Book Review: Genetic Geographies: The Trouble with Ancestry

Genetic Geographies: The Trouble with Ancestry. Catherine Nash, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 240 pp.

Population genetics and genetic anthropology have recently become two of the highest profile areas of science. In the post-genomic era, this formerly largely academic domain has turned out to be, on the one hand, instrumental for medical genetics research and, on the other, to be a highly charismatic science amenable to public consumption through dozens of pop-science books, documentaries, and direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests. Catherine Nash’s new book joins a growing broadly science and technology studies literature about the meaning, politics, public uptake, and epistemology of this new research domain.

Nash’s focus is how this scientific domain is reconfiguring images and politics of belonging. It has come to prominence at a particular moment in time: Researchers are still wary of the long shadow of eugenics and scientific racism and are also working in a post–civil rights, post-decolonization moment—and even in a moment after the backlash to those movements. Population genetics and genetic anthropology have flourished both in an era where multiculturalism and diversity are the governing concepts for the politics of inclusion and also at a time when biologists have worked hard to distance themselves from reactionary politics and establish their bona fides as politically liberal, even progressive.

The main gap in the literature that Nash’s book fills is through its explicitly geographic focus. Though others have noted the reconfiguration of races and populations as geographic units, Nash brings her perspective as a critical geographer to show how the identities inscribed in social geographies are always political. Nash aims to understand how population genetics is reconfiguring and reimagining social geographies through three chapter-length case studies.

The first of these covers the National Geographic Genographic Project led by population geneticist Spencer Wells. Genographic is simultaneously a population genetics project that aims to map relationships and migratory patterns among human populations around the world, a public education and participation project, and a cultural preservation project. These last two aims are linked to Genographic’s birth from the ashes of the ill-fated Human Genome Diversity Project, which many indigenous groups around the world charged with colonialist aspirations and an interest only in preserving genetic data but not helping the people whose data it sought.

Genographic is motivated by explicitly liberal, anti-racist, and global cosmopolitan values. In the books and documentaries accompanying it, Wells has argued against the coherence of the race concept and for the unity of the “global human family” (p. 69). While praising these aims, Nash points out Genographic’s entanglement with problematic ideas. The participatory angle has mostly involved Genographic’s middle-class American and European audience, but conflicts have remained with indigenous groups. (Much more attention to these conflicts would have been welcome.) Furthermore, Nash shows that the project falls into longstanding representational tropes of National Geographic—individualizing Westerners but showing members of indigenous populations as archetypes with exaggerated difference. The prehistoric past is presented as filled with heroic travelers, but indigenous groups are represented as static and stationary.

Most crucially, Nash interrogates Genographic’s post-racial universalist trope of the “family of mankind” as its great ethical frame. The use of paternal Y- chromosome and maternal mitochondrial DNA helps map population relatedness through global lineages, but also obscures an understanding of migratory complexity and population dynamics that would show a tangle or bramble of relationships rather than a tree. Nash argues that the underside of the warm universalism of the family metaphor is hierarchy implicitly assumed among populations, and the idea that we should treat other humans well because we’re all related could also imply that we should treat our closest relations better than distant cousins. Nash reminds us that racist evolutionary psychologist J. Philippe Rushton explicitly voiced this idea.

Next Nash describes the Wellcome Trust’s People of the British Isles Project. This multicultural genomics project had simultaneously medical and cultural aims. Medically, it aimed to identify genetic heterogeneity among white Britons to identify this potential confound in medical genetics studies. The cultural component, bolstered by an elaborate series of radio and television documentaries, aimed to interrogate “lines of difference between the four nations” (p. 106) of the United Kingdom. Nash shows that this fit the project squarely into two contentious debates about British citizenship: the relationship between Britishness and the national identities comprising it and the remaking of Britishness in a post-colonial multicultural context.

Nash shows how the project strongly challenged presumptions of English Saxon “purity” and distinctiveness among the nations—showing the United Kingdom to have a profoundly “mixed-up” heritage. But in doing so, the project appropriated the notion of British indigeneity and hardened the distinction between white Britons and those with African or Asian ancestry. Claims of primordialism crumbled, only to be replaced with geneticized multiculturalism.

Nash’s final empirical chapter analyzes the neglected dimension of sex and sexuality in the critical cultural analysis of anthropological population genetics. She notes that research on the maternal and paternal lineages of populations are also telling implicit and explicit stories about ancient sexual relations and migrations. Nash shows that this science has, without reflection, taken on oft-criticized frameworks from evolutionary psychology about men’s promiscuous, dominating, and mobile sexual strategies and women’s passive, stable, and monogamous ones. Through detailed analyses of geneticist Bryan Sykes’s claims about Genghis Kahn’s Y chromosome and the Seven Daughters of Eve responsible for different mitochondrial DNA lineages (sold to the public through consumer genetic tests), Nash shows how a science publically committed to liberal post-racialism reproduces patriarchal fantasies about primitive sexual relationships.

My only real complaint about the book is a somewhat unfair one. The book’s limitation is its analytic mode of discourse analysis and cultural critique and its methodological focus on publicly available materials and provocative, widely publicized figures. What do figures in the field think of the contradictions that Nash has uncovered? What do the quieter, less publicly oriented scientists feel about publicity-hounds like Sykes and Wells? Are the contradictions Nash identifies inherent in the cultural substructure of this domain, or are they practical problems that producers and consumers of this science seek to actively negotiate?

As compelling as Nash’s account is, it left little sense of where scientists might go next or which of the discursive and practical boxes enclosing the field are sealed tightly and which might be leaky. The risk of Nash’s approach is
hypostatizing a particular public face as the meaning of the field—and this problem, after all, mimics her fundamental critique, which is that particular idiosyncratic, methodologically driven images come to stand in for the meaning of human relatedness and history.

In the end, this problem should be seen less as a shortcoming of Nash’s work and more as an opportunity to open up her findings (and the geographic orientation it embodies) to different kinds of empirical tests. This is a welcome addition to the critical analysis of contemporary genomics that is appropriate for graduate seminars in cultural anthropology, STS, critical geography, and the intersection of race/ethnicity or sex/gender and science.

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