Big Biology, Infrastructure, and Race: How genomics became imbricated in representations of race and how race representations became imbricated in genomics
Do the new genomics undo our understandings of races as social constructions? This talk analyzes biomedical statistical genomics technologies and data to demonstrate that genetic differences are clinal and therefore do not map onto racial categories. Why then are some geneticists, sociologists, and news media interpreting the new genomic data to say that race categories are biological and genetic categories? In the 1990s, geneticists began to build ad hoc infrastructures as “short-cuts” to quickly find genomic markers that would lead them to the many genes they suspected were involved in common complex diseases. But each infrastructure was not enough, so they built another. At this time, we have layers of infrastructures, each supporting the other, each based on the previous. Genetics is now in a time of “big science,” “big data.” But infrastructures are not innocent. They carry with them practices based on assumptions of “genome geography,” some of which have become embedded in the infrastructure. The Hapmap is one such infrastructure that incorporated notions of population differences that some have read as ancestral differences that some downstream users have read as racial differences. In a situation of uncertainty, ambiguity, and many folk assumptions about social differences, some geneticists, sociologists, media members, and members of various publics have read race into the differences that were constructed using algorithmic technologies of difference. We conduct an archaeology of the assumptions and practices built into the layers of infrastructure, which we use to argue against the reading of race into DNA clusters.
Nonetheless, fundamental assumptions rooted in this dichotomy still pervade early modern history of science and intellectual history, and consequently, we still misunderstand the transformations that took place between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Taking the role of quantification in historical scholarship as a test case, my chapter proposes that mapping the flow of practices across intellectual communities will supply a new logic and narrative for early modern intellectual history. This approach, I argue, will deepen our understanding of the linkages joining early modern Europe’s cultures of knowledge, while also demonstrating how the formation of disciplines and the cleavage of science from the humanities in the late seventeenth century was itself achieved through shifts in practice.
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