The Search for Truth: Rootings in the Culturally and Genetically Meaningful

I wrote this literature review a while ago, but came across it again and was reminded of the plethora of literature out discussing how the post-genomic era has reinscribed race.


Nadia Abu El-Haj’s works The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology and “The Genetic Reinscription of Race” map the rise of “new genetics” and its impact on discussions and views of race. In both works El-Haj shows the extent to which the idea of race has evolved, and in a dangerous way. Race has become a technical term, one closely linked to biology. While the use of physical markers such as cranial size by physical anthropologists to determine race has been deemed illegitimate and even reprehensible, the current use of DNA is seen as a legitimate determinant for race. In the world of genomic and post-genomic medicine El-Haj writes that race must be thought of “as an object and technology of scientific inquiry” and “as a political and cultural practice in the era of a privatized, speculative market for molecular biology in a neoliberal state” (El-Haj, 2007: 294). Though declared dead as a “valid scientific category” and even “passe,” the objectification of race within the realm of contemporary science and the widespread, both conscious and unconscious, acceptance of race as a biological construct with regard to things such as medicine raises the question about “whether race is dead or alive in “new genetics”  (El-Haj, 2007: 284). The liminality of race and its position is the central question of El-Haj’s works and the primary topic of discussion for this weeks readings.

In The Genealogical Science, El-Haj begins by analyzing “the research origins of contemporary Jews in order to illuminate more generally the forms of evidence that anthropological geneticists use to map group-based diversity, to construct population phylogenies, and to determine the “origins” of specific groups” (El-Haj, 2012: 33-34). Anthropological genetics “explores the history of human migrations and population-specific origins and relatedness by analyzing diversity at the molecular level”  (El-Haj, 2012: 38). In this way, biology and history become tightly connected. Last week we saw the interconnectedness between a social and cultural history and biology, how biology is, in many ways, a social science. This weeks readings further support the idea of biology as a social science; after all, biology is the study of life, and life entails a socio-cultural, political, and economic history. El-Haj highlights the history of racial thought and how this now plays into genomic and post-genomic medicine. According to El-Haj “race emerged with modernity” and “materialized as a fundamental technology of exclusions”  (El-Haj, 2012: 45). This sense of exclusion remains today and takes several different forms. El-Haj asks the reader to think about “not just which human collectivities the practices of genetic history or any other post-genomic science makes or reinforces” but also “what it is in this scientific imagination that makes human collectivity and that makes it meaningful and enduring”  (El-Haj, 2012: 60). What is it about the field of science and genetic research that so strongly is able to influence group identity and subjectification? For example, the Jews of Israel that El-Haj examines, “were treated simultaneously as a single population with a shared (ancient) origin and as a collection of subpopulations who had migrated to Israel from various points of (more recent) origin”  (El-Haj, 2012: 63).

This rooting of Jewish unity and identity in biological evidence can also be compared to last week’s discussion of Michael Montoya’s piece Making the Mexican Diabetic which examined the ways Mexican-American identity was rooted in the idea of admixture, a very specific grouping of “racial” percentages. In race science, “that the Jews were a “mixed race” had been widely accepted”  (El-Haj, 2012: 75); Jewish identity as a ‘mixed race’ implies a level of impurity, or even danger (think back to Mary Douglas). The interplay between genetic history and Jewish culture and identity compels El-Haj to explore the tension “between a definition of who the Jewish population is or is supposed to be that structured research into Jewish population(s) and the actual practices of trying to establish an a priori fact of a shared Jewish biological-historical origin”  (El-Haj, 2012: 66). We discussed last week in the context of Montoya’s and Fullwiley’s pieces the power of data and how many researchers seem to be searching for an answer they’ve already formulated on a group’s biological basis. Who the Jewish population “is supposed to be” hints to the aforementioned discussion. Issues arise when who the Jews are “supposed to be” does not coincide the supposed “biological-historical origin.” Ideas surrounding “who the Jews are” involves subjectification by outside groups, but also self subjectification, a point El-Haj is clear to make. The desire for a “truth” (which is often seen as something objective and empirical) caused “the link between biology, national self, and soil in Jewish national thought” to become “ever more influential and robust”  (El-Haj, 2012: 67), while  also raising debate over “what kind of collectivity the Jews are”  (El-Haj, 2012: 68). The self-subjectification “did not challenge the racial paradigm’s most basic terms: that human collectives are biologically constituted” and as a result the notion of a “Jewish race” developed and was embraced by many Jews  (El-Haj, 2012: 68). However, any form of subjectification relies heavily upon context and situation. As we have seen countless times in this class, identity changes in relation to audience. For example, El-Haj speaks to this changing self-subjectification in her discussion of American Jews who “abandoned what had been a widespread commitment…that Jews are a race” in an attempt to rapidly assimilate into Christian-American society  (El-Haj, 2012: 71).

El-Haj reveals that the quest for a “truth about origins” is almost foolish and illogical (El-Haj, 2012: 51). Sifting through “all the genetic noise, the noise of recombination, of admixture, and of natural selection” is to label groups as “un-pure,” thereby delegitimizing their forms of identity in many ways  (El-Haj, 2012: 51). There is the idea that in uncovering the foundation of a group’s existence is the discovery of what fundamentally “makes us who we are” and “authenticates or makes true- our human collectivities”  (El-Haj, 2012: 60). By extension, then, DNA, haplotypes, the technicalities of post-genomic science, become synonymous for a group’s history and “biological makers are read as indicators of cultural practices”  (El-Haj, 2012: 119). The “molecularization of race” has allowed for the classification of DNA “ethnoracially”  (El-Haj, 2007: 287). In reference to Fullwiley, “reading race in the DNA” opened up the gates for the legitimization of  defining and understanding illnesses, such as sickle-cell in a very subjective way. In the case of sickle-cell, researchers tried every way to connect a diagnosed patient to some sort of African ancestry; the one drop rule overpowered notions of logic, rationality, and “true science.”

In both pieces El-Haj discussed eugenics and its analytical framework. Eugenics focuses on the race or nation. Post-genomic medicine, on the other hand, focuses on the individual and “constructs itself as interested ultimately in individual health” (El-Haj, 2007: 290). Truthfully, post-genomic medicine involves a the privatization of biological research and the influence of large pharmaceutical companies; there is a relationship “between genetic history and the politics of identity”  (El-Haj, 2012: 141). Just as post-genomic medicine is not fully about “individual health,” we “are not just subjects of our own will and responsibility” (El-Haj, 2012: 119). It is important to recognize the many moving parts in an individual or group identity. El-Haj poignantly writes “if authenticity is a matter of being true to oneself, genetic data is emerging as a grid of intelligibility against which one’s collective and individual authenticity is read”  (El-Haj, 2012: 119-120).

In short, race is being reinscribed through the lens of genetic research. The social construction of race is then, in a way, being understood through the context of a biological construction. Identity is defined by culture and biological nature. However, “while policing the boundary between culture and nature might be politically correct, it is scientifically unsound” (El-Haj, 2012: 179); there is no way to separate the quest for a “truth” found in a biological marker from “the search for culturally, medically, or cognitively meaningful traits” (El-Haj, 2012: 179).   The search for culturally meaningful traits is a driving factor in genealogical science; genealogical science has made room for a reinscription of race.

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