- Mestizo Genomics: Race Mixture, Nation, and Science in Latin America ed. by Peter Wade et al.
The World Health Organization explains genomics as the study of "all genes and their interrelationships in order to identify their combined influence on the growth and development of the organism" (http://www.who.int). This collection opens for the reader a totally new dimension of the timeworn topic of race in Latin America, and of mestizaje, its corollary. The latter term refers to the racial and cultural mixing in Latin America of Amerindians, Europeans, and blacks that began in the sixteenth century. It is a topic conventionally taught along with its related tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities. The task for the editors of this collection was to go beyond the vital work already done by historians and anthropologists to establish an understanding of "human biological diversity" (45). This work took place in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, and it was made possible by the "mapping [of] the genomes of local populations," plus work that traced the "histories of physical anthropological and biomedical research" (1).
Supported by the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom, the editors appear to have gone a long way toward accomplishing this revisionist chore by scrutinizing important genetic research work performed in the countries mentioned, from the 1980s to the first decade of 2000. They did so by poring over the findings of geneticists and other scientists in these countries, who had produced studies such as that of "mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, inherited only from the mother) and Y chromosome DNA (inherited only by men and only from the father)" and other genetic material passed down through various generations (12).
To carry out this challenging mission, the editors conducted "lab-based ethnographies [and] interviews with scientists [and] analysts," and they also sought to "learn how their work circulated beyond the institutional networks … [and] into the public sphere" (21). In other words, the editors sought to assess the impact the genetic work may have had on "public discourse," so as to measure "the relationships between science and society" (21).
The book consists of two parts. The first contains three chapters that provide a broad contextual background to the "study of human biological and … genetic diversity" for each country (26). The second part presents three case studies, one for each country, based on the lab ethnographies and interviews of the scientists involved in the national genomic projects. The ethnographies were written by postdoctoral assistants selected by the editors; the last pages of Part 2 offer conclusive thoughts on the part of the editors.
Writing on behalf of his fellow editors, Peter Wade notes in the concluding chapter that the concepts of "race, ethnicity, and nation" (222) remain constant concerns for investigators of Latin America today. He concludes that this is true not only for the accomplished scholars of the mid twentieth century who first positioned race and mestizaje front and center in their work, but also for the more recent genomic scientists named in this volume—despite intense discussions about this point. Wade singles out the basic question: is race "reviewed, reproduced, transformed, taken apart or banished" by the aforementioned genetic studies? O is it "regrouped in biology via genetics"? Further, how do "non-expert publics then react to this"? (213). [End Page 422]
The authors find that genomic research fixes the concept of race but at the same time unfixes it. It fixes race through "[genetic] precision and triangulation," absent in the early works of historians and anthropologists like Justo Sierra, Robert Redfield, or Stanley Stein (214–215). It unfixes race because, while genetic research may pinpoint ancestral paths and proportions, it also uncovers "different combinations" that "could be possible, and that the number of [these ethnic] combinations is practically unlimited" (223). At this point, Wade even leans on Michel Foucault, who believed that "classic 19th-century social formations … walked between a conception...