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  • The Literature of Difference in Cultures of Science
  • Scout Calvert
The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics edited by Evelynn M. Hammonds and Rebecca M. Herzig. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Pp. 368. $95.00 cloth, $45.00 paper.

Between social constructivism and cynicism over scientific racism, race-based science seemed, for some, to be a dead end at the end of the twentieth century. A new cultural acceptance of the social construction of race seemed apparent in contentions over data collection categories in the 2000 U.S. Census; California’s 2003 Proposition 54 sought to eliminate race categories in data collection. At the same time, the rise of population genomics, spurred by efforts like the Human Genome Project, seemed to signal a pluralistic perspective, refusing to afford a genetic basis for race categories. In 2005, drawing on emerging discourses of sameness in genomic diversity, the National Geographic Society launched its Genographic Project, which asks volunteers to donate a DNA sample to a database to track human migration patterns. In genetic ancestry projects, enthusiasts use noncoding markers to identify others with whom to compare family trees. They also import other tools of population genetics to identify the “deep ancestry” or haplogroups, which indicate a geographic origin in prehistory. Recreational genomics is, with increasing frequency, topical fare in popular media, including weekly newsmagazines and mainstream Internet and printed news sources. This fascination is perhaps most popularly and poignantly visible in Oprah Winfrey and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s public pursuit of data about their [End Page 513] African ancestors. Yet, postracial politics notwithstanding, recreational genomics improvises a racialized vernacular from understandings submerged in kinship, tribe, and population narratives, as Kimberly TallBear has pointed out, mutating “race,” out of the nineteenth-century concept of “blood quantum” that imperfectly signals complex tribal relatedness and membership.1 Purchasers of the kits look to the genome as the “Book of Life,” finding themselves as racialized and medicalized subjects, written in its pages.2 With publicity generated by Winfrey, Gates, and the Genographic Project, high school and college students, along with genealogists, are experimenting with recreational genomics and a mutated racial discourse that accompanies test-company promotional materials and test interpretations. In a genomic age, race categories are experiencing a renaissance.

As these ongoing genetic reconstructions and deconstructions of racial categories demonstrate, science has the authority to establish truth claims that scholars in the humanities must reckon with. While students of American culture and history have long turned to social science and literary sources to make sense of racialization in the United States, primary sources from the history of science have been less available for these scholars. Partly, the preeminence of scientific discourse and the specialized genre of its literature have made it a difficult target for nonscientists to engage. Scholars in the humanities may avoid a scientific debate either because they feel out of their depths interpreting scientific data, assume that the scientific debates on race are settled, or resist scientific authority in response to well-documented instances of scientific exploitation of people of color. Or humanities scholars may have surrendered to science the work of settling matters of fact, keeping hermeneutics and textual matters for themselves. But researchers outside the sciences have been hobbled by rejecting science in a move that leaves untouched its power to legitimize knowledge claims. Science and technology studies can provide a methodological resource that will be ready to hand for literary studies: tracing objects through the practices and discourses that produce them as settled matters of fact, made, but not made up.

Race is a slippery object in scientific literature, and scholars in the humanities will have a hard time holding tight to both ends of what Donna Haraway describes as a “greased pole,” tracking the social and legal arrangements that produce race while examining and debunking scientific data claimed to be evidence for or against race.3 Here, Evelynn Hammonds (Harvard University) and Rebecca Herzig’s (Bates College) edited volume will be a useful resource [End Page 514] with a welcome approach. Attuned to discursive strategies across decades of scientific literature, historians of science Hammonds and Herzig present a selection of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 513-519
Launched on MUSE
2010-07-30
Open Access
No
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