Between 2009 and 2012, a transnational, multidisciplinary and extremely well coordinated collaboration led by British anthropologist Peter Wade focused on the study of recent developments of genomic science in three Latin American countries: Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. In a time of (almost) globalized communications and exchanges, multinational teams and multi-perspective projects are, ironically, still an exception. This book is the result of an exceptional collaborative effort that definitely has set a high standard for comparative work in science and technology studies, and in particular for studies of biomedical practices around the world.
This is a timely and insightful work. It deals with old but very contemporary notions such as nation and race. It does so with historical sensibility, but appropriates the tools of science and technology studies in order to account for new configurations of race and nation built upon the tools of genomic sequencing and informatics. It also focuses on a paradisiac place, if there is one, to study the entangled relations among these notions: Brazil, Colombia and Mexico offer innumerable common threads, but also contrasting realities and histories, enough to give the book a sense of thick local analysis, without losing its comparative purpose.
Why nation and race? The link between the two has been energetically brought out in recent times by geneticists, politicians, analysts and pharmaceutical entrepreneurs who, while dwelling on the new tools of genomic analysis, have given new life to these notions (re-tooling in Carlos López Beltrán’s words). But in the Latin American case, the history of their entanglement is centuries long. The Spanish and Portuguese empires were built in the three countries upon a process of mestizaje (miscegenation), a long-historical process that ran through a cultural and biological axis between the 16th and 18th centuries. Latin American countries underwent independence and nation building processes [End Page 180] during the 19th century, but it was at the end of that siècle and the beginning of the twentieth century that they constructed elaborate ideologies and narratives to account for their mixed origins, with liberal local elites arguing for the superiority of mestizaje. In Latin America, thus, the history of miscegenation is closely tied with the history of the nation.
The structure of the book clearly reflects this setting. The introduction, written by the four leading researchers, offers a common historical framework as well as the methodological apparatus: a comparative, ethnographic and Latourian approach, which is appropriate when dealing with bio-techno-social categories. The book is then divided into two parts. The first part (History and Context) includes a historical chapter for each of the countries, while the second part (Laboratory Case Studies) offers detailed ethnographic studies in contemporary genomics for each of the three countries. The book closes with a concluding chapter by Peter Wade that aims to pull together the threads of the comparative analysis and answer the broad questions of the project.
I found the chapter on Brazil’s three historical moments by Ventura-Santos, Kent and Valle Gaspar Neto particularly well structured and illuminating and very clear as to the historical goals of the first section. We learn of the long and prestigious history of human population studies in Brazil, starting with physical anthropology at the end of the nineteenth century, through the studies of Francisco Salzano (a close collaborator of geneticist James Neel) in the 1950s and 1960s, up to Sergio Pena’s challenging views on the inexistence of races in the midst of contemporary debates on affirmative action policies. However, I found the chapter on Colombia, written by Restrepo, Schwarz-Marín and Cárdenas, confusing because it was too focused on contemporary events and actors. Finally, the chapter on Mexico, by López-Beltrán, García-Deister and Ríos–Sandoval, is mostly an attempt to navigate through the growing critical literature on mestizaje and nation in...