Elise K. Burton

Apr 29, 2021

Genetic Crossroads

The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity

Stanford University Press 2021

Elise K. Burton’s important book, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity (Stanford University Press, 2021), documents how race and nation became fused in concept and in political practice. Over the past century, nation-building and race-making became interdependent through the sciences of heredity and their uses during wartimes and their aftermaths. The book provincializes Euro-American histories of science by centering the intrepid and non-innocent scientists from land along the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea (often called by the imperial name of “Middle East”)—and their transnational networks. 

The book tracks how scientists’ reputations, access to resources, and interpretations of data shifted from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the repackaged race science around World War II, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the lingering state-backed violence of the present day. The sciences of heredity—including physical anthropology and medical genetics—have continued to be used to justify violence and territorial occupation, as much as humanitarian “resettlement” programs, storage of biospecimen, and building of research infrastructures for a cosmopolitan science. Today, “the anti-racist, progressive discourses surrounding contemporary human genome projects have so far been unable to overcome the territorial regimes and ethnic concepts produced by a century of conflict,” Burton writes, because “nationalism is sustained by particular practices of human genetics research—specifically, the need to describe human populations according to geography and ancestral history, coinciding with the two major constituent elements of the nation-state paradigm.”

The interview refers to the important, related work of Jenny Bangham, Emma Kowal, Joanna Radin, Gayle Rubin, and Kim TallBear. The conversation was a collective interview by Vanderbilt Master’s students in Laura Stark’s seminar, Critical Bioethics: Jazmyn Ayers, Kell Coney, Anyssa Francis, Caroline Goodman, Lily Jaremski, Natalie Jones, Ashley Mullen, Enna Pehadzic, Olivia Post, Karrie Raymond, Christina Rosca, Cecile Sahel, Chad Smith, and McKenzie Yates.

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Laura Stark

Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, and Associate Editor of the journal History & Theory.

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