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SEHR, volume 5, Supplement: Cultural and Technological Incubations of Fascism
Updated December 17, 1996

problematizing reifications and naturalizations out of focus

at the henry r. luce professorship of biotechnology and society's

symposium: "genetics and the humane genome project: where scientific and public cultures meet"

Jonathan Michael Kaplan


The heterogenous mixture of researchers and academics provided both the major strength and the major weakness of this year's Luce Symposium. The great variation in perspectives presented on, for example, the Human Genome Diversity Project and the so-called 'gay-gene' provided the sort of balance rarely encountered in individual treatments of these areas, and revealed both the exciting and frightening possibilities engendered by such research projects. However, the conference, for all the strength of the individual speakers and panels, had serious problems with maintaining any overall focus.

Insofar as there was any single theme running through the conference, it was the dangers inherent in naturalizing and reifying contingent social categories. In this way, the stated focus of the conference - genetics and genome projects as places where scientific and public cultures meet - was exactly right. Unfortunately, that theme went too often unexpressed. While many of the panelists touched upon the way that, for example, scientific categories are put in the service of what Jonathan Marks of Yale University's Department of Anthropology called "folk wisdom" and the dangers inherent in this kind of naturalization of socially constructed categories, the conference's lack of any explicit policy that could center discussion around these issues made it a slippery focus indeed. And this was the conference's loss, because the inability to maintain a sharp focus on those basic issues hampered the discussion and interpretation of too many of the other issues approached in the conference.

The implicit focus on reification and naturalization, and the deep relationship these issues have to the intersecting fields of the various public and scientific discourses, was best brought out in the talks and discussion surrounding the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and the concept of 'race.'[1] At the heart of the first day of the conference's talks was the disagreement over what effect (if any) projects in the style of the HGDP, projects which map distributions of genetic variations within various populations, would have on contemporary notions of 'race.'[2] Some panelists felt that such projects, by showing the continuous nature of human genetic variation, would show that contemporary categories of 'race' were without any biological basis. Others felt that the way populations were picked out for the studies (that is, on the basis of traditional linguistic and ethnographic data) implicitly gave scientific support to contemporary categories, and hence to contemporary notions of 'race.' Yet another view expressed was that even if such studies undermined traditional categories of 'race' they would simply focus attention on much smaller populations and perhaps create new forms of racism focused on these smaller categories (what Eric Juengst, of Case Western Reserve University's Center of Biomedical Ethics, termed demic discrimination after the population genetic's concept of demes).

While Troy Duster (Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley) noted that the usefulness and appropriateness of the notion of 'race' depends critically on the context in which it is used, the discussion never got much beyond that observation, and indeed, that observation itself often seemed to get lost. There was general agreement that individuating contemporarily recognized 'races' unambiguously on the basis of genetic information will not prove to be possible. This would seem to make contemporary notions of 'race' appear socially and politically constructed, and makes population genetics out to be the enemy of the concept of 'race' as it is used in contemporary Western culture. However, it was also accepted that in populations such as the US, contemporary categories of 'race' are good predictors of risk for various genetic diseases (Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis), and that insofar as cost-effective genetic screening follows the recognition of high-risk groups, it seems clear that contemporary categories of 'race' get the countenance of genetics research. And of course, as several people pointed out, whatever the metaphysical or biological status of 'race,' it is a concept of vital importance for understanding contemporary society.

A legitimate worry, then, is that the usefulness of the concept of 'race' in one category (e.g. cost-effective genetic screening) and the implicit attention paid to it in other contexts (e.g. the use of contemporary linguistic and ethnographic data to pick out populations whose genetic distributions will be studied) will result in ordinary uses of the concept getting the gloss of scientific fact. And indeed, Marks pointed out that the result of this sort of interaction was that folk-wisdom gets blurred into scientific fact, and the results of scientific studies become infected with, for example, social prejudices. But how to keep those studies that make use of 'race' as, for example, a risk-factor for a genetic disease separate from those that try to link, say, IQ differences to notions of 'race' that hinge on different genetic distributions remained startlingly unclear.

Ironically, the dangers inherent in even relatively careful uses of the concept of 'race' was highlighted by this inability to get and stay clear on just how legitimate and important uses of 'race' (especially those that seem to rely on distinct genetic distributions) can be kept separate from those illegitimate uses that attempt to naturalize contemporary notions of what the meaning of belonging to a given 'race' is (in various social contexts). Because, of course, the conference didn't ignore the history of genetics. Several speakers reminded the conference of the early uses of primitive genetics to naturalize and legitimate what were then the contemporary categories and views of 'race' and how these uses, for example, supported various eugenics movements. The disastrous effects this had with respect to hypernationalist notions of racial superiority were, of course, noted, including the way these notions were used in the legitimization of the Nazi death camps and more recently in the ongoing genocidal violence in Bosnia and Rwanda. But the narrow focus on these sorts of (mis)uses of 'race' obscured too much of the less contentious uses of the term, and the dangers in assuming that any use was free of risk. Indeed, throughout most of the conference, most uses of concepts involving 'race' passed uncriticized (and perhaps unnoticed), even despite evocations of the ghost of Hitler.

Indeed, it was these same issues - the blurring of contexts in which socially constructed categories could be assumed useful and those in which they should be discarded - that most of the discussion of the so-called "gay gene" entirely missed. The investigation of the effects of genetic variation on variation in male sexual orientation cannot help but give contemporary notions of sexuality the gloss of science. To even phrase the question of whether or not homosexuality has an etiology that is partially genetic, the reality of the trait must be assumed, and sexual orientation accepted as a legitimate way of categorizing people. Janet Halley (Stanford University, School of Law) got closest to these issues in her discussion of the "shifting" nature of many individuals' sexual identities, and questioning the usefulness of the homosexual / heterosexual dichotomy in dealing with populations that include a significant number of such individuals. However, despite an attempt to make sense of queer politics against a background of claims that seemed premised on the bimodal nature of (at least male) sexuality, deeper questions about the possible social construction of the very forms of sexual attraction in this culture were passed over in near silence.

There was, in other words, a deep commitment to the contemporary ways of categorizing sexuality, if not necessarily to the contemporary categories themselves. While Dean Hamer (National Institute of Health, Section on Gene Structure and Regulation, N.C.I.) did hypothesize that a plausible way to account for the differences in male and female sexuality in this culture was that men and women are born into different social environments in this culture, it was not a suggestion he seemed able to take quite as seriously as the sociobiological explanations he also proffered. The possibility that it might be possible, as a culture, to move towards a conception of sexuality in which the gender of the object of desire was not an issue at all (a suggestion that follows the now-famous Foucault/Halperin line on ancient Athenian 'sexuality') was never broached, let alone seriously considered.[3] But without such considerations, the search for genes that influence sexual orientation is made to seem much more independent of the culture (or, more broadly, the environment) we happen to find ourselves in than it might otherwise seem.

The ways in which socially constructed categories become naturalized by scientific discourse, and the frightening results this can have in contemporary society, were more directly brought out in the talks by Paul Billings (Stanford University Medical Center and Veteran's Administration Medical Center) and Barbara Rothman (City University of New York, Department of Sociology and Anthropology). Unfortunately, the narrow focus of their talks (respectively, breast-cancer and genetic testing and prenatal diagnosis) somewhat obscured the importance of the broader conceptual issues to their projects. A way of reconstructing the emergent line of argument in the last session of the conference, though, was to focus on the way that once something becomes identified as a genetic disease, it simultaneously becomes a condition that is used to define people. That is, diseases with a supposed genetic etiology carry with them a sort of social and political meaning beyond those that, say, classic bacterial diseases have in contemporary culture. This is especially relevant to the way the status of people with so-called genetic diseases is changed, the way they become recreated as a type of individual, irrespective of the details of their specific genetic condition.

Part of this effect is obvious (though no less pernicious for that): many of the so-called genetic conditions that have been identified result in people known to have those genes being uninsurable and thus often unable to purchase health insurance at reasonable costs, however mild the actual problems associated with the disease itself are, or however rarely the supposed gene for the disease is expressed in individuals. Further, it has been well established that there is a link between the availability of prenatal diagnosis for various genetic abnormalities, 'therapeutic' abortions of affected fetuses, and a lack of funding for or interest in other treatment options for those conditions with which the genetic abnormalities are correlated. And again, it was noted that it is only the creation of genetic disease as as a defining type of condition, a type that does not depend on the (complex and uncertain) phenotypic expression or lack thereof of the genes at issue, that permits, as Rothman put it, disability to become doom. By overestimating risks, emphasizing costs, and pushing for results expressible in unambiguous ways (even when those results carry massive uncertainty in other dimensions), genetic testing is made to look sensible, not only in the absence of therapeutic options, but even where its use all but guarantees that therapeutic options will never be forthcoming. It is this sort of creation of genetic disease as doom that permits what Rothman referred to as micro-eugenics (eugenics policies characterized by prenatal diagnosis and abortion of affected fetuses, often explicitly in the name of saving money) to seem completely inoffensive.

But for all the undeniable power of that line of argument, the creation and support of various other socially contingent categories in these same areas (and indeed, in the same talks) went unmentioned. The clear link between saying that Ashkenazi Jews are particularly at risk for carrying the 185 del AG version of the BRAC1 mutation and the naturalization and reification of the racial category implied by that way of defining a risk population passed unnoticed. And again, it is this kind of naturalization and reification of contemporary racial notions, and especially public assumptions about the genetics of racial differences, that is so dangerous. Further, the way in which genetic testing creates a new social category, the healthy ill (those people with unexpressed genes for genetic diseases where the phenotypic expression remains uncertain), went all-but unexplored, despite the clear importance of the creation of this category to understanding the way that scientific discourse gets put into the service of contemporary social and political discourse.

And yet, it was these sorts of issues that were clearly at the heart of the conference's somewhat fuzzy focus. While the replicability of the correlation of the Xq28 markers and male sexual orientation is certainly of interest (and was the focus of the talks by both Neil Risch, of Stanford University's Department of Genetics, and Dean Hamer), it is a question of rather narrow scientific interest, and was not something of vital importance to the conference. The question that wasn't dealt with, whether any such correlation even could exist in populations with entirely different ways of conceptualizing and organizing sexuality, and hence whether research into such correlations in this society implicitly support contemporary notions of sexuality, was very much to the point.

As Frank Dukepoo (Northern Arizona University, Biology Department) noted, there is a thrill to certain kinds of technical work in genetics, a sort of technofetishist excitement generated by struggling to overcome the technical difficulties presented by work in human genetics. Equally, there is a deep reaction of disgust generated by the recognition that technofetishism has been taken to the point where, as Marks put it, the social impacts and problems generated by research are dealt with as afterthoughts, after the exciting technical issues have been solved. And to a large extent, it was these opposed reactions of excitement and disgust that the attention of the conference was focused on. But these issues were, primarily, a distraction from the hard conceptual work the attention of the conference could, and indeed should, have remained centered on.

Developing a conceptual framework that would have permitted some understanding of what was going on with the varying and shifting notions such as 'race,' 'disease,' and 'sexuality,' to emerge from the various perspectives provided by the different disciplines in attendance proved, sadly, beyond the scope of conference. And without such a framework, too many of the issues that mattered remained tucked in the background of the speakers' talks and panels' discussions. Individually excellent though those talks and discussions were, that excellence often seemed to come at the cost of the overall thematic issues that supposedly were the conference's focus.

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Notes

[1] In part because of doubts about the legitimacy of 'race' as a useful dimension of categorization, I follow the increasingly standard practice of only referring to it in scare quotes.

[2] Human Genome Diversity Project: Hearing before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, April 26, 1993, published 1993 (S.Hrg 103-317). The HGDP, proposed to Congress in 1993, has not yet begun actual sequencing work. However, individual research groups have been pursuing similar projects, albeit on much smaller scales, for some time now. Cavalli-Sforza's work is perhaps the most famous example. For an introduction to this work, see Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and Cavalli-Sforza, F. The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution (New York: Helix Books, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995).

[3] See for example Foucault, M., The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Volume 2 (New York: Random House,1985) and Halperin, D., One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 1990).