and finds a common ancestor, who may or may not be living but whose social location links people in A and B. If someone in set A gets into a conflict with someone in set B, such a person may well try to invoke the commonality of “A-ness” to mobilize people against B. But someone genealogically older than these parties can invoke the linking ancestors to cool things off. The act of going deeper in a genealogical chart in the course of social interaction keeps reemphasizing relational visions of social location at the expense of categorical ones.[vi]

There is no reason to limit the “relational vision” to one or two generations. All human beings on earth today are related and trace their genetic trail to the first anatomically modern humans that emerged in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago within a ‘bottleneck’ in which the numbers of survivors had dwindled to near-extinction.[vii] As a result of the low numbers of people found in this original ancestral group, genetic diversity within our species is relatively narrow.

Despite the limited variability found in the human genome, an incredible acceleration in ability has taken place within the species. It is unquestionable that modern humans are derived from the core of nature itself and share many characteristics found amongst other animals.

Besides, other modern humans (e.g. Neanderthals and Denisovans) shared many of our attributes and have contributed some of their genome to our species. However, we are the only survivors of this evolutionary trajectory and the leap in capacity, however it is described, marks an outstanding division in aptitude compared with the rest of the existing animal kingdom. What becomes more difficult to determine or delimitthan divisions between mankind and the rest of the living worldare differences within the human species.

Returning to Brubaker and Cooper’s observations about The Nuer, they make reference to Sharon Hutchinson’s (1995)[viii] reanalysis of Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) work[ix] and state:

Her aim is “to call into question the very idea of ‘the Nuer’ as a unified ethnic identity. She points to the fuzziness of the boundaries of people now called Nuer; culture and history do not follow such lines … In this analysis, it not only becomes difficult to see Nuerrness as an identity but imperative to examine with precision how people tried both to extend and consolidate connections.[x]

Applicability of the term “identity” to community classifications (sub-sets) within the human family is in question here. All possible sub-sets trace their roots to a common human origin in which more recent divisions were not present. This demonstrates that any fundamental inherent “sameness” that can be identified to distinguish one sub-set from another implies that the distinguishing trait(s) was/were developed over time to create the division. This violates the concept of “sameness despite all transformations”.

The inherent “sameness” that defines the human species (ability to interbreed) is and was identical for every sub-set that can possibly be devised; besides, every sub-set is permeable to the “other” through interbreeding. The unity within the human family, based on its common origins and its ability to intermix, resists the notion of fundamental internal divisions.

Therefore, “identity” (dictionary definition), cannot be applied to phenotypical, cultural or imagined differences that have arisen as a result of accidents of pre-history, history, geography or are based on academic classification. Differences are one of grade rather than essence and, though helpful in the study of human behaviour, do not constitute separate “identities”.


A common definition to cover identity at the personal and communal levels is now possible to devise. It may be expressed as follows:

Identity is the sameness of the individual or group at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that the individual or group is itself and not something else. The late 16th century origin of the word “identity” (in the sense quality of being identical or the same) is also conserved in the definition. We now have succinct, measureable and objective ways to define personal identity, communal identity, or both together.

Identity is valid at only two levels in human kind; the individual level and the group level. Therefore, confining the role of “identity”rigorously and specificallyto the dictionary definition, as proposed here, combined with the application of Brubaker and Cooper’s suggestion to parcel out the workwhich “identity” is trying to doamongst several groups of meanings (identification and categorisation; self-understanding and social location; commonality, connectedness, groupness)[xi] provides a harmonized solution to the current dilemma over inappropriate usages of the term.

The main obstacle to the acceptance of this proposal may not be one of logic, but reluctance, on the part of the academic world, to undertake the major shift in direction that is urgently required. It has been pointed out by Brubaker and Cooper that: The “identity” crisis—a crisis of overproduction and consequent devaluation of meaning—shows no signs of abating.[xii]

Despite the ill effects of applying a non-dictionary definition of “identity”, perhaps it is difficult to redirect academia away from its present course. Perhaps there is a feeling that the whole process has gone too far to execute the radical reforms that are required to solve the crisis.

A collective attitude of this sort would be preposterous. In the interest of enhancing human knowledge, the academic world must continually and critically review its methods and approaches to ensure that the highest professional standards are applied at all times, irrespective of the challenges that have to be confronted and overcome.

Raymond M. Keogh


[i] Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. (2000). Beyond “identity”. Theory and Society. Vol. 29: 1-47.

[ii] Ibid; p. 8.

[iii] Definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989).

[iv] Casselman, A. 2008. Identical Twins’ Genes Are Not Identical. Scientific American.

< https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/identical-twins-genes-are-not-identical/ > (October, 2017)

[v] Condic, M. L. (2008). When does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective. Westchester Institute White Paper Series Volume 1, Number 1. The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person; p. 3.

< http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/scd.2013.0364 > (July, 2014)

[vi] Brubaker and Cooper, (2000); p. 22.

[vii] Oppenheimer, S. (2004). Out of Eden. The Peopling of the World. Robinson; pp. 16; 111.

[viii] Hutchinson, S. (1995). Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cited by Brubaker and Cooper, 2000; p. 24.

[ix] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon. Cited by Brubaker and Cooper, 2000; p. 24.

[x] Brubaker and Cooper, (2000); p. 22.

[xi] Ibid; pp. 14 ff.

[xii] Ibid; p. 3.


Source: Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) public domain the National Institutes for Health http://creationwiki.org/File:Fetus.jpg