Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History.

Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. 2012. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8135-5255-2.

[Another short review of this work will appear in Contemporary Sociology]

What a pleasure to review a timely, serious, and yet accessible critique of what one editor refers to as “the social life of DNA” - a life that has only broadened and intensified since the decoding of the human genome was coupled to the marketing of DNA analysis. Such analysis have given us unique insights into human evolution, medical treatments, and for many consumers, genealogies establishing ethnic, racial and personal identities.

The three introductory essays by the editors each present a different perspective – or better, an avenue of approach – to the constellation of knowledge that unites DNA, genealogy, history, the authority of science, the scientific ideologies of race, and the all too frequent effacement of gender in the search for origins and identity. This “social life of DNA” is clearly not meant as a simple rhetorical flourish or mere abstraction. Instead, it is used here as a description of the multiple social positions which derive authority from genetic data, on the one hand, while on the other hand, the phrase describes the varied knowledges that can be derived from the collection of genetic material: personal and familial history; differences and affinities with others, groups, and populations; and the means to construct a vision of our own past lives as embedded in the history of human migration and variation.

The editors’ essays nicely frame the important themes of the collection. What is for some – i.e., those few with the capital to access to the technologies and not the vast multitudes who are instead put to use as mere components of populations – the genomic era is one in which genealogical connections are simultaneously essential while also deeply ambiguous in their complexity. This is especially true for those who can claim multiple ancestries, as Wailoo demonstrates in “ Who Am I? Genes and the Problem of Historical Identity”.

Any one of us has multiple pathways for building a strong historical sense of self. Genetic analysis offers its own multiple pathways of self-knowledge. In some ways, the social logic of ancestry if not so different from the logic of genetic ancestry, for both depend on selective data that require us to make deliberate human choices in reconstructing the past. Both also depend upon complicated social machinery that makes the past available to us in the present. Finally, both depend upon assemblages of arbitrary databases, mixed with suppositions and memories.... (Wailoo, 20).

In circumstances of intense social conflict, genomic knowledge promises to provide a basis for recognition and reconciliation (Nelson). In such circumstances, genetic knowledge might very well serve to undermine or shatter illusions of racial/national/ethnic superiority or exclusivity – a perspective which may have been at the bottom of Bill Clinton’s declaration that the decoding of the genome had shown race to be an outmoded concept. Genomic knowledge offers itself up as a positive social force, promoting inclusion and recognition along with the possibility for reconciliation and reparations for past injustices:

With reconciliation projects, the insights of genetic science are applied to the discovery or confirmation of ancestry in the hopes of securing social inclusion, including rights and reparation. But to what extent can DNA identification be efficacious for African diasporic and/or racial reconciliation? What might be the consequences of the genetic mediation of African diasporic cultural politics that have historically involved social movement tactics and civil rights organizations? ....reconciliation projects also raise interesting and fraught contradictions: they threaten to reify race in the pursuit of repair for injury; they suggest how justice pursuits can be uneasily intertwined with commercial enterprises; they may substitute genetic data for the just outcomes that are sought, and indeed, they demonstrate well that facts may not, in and of themselves, secure justice” (Nelson, 29)

So, not all is bleak nor are we heading irresistibly towards a velvet neo-eugenics, but neither do we have any assurance that another bar is not about to be welded to the Iron Cage.

Catherine Lee’s essay “The Unspoken Significance of Gender in Constructing Kinship, Race, and Nation” reminds the reader that while the meaning and use of race is central in the unsettled genomic era; categories and assumptions about gender are called into question, but left unresolved and under-examined. For example, in the tracing of genealogical descent by male linage, a practice where women appear as breaks or gaps in the genealogical line of descent. The effacement of gender in genealogical practice brings claims of descent into question these are, finally, claims about the descent and distribution of property as they are about genetics.

People conceive of nations as imagined communities, wherein members can conceptualize links to one another across time or generations or space that are preternatural.... We can also see the ways in which DNA testing, in the context of the family, can literally transform the family into a microcosm of the nation.... Genetic genealogy that ignores complex gendered processes is not unlike other nation-building activities, which rely on the symbolic and physical work of men and women’s bodies while denying the existence of such efforts” (Lee, 36-38).

After the introductory pieces, the second section provides more involved descriptions of the methods of sample collection and the science of genetic analysis. As such, the essays in this section are very goods examples of making complex genetic knowledge accessible to a wide range of readers. The various authors raise the question: What are the effects of genetic science in the courtroom, medical research, in the production of knowledge, for identity claims, and perhaps just as important, as commercial ventures? These essays also highlight the pitfalls and limitations of using genetics to make historical claims about personal ancestry, racial origins, and human history. Using as one example the recent work of the International HapMap Consortium, Peter Chow-White’s “The Informationalization of Race” discusses the creation of populations and paradox that the genome’s destruction of the concept of race brings with it an “informationalization of race” that sorts humans into new categories while also inviting the reconstruction of scientific ideologies with a veneer of respectability offered by new information technologies.

This concern for classification is found in Lundy Braun and Evelynn Hammond’s essay “The Dilemma of Classification”. Bruan and Hammond do not attempt a general critique of classification (and unfortunately do not situate theirs in relation to earlier critiques). Rather than being a critique of classification, it is an attempt to trace the political ramifications of the construction of populations. To do so they “focus on Africa to historicize conceptual problems that plague the notions of populations and groups, whether macro or micro, and their use in genetic research.... Once named and studied in depth, knowledge of African societies was further flattened as anthropologists in the United States, notably Georges Peter Murdock, constructed internationally accessible atlases and databases, thereby making natural the existence of populations as bounded entities” (Bruan and Hammonds, 68).

Also deserving of special mention is the essay by the biologist Abram Gabriel on how the limitations, gaps, and biases in the collection and analysis of genetic material have often ignored in the rush to expand a genomic and genetic genealogy industry. As it is, the “concerns of this essay are how race has become part of our current discussions of genomics and whether it belongs there” (44). Gabriel’s essay will enlighten many readers who have had, as I have, a genetic sample analyzed for genealogical research.

The reviewer's origins map, according to one DNA genealogy company.

“As a molecular biologist, I realize that my field has entered the limelight and that knowledge about DNA is no longer the esoteric province of academic researchers. I take pride in the fact that the study of DNA and genomics has progressed so far so fast, and that the science is being recognized as a powerful tool for fundamental advances in disciplines as disparate as bio-medicine and human history. But I feel trepidation, too, that the transitional process is moving faster than the science itself, potentially leading to public misconceptions, oversimplifications, and unverifiable claims about the power of these discoveries, with consequent lowering of society’s trust in its scientists” (43-44).

Given this concern, the two chapters that remind us of the close connection between forensics and racial classification will many in a time when forensic detective dramas and reality shows remain quite popular. The contradictions between eyewitness descriptions, assumptions about race, and genetic analysis in forensics comes under critical review by Jonathan Khan in an effort to understand biases within the past 20 years of work in the field of criminal forensics. “In effect, forensic scientists have simply adopted the broad categories of race and ethnicity used in the U. S. Census in order to organize their genetic data.... Taken together, the persistent conceptualization of race as genetic, the confusion of statistical with forensic significance, and the deep-seated American identification of violent crime and race may be understood to frame and facilitate the inertial power of race to perpetuate itself as a salient category of forensic DNA analysis long after its practical legal utility has passed” (Khan, 130, 136-137). Pamela Sankar takes a critical look using the British Night Stalker – whose identification as a “light-skinned black man” seemed “at odds with the image” (Sankar, 110-111) distributed by the authorities – as a means to explore the supposed promise of DNA to allow forensic phenotyping of suspects.

"Police artist sketch of British serial rapist, dubbed the Night Stalker.  The sketch was accompanied by the statement that the subject was probably a 'light-skinned black man,' a description that some observers thought was at odds with the image" (Sankar,110)

Delroy Easton Grant, who was convicted of the Night Stalker rapes in a mug shot (remember where those originate!) and in an earlier surveillance video image.

The essay by Rajagopalan and Fujimura is a bookend to Gabriel’s piece. Going further than either Gabriel or Bruan and Hammond, they attempt to
untangle the relationships between continental ancestry, geography, history, population, and race in the practices, technologies, research designs, and research analyses/results of some admixture mapping studies in U.S. biomedical research.... Discourses of race and ancestry are deeply entangled in the constitution of genetic histories in contemporary bio-medicine, in ways that are contingent and mutually reinforcing. These discourses as embedded in the technologies of admixture mapping, have consequences for how disease studies, medical practices, public health policies, and popular culture use and interpret genetics to construct categories of difference” (Rajagopalan and Fujimura, 160).

The section “Stories Told in Blood” brings together a number of thoughtful and provocative essays that bring together notions of history, genealogy and identity. These essays range from a critique of the attempt to mark the genetic differences between French Canadians and native peoples, to the use of genetics to foster the process of reconciliation in South Africa, to argue for slavery reparations, or in for the control of historical knowledge and cultural artifacts such as the Kenniwick Man.

Several themes crisscross the essays that might be summarized as (in my words and not theirs): the social coding of DNA, which first consists of the commercialization and commodification of genetic data; second in the return of the repressed; and thirdly in the assertion of yet another new end of history. The social coding of DNA itself takes two ultimately intersecting paths: the first around issues of identity, genealogy, origin(s), nation and race; and the second around the actual coding of DNA in informatics and medicine. Both paths may well converge in their classifications of populations that re-inscribe and naturalize conceptions of “original stocks” that mingle only at the margins.

The discussions of the commercialization of DNA also take two broad approaches. In the first, medicine and pharmaceuticals are obviously important emerging markets, while paralleling this is the second route where forensics and judicial power increasingly rely upon genetic science to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused. Perhaps one of the most popular success in commercializing genetic analysis has been the use of genetics in personal genealogical research. All too often, the genetic analysis is marketed in such a way as to assist in the production of exclusive identities through the demarcation of populations, admixture mapping, and charting the degree of deviation from one of the parent populations. Spencer Wells, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., National Geographic, 23 and Me, Ancestry.com, and have profited from the rapid expansion of an industry that promise the consumer access to hidden, lost, diagnostic, or even forbidden knowledge of their own past. Several contributors point out that although the consumer may desire knowledge of their identity, the level of commercial genetic analysis can not actually provide it with any real certainty.

Another theme suggests a return of the repressed behind the use of genetic knowledge in promoting processes of repatriation and reconciliation to resolve historical social conflicts. Conversely, always lurking nearby are eugenics, degeneracy, and a watered-down polygenism. The practitioners and funders of the new genomics have conveniently repressed the notion that they represent the apparent survival of these earlier wretched knowledges raise for the sociological understanding of contemporary science.

The third theme of the collection is related to this refusal and repression of the past: the notion of living in the genomic era announces a new end of history In response, these essays critique the view that DNA is a kind of indestructible link to the past that supersedes History. Genetic history is made to appear as a seemingly apolitical narrative imbued with an aura of scientific authority. DNA analysis brings the notion of pre-history into the present and makes all of human existence “historical” at the very moment it abolishes from consideration – except as mere superstructure – the social forces that produce human history. The potential to reduce social life to the ebbs and flows, migrations and admixtures of genetic populations is clearly present. Reanne Frank’s essay on “the forbidden knowledge argument” addresses best the reluctance by geneticists and biologists to discuss the issues raised so well in this volume. Those who wish to avoid these questions often respond that they are heroically pursuing scientific knowledge. The very fact that their work is being criticized or even rejected by most of their peers is presented as the best evidence that they are being punished for revealing to us the “true” meaning of race. In deploying such arguments, Frank notes ironically, these self-declared martyrs for Science are placing their work outside of the history of science. Though Genetics and the Unsettled Past went to press before the most recent book by Nicholas Wade, it serves as a pre-critique of his use of genetic knowledge. Although he is mentioned only twice, reading this work in the context of the current controversy over Wade’s book speaks directly to the concerns raised by the continued publication of scientific ideologies packaged as popular scientific communication.

Many thoughts come to the reader upon reaching the conclusion of this collection. One, and it is purely speculative, is that the social construction of race may not be synonymous with the social life of DNA. They may constitute different modes of thinking about human variation, although it is certainly true that at times they seem to be the same coin struck in different years. Perhaps this similarity is an indication that both stand in similar relation to the reproduction of everyday life, i.e., to the practices of domination and authority that are stitched into the repetitions that structure everyday life in the modern world. As a result, the complexity of everyday life causes the social construction of race and the social life of DNA to diverge as critiques only to converge as explanations of social conflict.

As the object created through social construction, race refers to the social reproduction of a supposed essential quality that is manifested by the human body and though a corresponding ensemble of social relations. It carries with it a form of alienation, of something natural to each person that comes to stand apart and against them. In this instance, human variety as developed through the scientific ideology of race and its deployment in social policy. In the social life of DNA, we are confronted with the possibility that DNA represents the materiality of this essential quality and the visible manifestations are therefore secondary to the demarcations and exclusions of humans according to what Kant called our lineal stem stocks. At most, the visible differences in the skin simply serve as confirmation of the genetic material. And this is exactly the point where the social life of DNA meets the social construction of race. It is at this moment of convergence that both use race to confirm the meaning of human variety. Slipping back and forth between the two each to explain the other, because both express the scientific ideology of race in everyday life through the attempts to prove the value of race for understanding human difference. We find ourselves confronting a central problem that is not a return of the repressed because it was never repressed, and this problem now takes the form of the admixture of populations. Lurking in the nearby rubble dwells the figure of the Hybrid, a frequent object of earlier 17th-19th century attempts to understand race as the essential difference between humans. Rather than the genome finally allowing us to be done with race, one must ask to what degree might we be constantly speaking about the identification of homogeneous parent populations against which the deviations and degeneracy of the Hybrid can be measured?

The editors are to be commended not only for their own contributions, but in the selection of essays and the organization of the collection. Genetics and the Unsettled Past is a work that deserves a wide reading by sociologists and historians of science, medicine and technology, health policy analysts and ethicists, geneticists, genealogists and by students of related fields. The scholarly and critical depth of this volume is not at all compromised by its accessibility, making it a valuable source for students, scholars, and for those interested in the social implications of recent advances in the science of human genetics.

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph.D
Professor of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute