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Ordering Nature, Ordering the Polity: The Case of the Human Genome Diversity Project

by SKeira Jul 16, 2015
When Sep 25, 2003
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where Foster Auditorium, 101 Pattee Library
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Lecturer in Biology, Brown University

Jenny Reardon received her Ph.D. from the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University in 2002, and is currently a Lecturer in Biology at Brown University. Her book, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press in the fall of 2004.

Ordering Nature, Ordering the Polity: The Case of the Human Genome Diversity Project

In the summer of 1991, human genome scientists and population geneticists proposed a project to sample and archive human genetic diversity by collecting and preserving the genomes of "isolated indigenous populations” around the globe. They promised the effort would result in enormous advances in understanding human origins and evolution. Their proposal, which became known as the Human Genome Diversity Project, generated early enthusiasm, and secured U.S. government funds for planning workshops. However, soon thereafter vocal criticism emerged. Some critical physical and biological anthropologists accused Project organizers of reimporting racist categories into science. Indigenous rights leaders dubbed the initiative the "Vampire Project," and said it was more interested in collecting the blood of indigenous people than in their well-being. More than a decade later, the Project remains largely a series of unimplemented texts.

This talk tries to make sense of this protracted stalemate. It tells the story of the Diversity Project within an emerging analytic framework in science and technology studies (S&TS) that seeks to understand the "co-production" of natural and social order. By drawing together analyses of scientific knowledge with analyses of political institutions and social structures, this framework clarifies the ways in which bringing a new object into being (like ‘human genetic diversity’) requires producing not only scientific ideas and practices, but also norms of ethical practice and credible governing arrangements.

Through historical and ethnographic analysis of key debates about the status of ‘groups’ in the Project, this talk will explore the work of co-production done, and not done, by Diversity Project organizers to resolve longstanding debates about the role that human group categories, in particular race, should play in ordering both human biological diversity and good governance. It will argue that rather than transcending the longstanding problems of defining human differences in liberal democratic societies committed to the principle of human equality, contemporary genomic research only offers a new stage for old struggles.