Mar 13, 2012 | Can Science Have Progressive Goals? A Discussion with Alondra Nelson

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
4-6:00 PM in Engineering 2, 599

Narratives of scientific progress are often paired with narratives about political progress, suggesting that the expansion of scientific knowledge always—or at least generally—leads to the betterment of humankind as a whole. But many socially disadvantaged and oppressed peoples contend that such “progress” is distributed unevenly and often comes at some cost to them. Alondra Nelson will share some of her research on Black politics and genetic genealogy to open a discussion on whether science can have progressive ends, if there can truly be a “science for the people,” and how science and justice can have paired or oppositional goals.

Herman Gray (Sociology) will be a respondent.

Alondra Nelson, "Can Science Have Progressive Goals?"
SJWG Rapporteur Report:
13 March 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia, spoke to us about DNA testing
in African American communities. She framed her talk with articles from Nicholas Wade and
Craig Venter that argued that genomics has not lived up to its original hype. Nelson said that
despite these pronouncements there is currently a lot going in genomics outside of medicine.
She suggested that the logics of DNA analysis have made their way into our culture as social and
political technologies.

Nelson used the popularity of the genetic ancestry testing company “African Ancestry” as her
primary example. When she conducted her fieldwork, Nelson was interested in “how and why
African Americans would put their DNA in an envelope and send it to a stranger,” especially
given the vulnerability of African American communities in the history of American biomedical
institutions. She found that “African Ancestry” appealed to pre-existing genealogical
organizations, whose members were mainly middle class women, ages 50+ engaged in practices
of “kin keeping.” In this context Nelson became interested in what she calls “the social life of
DNA,” the way that DNA and genetic technologies takes on meaning in social worlds. “The
social life of DNA” serves as a reminder that genetic technologies are not only one thing (e.g.
bio-informatic technologies tied to histories of oppression) but take on different political
possibilities in different historical and social contexts.

Nelson also found that African American consumers were drawn to “African Ancestry” because
of the involvement of a scientist named Rick Kittles. Early in his career Kittles had been
instrumental in contesting how the remains in an African American burial ground in Lower
Manhattan were classified. Familiar with the racism in the history of physiology, Kittles
believed the remains should be analyzed for what he framed as their “ethnic” origins not their
race. This earned Kittles the trust of African American communities; Nelson referred to him an
“authentic expert”—someone who is seen as authentically holding African American values and
is a scientific expert by way of his training and standing in scientific communities. Her
discussion of Kittles foregrounded how authenticity and expertise make ancestry testing a viable
option for kin-making in African American communities, and how critiques of scientific racism
have shaped biological categories (e.g., the use of ethnicity instead of race) and scientific
practices of classification, creating new ways of constructing biological kinship.

In the final part of her talk, Nelson discussed how genetic technologies were being imbricated
into issues of racial slavery and cultural memory. In the case Farmer-Paellmann v. FleetBoston,
which sought reparations for descendants of slaves who were bought and sold by a private
corporation, genetic ancestry testing was used to constitute proof of slave ancestry. This
evidence did not prove substantive, however, because the court drew a distinction between
genetic and genealogical connection, arguing that the plaintiffs needed to prove the latter. The
other example raised by Nelson was the Leon H Sullivan Foundation, which has argued that
African Americans and Africans share a linked fate. In the context of genetic technologies they
have argued that African Americans should target their philanthropy to the groups they are
genetically connected to. These two cases offered examples of people enrolling genetic
technologies in their political initiatives, claiming kinship (to slaves and African communities)
that was otherwise unknown or denied to them with other kinds of evidence. Nelson ended on
these examples to bring us to her central question: “can science have progressive goals?” If
ancestry tests have been creating new kinds of kinship that can serve as a basis for forming
political identities, are there ways to develop these potentialities further and in different

Herman Gray, Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, acted as a respondent to Nelson’s talk.
He was curious about what relationships between individuals and collectives are made in the
practice of genetic ancestry tests: What kinds of imagined communities (Benedict Anderson) do
they create? How are these communities formed? And how do they foster a sense of belonging?
Gray wondered about authority and expertise in the cases laid out by Nelson: What is the
relationship between legitimization and expert knowledge? What is the nature of people’s claims
on experts? And how do people become implicated in state projects—in particular, neoliberal
ones that emphasize individual responsibility—in these configurations of science and expertise?
What kind of politics—if any—are possible in these sorts of state projects? Finally, drawing on
critical race theorist Saddiya Hartman, Gray asked what kinds of genealogical fantasies are
created through the practice of genetic ancestry testing. In Gray’s response, he expressed more
trepidation than Nelson about the political potentials of genetic testing. He felt that the desire for
ancestry testing in African American communities played into the forms of individualism
encouraged in American society and relied on outside expertise to make authoritative knowledge

In her response to Gray, Nelson emphasized that genetics is never only about the individual, but
is a basis for affiliation. She returned to Rick Kittles, whom she characterized as having a
special kind of post-Civil-Rights expertise. Nelson also took the opportunity to flesh out her
concept of “the social life of DNA,” which she defined as an analytic that understands that there
are different spheres with different stakes in genetic technologies, but they co-authorize one
another. She also emphasized that genetic ancestry testing is a kind of politics, if we are to
define politics as people trying to make change. In this way Nelson endeavored to take seriously
the political and scientific desires of the people she interviewed rather than explaining them
away as motivated by unconscious ideologies.

During the Q&A, Ed Green asked if African American consumers were satisfied with their test
results, because he did not feel he got useful ancestry information from his own genetic testing;
the time-scale was too large. Whitney Boesel followed up on this question later by asking about
the relationship between ancestry information and medical information; did people who wanted
ancestry tests also want medical information? Lisa Petrella was curious about what Nelson meant
by “progressive”--is it about political or scientific progress? Megan Moodie wondered what the
connections and disconnections between African Americans’ interest in ancestry tests and
Mormons’. Max Tabatchnik asked how African American communities understand the difference
between race and ethnicity in the context of Rick Kittles and the politics of these biological
categories in general. Continuing the theme of political possibilities, Jenny Reardon asked what
kind of stories produced something as politically “actionable” in this context. Pierre du Plasiss
and Herman Gray were curious about the difference between a politics of recognition and a
politics of representation. Through the audience questions and Alondra Nelson’s thoughtful
responses, questions of political and scientific categories, community and identity, authenticity
and expertise, arose in their specific relationships to violent histories (slavery and scientific
racism). Without answering the question “can science have progressive goals?” Nelson
presented a complex landscape where different communities have incorporated genetic
technologies into their practices of making community and telling histories. Staying true to the
political yearnings of her interview/ethnographic subject, while asking questions from critical
race theory and Science and Technology Studies, Nelson provided compelling ways to approach
the complexities of doing politics with and through emerging technologies.

Feb 06, 2012 | Cells, Race and Stories: A Discussion with Priscilla Wald about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line

Priscilla Wald (Duke, English and the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Engineering 2, 599

4:00-6:00 PM

This event is co-sponsored with Cultural Studies, Center for Biomolecular Sciences and Engineering—Research Mentoring Institute, and the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department.

Priscilla Wald, "Cells, Race and Stories: A Discussion about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
6 February 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Priscilla Wald, Professor of English at Duke University, spoke to us about the ethical
implications of the Henrietta Lacks case, which has recently become widely known due to the
popularity of Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was
a black woman born in 1920 in Virginia, whose cancer cells were used to develop an immortal
cell line known as HeLa cells. Although these cells became important to biomedical research,
Lacks herself died of cancer on a segregated hospital ward in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her
family knew that the cells were taken from here nor did they profit from the HeLa cell line. This
case has become a touchstone for many people in thinking about bioethics in the 20th and 21st

Wald argued that many of the stories about Lacks do not help us address key issues of science
and justice. For example, some stories center around medical wrongdoing; however, it is not
clear what the specific wrongdoing was or how it could have addressed. When accounts focus
on wrongdoing they often imply that Lacks should have been treated better because she had
“special cells.” According to Wald, these stories miss the role that institutionalized racial
inequality played in the Lacks case along with hundreds of thousands of other, less spectacular

Wald’s own approach to narrating the Henrietta Lacks is located in a tradition that focuses on
structural violence. Thinkers in this tradition map the differential effects of the power through
stratified populations, analyze the language through which these structures appear to be
unchangeable, highlight where we have the responsibility to change it, chart the continuing
abuses of structural inequality, and call for reparative measures in the present for violence of the
past. Wald wants to use this model of critique as a means to redress (which has flourished in
ethnic studies) as a model for understanding scientific change and biopolitics.

Wald believes we need to pay attention to what kinds of stories are being told about Lacks and
the HeLa cell line and think about how structural racism figures in these stories. Wald gave
examples of how, after the disclosure that the cell line was developed from Lacks’ tissue, that the
cells themselves became gendered, racialized and sexed. When it appeared that HeLa cells were
making their way into other cell lines and biological specimens in laboratories, negative
language was used to describe the situation. It was said that HeLa cells were “virulent” and
“ruined” other cell lines. Racial overtones were especially evident in a case where a white
baby’s cells were “contaminated” with HeLa cells and appearing biologically “black,” leading to
racist humor about sexual promiscuity and uncertain paternity. When HeLa cells showed up in
Russian cell lines, they were figured as out of control American agents, cellular Mata Haris.
Wald argued that these racialized stories are taking the focus off of real-world solutions to
biomedical disparity. For example, talking about the Lacks case in terms of “bioslavery,”
spectacularly summoned the past to conjure a dystopian future where our tissues were no longer
our own property. According to Wald these kind of stories deflect attention from how historical
racism is still at work in the present. She argued that we should be having a better debate about
the healthcare system rather than entertaining anxieties about a sci-fi future. Wald concluded by
arguing that we should pay attention to institutional racisms and structural violence and endeavor
to turn critique into change. We need better stories that combine this kind of critique with a
belief in new possibilities.

During the discussion audience members were interested in what Wald meant by stories and
what it means to intervene at the level of the story. Sandra Harvey, who was struck by the pain
of Lacks’ family in Skloot’s book, asked how scientists could understand their pain as a way into
the justice questions. Jake Metcalf wondered if scientists have particular justice obligations in
biomedical matters. Donna Haraway argued that scientists are more responsible because
knowledge carries obligations and stories are important because they evoke the ability to care in
thicker ways. One biologist wondered what the “take home message” of the talk was and what
he was capable of doing to promote social justice. Martha Kenney affirmed her belief in
storytelling, but wondered what other caring practices scientists and others could do alongside
telling good stories. The discussion foregrounded the complex relationship between stories,
science, and biomedical justice.

Jan 31, 2012 | Scientific Research on Ayahuasca and Health

Bia Labate

Tuesday, January 31, 2012, 4-6pm

Engineering 2, 599

Beatriz Labate has studied the scientific and social features of psychoactive substances for over 15 years. In this meeting we will discuss the situation surrounding the compound ayahuasca, a psychedelic used in both medical and spiritual contexts throughout the Americas. By exploring the frontiers and limits between “therapeutic” and “religious” uses of ayahuasca (and their complicated legal implications) we will better understand the relationship between diverse forms of knowledge production associated with what have been called “sacred technologies.”

Bia Labate, "Scientific Research on Ayahuasca and Health"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
31 January 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Bia Labate, PhD Candiate in Social Anthropology at the University of Campinas, spoke to us
about the public debate and competing discourses around Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew of two
plant extracts used around the world in shamanism, healing, sorcery, divination, warfare, and
hunting. Because one of the plants, psychotria viridis, contains the Schedule I narcotic DMT,
Ayahuasca (the bush, the extract from the bush, and the preparation) has been subjected to a
number of diverse regulations worldwide. Labate showed how these regulations are embedded
in different local and global discourses, producing new meanings and uses for Ayahuasca. In
Brazil it is allowed for ritual and religious use, though not therapeutic use. Whereas in Peru it is
considered the “traditional medicine of the indigenous people” and protected as cultural heritage.
In the U.S. the regulation of Ayahuasca created tensions between religious freedom and drug
laws; for the moment religious freedom has prevailed. While in France Ayahuasca was
connected to brainwashing by cults and sects, creating a total ban that includes not just the
extract but the bush as well. Through these examples, Labate showed how Ayahuasca became
entangled in discourses of religious liberty, traditional medicine, personal use, and religious

In the second half of her talk Labate discussed competing narratives of therapeutic vs. religious
use and harm vs. healing. She showed how these categories were difficult to define and took on
different contours based on national and cultural specificities. These categories raise important
and difficult questions: How do you define a religion? How do you insert traditional medicine
into a public health system? Is scientific legitimization the only route to prove therapeutic
properties? How can we define and police cultural authenticity? As different groups try to
answer these questions, Labate argues that there is a reciprocal appropriation of legal,
anthropological, biomedical discourses. For example, the anthropological category of
“ceremony” is taken up by shamans who prepare Ayahuasca. As a sacred ceremony rather than a
practice of everyday life, “the Ayahuasca ceremony” is something that can be marketed at panindigenous
festivals. Labate concluded her talk by arguing for the space of the social sciences in
this debate; she believes that if Ayahuasca is studied only in a biomedical framework that we lose
important insights into cross-pollination of discourses and identities that happens in this collision
of legal, biomedical, and religious categories.

In the Q&A members of the audience were interested in categories that betrayed the simple
equation of Ayahuasca with DMT. Andrew Matthews, drawing from his fieldwork on forestry in
Mexico, suggested that defining Ayahuasca as more than just the drug could be important for
these questions of regulation. Guillermo Delgado suggested that it was necessary to use specific
indigenous terms for Ayahuasca use rather than use anthropological or pan-indigenous terms like
“shamanism.” Martha Kenney asked if the term “sacred technology” that appeared in the
newsletter description of the talk was a useful term in Labate’s work. Craig Reinerman asked
about the value of the sociological categories of “set and setting” for understanding how “the
same drug” can have different effects in different cultures.

As Labate answered these and other questions, she provided a greater sense of the complexity of
Ayahuasca worlds. She explained, for example, how psychotria viridis was introduced to Hawaii
(and the crisis of regulation that ensued), how she tried to understanding Ayahuasca as inducing
the experience of “becoming plant,” how “shamanism” is a term that is embraced by many
indigenous Ayahuasca preparers, and how environmental regulations were taking the place of
drug regulations in some contexts. By illustrating the complexities involved in the global
understanding and regulation Ayahuasca, Labate illustrated how the skills of social scientists can
contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

Jan 26, 2012 | Eating Information? Food and Metabolism in Epigenetic Perspective

Hannah Landecker (UCLA Center for Genetics and Society)

Thursday January 26, 2012, 3:00-5:00 PM

Engineering 2, Room 399

Epigenetics has turned food and its metabolism into a problem that is not just about how the body turns food its basic components–carbohydrates, fat, protein-but how food acts as a signal of the environment–both biological and political. Hannah Landecker will explore what this transformation of metabolism and epigenetics reveals about food, environmental politics, and the increased salience of metabolism as a sight for biological understanding and political and moral contestation.

Jan 26, 2012 | Eating Information? Food and Metabolism in Epigenetic Perspective

Hannah Landecker (UCLA Center for Genetics and Society)

January 26, 2012, 3:00-5:00 PM

Engineering 2, Room 399

Epigenetics has turned food and its metabolism into a problem that is not just about how the body turns food its basic components–carbohydrates, fat, protein-but how food acts as a signal of the environment–both biological and political. Hannah Landecker will explore what this transformation of metabolism and epigenetics reveals about food, environmental politics, and the increased salience of metabolism as a sight for biological understanding and political and moral contestation.

Hannah Landecker, "Eating Information? Food and Metabolism in Epigenetic Perspective"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
26 January 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Hannah Landecker, Associate Professor at the Society and Genetics Institute at UCLA, spoke to
us about her new book project, American Metabolism. Although the field that she is interested in
is called “nutritional epigenetics,” Landecker has reframed this research as belonging to a longer
tradition of studying “metabolism.” For Landecker, metabolism is about trans-substantiation, one
substance being changed into another. In recent nutritional epigenetics research, we see new
pathways of trans-substantiation. For example, Landecker showed us an article with a mother
mouse and her pups captioned: “They are what she ate.”

After giving us an overview of the epigenetics research, Landecker focused on the theory that
gene expression is regulated by signals from the environment, creating different phenotypes in
the presence of genetic sameness. In research on maternal anxiety behaviors, trans-generational
endocrine disruptors, and nutritional effects, we witness how licking, plastic, and food,
respectively, are presented as environmental signals. Landecker believes that the category of
“signal” is both incredibly productive and not very precise; it is under-theorized by scientists and
STS scholars. She wonders if, in the field of nutritional epigenetics, “the social” has become a

In the last part of her talk Landecker compared studies of metabolism in the late 19th century to
contemporary research in nutritional epigenetics. Early accounts of metabolism, such as those
by Thomas Huxley, figured metabolism as a set of processes the function like a factory or inner
laboratory. Landecker argued that this was an industrial paradigm for an industrial era. Key
figures and areas of emphasis were: energy, manufacturing, substrate, waste accumulation, labor
and fatigue. In the post-industrial era a new set of figures has arisen: Information, regulation,
signal (timing), functional asynchrony, sleeping and aging. She strongly believes that changes in
the framework for understanding metabolism changes what experiments are conducted and what
kind of knowledge is created. She concluded by arguing that it is important to track and
understand these changes as they are happening.

During the Q&A key questions revolved around the historical specificity of nutritional
epigenetics and issues of social and ethical responsibility arising from this new framework for
metabolism. Jake Metcalf compared responsibility in the factory model with the post-industrial
model. In the factory model, he argued, one person is responsible for the consumption of food;
in the post-industrial regulatory model, many-many humans and non-humans are responsible.
How do we delegate responsibility? Playing off of Landecker’s characterization of epigenetics
belonging to a biology of the in-between, Jenny Reardon suggests that it is difficult to regulate
the in-between. Metcalf replied that we just don’t have the models to make decision-making
viable. Landecker characterized this problem as being burdened by complexity.

This led to the question of what kind of “actionable knowledge” is created by metabolism
research and the figures that underpin it. Responding to a question by Julie Guthman about the
DES growth hormone used in cattle farming, Landecker argued that the current DES problem
was caused by the industrial model, which tried to produce as much meat possible for as little
feed as possible. In other words, the metaphors of a previous generation of science created the
material conditions of today’s farming.

The remaining questions continued to play about this interrelationship between metaphor and
materiality. Elaine Gan, for example, suggested that we think about metabolism metaphors in
Marx. Landecker explained that these were not only metaphors; Marx was deeply interested in
the science of metabolism and believed, for example, that the Irish peasants would not revolt
because they lived off of potatoes. This rich discussion foregrounded the importance of tracking
the relationship between figures, history, materiality, knowledge, and production when
considering questions of science and justice in hot new scientific fields like epigenetics.

Dispute over Lab Notebook Lands Researcher in Jail

I thought some of you might find this article interesting: basically a woman was jailed (with a $100,000 bail) for stealing ~20 of her old lab notebooks, flash drives and other materials from her former place of work. There’s also underpinnings of the subjectivity in science in the controversial nature of her earlier work. Its kind of a sad story all around, but relevant to some of what we’ve discussed this past quarter.

Dispute over Lab Notebook Lands Researcher in Jail

Science and Justice Moving Forward

akargl Says:
November 29th, 2011 at 2:40 pm edit

The quarter has gone by so fast! I’m looking forward to the interesting things we’ve brewed up for next year, and to conversations about what else to do. For my part in the blog part of these conversations, I’d like to offer a provocation:

A main thing I’d like to see in S & J’s future has to do with the kind of re-worlding going on in the occupation movement, including the hope its form may signal for the ongoing struggles with inequality within it. How might we re-world the space in which we find ourselves in such a way that we resistance-occupy it? Continue Reading Science and Justice Moving Forward

ideas, new spaces for s&j

egan Says:
November 29th, 2011 at 2:25 pm edit

Not sure if we’re supposed to be posting these, but here are my thoughts on expanded spaces for science and justice. Perhaps openings for future discussions:

1. Universe… and Pluriverses
I’m still holding out for multiplicities: other worlds and pluriverses that are historically constituted, precarious, and aleatory. How to speak about “justice” as shifting practices of inclusion and exclusion, without the promise of a Universe or the melancholy of relativisms? Continue Reading ideas, new spaces for s&j

Op-Ed Thread

icarbone Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:32 am edit

I think this may be a bit more of a rant than an Op-Ed at this point, but maybe you all can help me focus it a bit.

Frustrations over socioeconomic disparities and the influence of corporations on the US political system reached a critical point on September 17th. Protesters swarmed to Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street, and since then demonstrations have been springing up in over 1000 US cities. The Occupy movements have empowered a growing community to push for Continue Reading Op-Ed Thread

Op-Ed Pitch Thread

icarbone Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:35 am edit

The occupy movements have empowered a growing community to push for significant societal change. This change need not be confined to Wall Street. The OWS movement should inspire us all to reclaim science, technology, and the health of the natural world. The fearless abandon that protesters are exhibiting across the country can be our greatest asset in movement away from fossil fuels and towards renewable alternatives in the United States. This article will encourage the Bay area to continue building a community, and to extend the occupy movement to the greatest political and environmental threats that the global community faces.Continue Reading Op-Ed Pitch Thread