Publics *As* Biology? (Part 3 of 3)

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I like how this conversation is taking shape. It might be possible to see my contribution as taking up Lukas’ second methodological point – about the ongoing negotiation of the epistemic boundaries of scientific disciplines.

One of the first sessions of our Summer School dealt with research whereby members of various human communities were asked to “donate” genetic material. We read about a multi-faceted anthropological study in Brazil that attempted to discredit particular ideas about race in the service of taking a stand regarding the State’s position on affirmative action.(1) In this particular project, high school students were asked to assess their own racial makeup and to reflect on culturally held ideas about race. Then, they submitted genetic material to be analyzed for ancestry informative markers. There is much to be said about the merits and limitations of this project (including science in the service of politics). For the purposes of this conversation, however, I want only to make one basic point: in providing the material bases for genetic research, this public – Brazilian high school students – became biological.

Human population genetic research has been taking place in America for decades and, as it has merged with parts of anthropology, has intensified with the rise of genomics. In addition to those instances when they are actively enrolled by scientists in biological research, Americans can now also purchase any number of genetic tests that offer insights into their heritage and makeup.

From the case of human population genetic research, historians of science are finding themselves reassessing what kinds of actors might be found in the lab – too often understood as a closed site of inquiry and knowledge production. However, when humans become objects and, pieces of their bodies, subjects of biological inquiry the lab takes on a new analytic significance for historians concerned with thinking about “biology and the public.” Not least of all because – following Latour – a lab can raise the world.

I’ll stop here with a “public” image that I find particularly illustrative. It is from an April 22, 2010 New York Times article that covered a lawsuit in which members of the Havasupai successfully sued Arizona State University for misuse of their genetic material.

(1) Ricardo Ventura Santos, Peter H. Fry, Simone Monteiro, Marcos Chor Maio, Jose´ Carlos Rodrigues, Luciana Bastos-Rodrigues, and Sergio D. J. Pena. Color, Race, and Genomic Ancestry in Brazil Dialogues between Anthropology and Genetics by Current Anthropology Volume 50, Number 6, 2009

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