An Interview with M. Susan Lindee and Warwick Anderson, co-editors of HSNS‘s new special issue, “Pacific Biologies: How Humans Become Genetic

Watch the video trailer for the “Pacific Biologies” special issue of HSNS

During the past decade and more, there have been many historical studies of genetic research, so what particularly does this special issue focused on “Pacific Biologies” offer? How does it advance our understanding of the history of human biology?

SL:  Both of us have been exploring the history of human biology from various perspectives for some time.  Genetics is part of the story, but other threads involve biological anthropology, and also relevant are all race sciences, from the 17th century to the present, and related sciences oriented around human improvement, including eugenics.  Broadly conceived, human biology involves the technical pursuit of knowledge that’s of value to the Hobbesian state, knowledge instantiated in human bodies and their control.  The scientific field of human biology is often a venue for exploiting bodily value.  Because we start from this perspective, our papers capture the special geography and genealogy of Pacific migration, isolation and variation.  The value of these bodies was more than colonial.  What’s interesting is the “universalism” of so much of this research—how it leveraged the specific and unique properties of groups in the region to make claims about something “human.”  So, when Projit Mukharji in his contribution looks at the “bloodworlds” made manifest in technical assessments of the Chenchu group, he shows how being bled was linked to being “human.”  And in my own paper on the atomic bomb samples, I suggest that irradiated samples became more universally valuable as their specific history was erased.  This invocation of universal human identity, threaded through our case studies, raises new questions about the history of human biology. 

WA: I think Susan’s observation that we’re exploring new geographies of genetic knowledge and practice is crucial here. While the few historians of human biology and physical anthropology often have studied dispersed field investigations, the conventional histories of genetics—of which there are many—usually focus on laboratory work, and clinical applications, in North America and Europe. In this sense, genetics can appear to be the signature science of those humans already deemed “modern.” What we want to do here is to disperse histories of genetics, and to see how interactions of scientists with the peoples of the Pacific and Australasia shaped the genetic science that emerged. You could say that we’re showing how the genetic “generic” developed, how people previously regarded as “primitive” were reconstituted as genetically modern, even universal. And in the process how they influenced what it meant to become genetically visible.

You emphasize the desire of the scientists to make visible populations in the Pacific, Australasia and South Asia, through genetic studies. Where does “race” fit into these stories? At times you seem to be contesting the conventional account of the decline of racial thought in science?

SL:  Certainly the sciences of genetics have not lost interest in race!  They might refer to it in different ways—as biogeographical ancestry perhaps, or population group—but the historical accidents that led certain visual properties to serve as unique identifiers of oppression and power have not lost their intense meanings.  As I sometimes tell students, if by the usual circumstances of historical and evolutionary chance everyone in Africa had small, delicate ears, while everyone in Europe had large, pointed ones, ear size would have come to symbolize biological and political hierarchies.  Adam Hochman, I think, captures the issue perfectly when he proposes that there are definitely groups “believed to be racial” or “misunderstood as racial.”  These misunderstandings are toxic, and they still matter in science.  Race is central to our story as it is to the entire history of genetics, but the race we are talking about is the imagined race—the whiteness, to put it bluntly—of most of our actors, who privilege the idea and deploy it in ways that reinforce their own authority. 

WA: Yes, I think we demonstrate in this issue the interpretive flexibility of “race,” how older versions crumble and new ones are constructed, at a pace that critique struggles to match. But not only that. In my article, I show that for all his talk about populations and despite his liberal, even anticolonial, stances, Jo Birdsell remained wedded to pre-war typological and morphological framings. So, a lot of the new scientific constructions of race are built on older, often shoddy, conceptual foundations. In these genetic studies, I don’t think racial typologies ever disappear—they’re salvaged and re-purposed in different ways—but the imagining of an absolute otherness does dissipate. Instead, Pacific and Australasian peoples are reimagined, in effect, as modern enough, genetically generic enough, to join the nether regions of global capitalism and be exploited like everyone else.

A common theme is the significance of fieldwork and close encounters with so-called research subjects in shaping scientific practices and knowledge. Can you say more about this?

WA: Even before I wrote Collectors of Lost Souls (2008), I was interested in the ways in which encounters in the field destabilized (or sometimes reinforced) conventional scientific practices, and reshaped scientific knowledge. This is a theme of the articles in this special issue, too. One might call it a sentimental re-education, maybe a re-structuring of sensibilities, perhaps on both sides of the frontier. But it’s important not to be preoccupied with revelations of empathy and accord. Sometimes the enlightenment never happened, and sometimes it didn’t matter much when it did. It’s easy to get caught up in documenting instances of reciprocity and cross-cultural communication—and to forget the necessary objectification and the inequalities in “reciprocity,” the lack of respect and kindness in these researches. I think it’s important to recognize the interactions of scientists and the people they called “research subjects,” which might give some agency to local inhabitants, while at the same time acknowledging the colonial structural injustices on which these sciences were predicated.

SL: To a disturbing degree, so much scientific work with human populations “in the field” was fundamentally antagonistic, or dismissive, or uninterested in attending to the stakes and needs and experiences of those being studied.  Much of the cooperation as it occurred was instrumentalist, and any “rewards” offered for participation were tightly rationed, made available at the lowest possible level, to as few participants as possible.  There were also dependencies in field work that were muted in public, in scientific publications or autobiographies, but obvious and even striking in the archival records of letters, reports, field notes.  In cases I have studied, geneticists could not possibly have navigated the social and material worlds they visited without significant support and actual empirical insight from locals, including shared texts—I’m reminded of Victor McKusick studying family Bibles to construct family genealogies—transportation, and introductions.  Locals sometimes could and did have fairly significant investments in playing these roles, but they were not playing on the same field. 

To what extent do the articles in this special issue work toward decolonizing the history of science?

WA: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to try to decolonize histories of science—note the plural. As you know, Gabriela Soto Laveaga and I edited a forum on this topic in History and Theory this year. I can confidently say that the special issue is certainly an example of the postcolonial history of science, in that it involves a geographical dispersal of the sciences that matter, and an expansion of the notion of authorship and agency in science, to include peoples of the Pacific and Australasia. It challenges conventional narratives of the simple diffusion of science beyond the North Atlantic, and it questions the usual assumptions of dominance and submission in research relations. So far, so good. But I wonder if we could really say it’s decolonial, meaning it decenters the science and the scientists, and re-imagines these encounters from the points of view of Indigenous peoples. Many of the authors of these articles are not white, but we’re in elite universities and writing in English for a US-based journal—not exactly decolonial, but in other aspects, it’s a start at least.

Read HSNS‘s special issue “Pacific Biologies: How Humans Become Genetic” for free for a limited time.

SL:  I struggle with these issues, given how thoroughly the technical systems we understand by historical consensus as “science” are embedded in the power relations forged by the dominant colonial order—which means that getting outside of these relations might move us outside of the enterprise of
“science” entirely.  I have always told my students that there are many ways to know important things about the natural world, including long experience, careful observation, and deep understanding that might not conform to the protocols and conventions of science (but still count as very useful knowledge).  Remember the story of the world’s first poisonous bird:  When it was captured in a net by a PhD student in the field, the locals told him not to touch it–because it was poisonous.  It was indeed, but his paper reporting the existence of the world’s first known poisonous bird ended up as the cover story in Science.  I’m not sure if the locals ever published anything about this remarkable bird.  The suspicious problem at the heart of our field—and one our volume openly wrestles with both in terms of subjects addressed and participating scholars—is that telling our stories so that those in less privileged positions are recognized for their contributions to science still privileges science.  So, we are trying to move this issue forward, to think about how to decolonize our practices and our ways of seeing technical knowledge systems—and I think we do pretty well, for all the reasons Warwick suggests, but we still have a ways to go. 

 A few times in the introduction, you note that this issue is the first step toward a new critical—and perhaps global—history of genetics. What more needs to be done now?

SL:  We begin here to consider actors situated in different perspectives, not in the cosmopolitan European centers, or the brash and wealthy universities in rich nations, but in the places left out of so many studies of genetics and biology, in our case along the margins of the “American lake,” the Pacific Ocean.  One simple goal moving forward should be to encourage scholars in our field to reconfigure the geography and the social place of those we study. Whose voices matter to our understanding of the history of genetics?  Mainstream history began to interrogate “history from below” some time ago, but history of science has been reluctant or perhaps unwilling to turn away from a relatively narrow layer of elite and privileged actors.  Some of the most interesting work in the field now looks at borderland actors—those on the edges of genetics, and those in the field whose knowledge of plants and people became a resource for scientists. 

WA: I agree with Susan, but I might go further, asking who “we” might be in the future. What I’m saying is that we need more diversity among historians of science too, more Indigenous historians of genetics, for example. I expect Susan and most of our colleagues would endorse this. But I wonder if this is enough, if increasing diversity might lead just to more inclusion in business as usual. I think it’s about time to try to catch up with anthropologists and others who have for some decades now been trying to decolonize their methods too. I’d like to see different agents and authors in the stories that get told, different places and environments, and different temporalities and historicities too. Maybe these stories would not be recognizable as the history of science—but does that matter? Maybe “we” won’t be the ones able to tell them—but should anyone else care?

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