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Genetic Nature/CultureReview - Genetic Nature/Culture
Anthropology and Science Beyond the Two-Culture Divide
by Alan H Goodman, Deborah Heath, and M Susan Lindee (Editors)
University of California Press, 2003
Review by Roy Sugarman Ph.D.
Jun 10th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 23)

One would have imagined that the debate between nature and nurture has died, namely, we all should by now have accepted that the human and animal genotype is constantly being modified by everything in the existent world to produce a phenotype and endotype, from the chemical molecular level right on up to the level of the most abstract environment, namely culture.  Culture is probably definable as the organism's response to the information received via the verbal and non-verbal working memories subserved by the neocortex, and modified constantly by the executive functions, and the micro-motor phenomenon of public speech made private, namely, human thought. In this vein, human creativity has allowed us to mess around with the previously inviolate and inviolable, Nature.  Then along came Dolly.

Thanks to Eric Kandel and others, we now know that such cultural information can change the way DNA is expressed in the information processing centres of the brain. This brings the rapidly expanding field of genetics thoroughly into the debate, and hence the title of this book.  This is of course not the first time the two worlds of science and humanities collide, in their different guises, nor is it the last, but the editors here have sought to bridge the gap between the two worlds of cultural and biological anthropology by inviting others into a thesis/antithesis debate, hopefully beginning the process of synthetic anthropology necessary when the two cultures, or worlds collide in a polarized way. The dynamic tension between any two seemingly disparate and polarized ideologies is always likely to be creative, and indeed at the cortical level, the tension between the verbal and nonverbal working memories is believed to allow for just that, namely human creativity, allowing for enculturation according to Russel Barkley and others.

Our burgeoning capacity to modify the genetic structures of food and animals brings a new light to the tension above, and the essays in this book reach critical mass by linking technology with biology and culture, ethics and evolution, racial phenotypes and human cultural identity, all in a multidimensional approach to analyzing the field and its complex debates.  Frankenstein and The Golem may just emerge from such a mist, politics too. Great marriages have arisen across the 20th century in such debates, one of them literally, namely Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.

Tracking through the chapters, the usual forewords and introductions are there.  Then the book embarks on the first of its two sections, namely Nature stroke Culture.  Ricardo Santos looks at indigenous people in a changing  social and political landscape contrasted with human genetics in the Amazon area, and then M Susan Lindee, one of the editors, looks at another semi-isolated group, namely the older order Amish drawing on the science-observer work of Victor McKusick observing Ellis van Crevald syndrome in this culturally sidelined group.  Karen-Sue Taussig, Rayna Rapp and one of the editors Deborah Heath take on a fascinating title with reference to flexible eugenics and the technology of self in the age of genetics.  This wonderful title relates to the experience of the congenital dwarfs in biocultural and biosocial conflict with society which seeks to find a cause for this defined disease condition, and the affected ones themselves, who, like the deaf, see themselves as normal variant with their own society and in many ways resent the understanding that they are in some way diseased and can be 'cured' or their children can.  Merely discovering the genetics of growth factors is not the end of this issue, and little people's associations have a lot to contribute to the debate around their cultural identity and the extermination of their race by engineering future genes.  The Icelandic health sector database is discussed by Hilary Rose, again, a small and geographically or culturally bounded group is the focus.

Mirroring this, a small subgroup of chapters examining the debate around animals has to begin with Dolly and what comes next, and this is Sarah Franklin; moving from sheep to sheepdogs, Donna Haraway follows with news from the world of dog genetics and Jonathan Marks (who together with Franklin came up with the idea of a conference on which this book draws for its content) continues with this books penchant for zippy titles, informing us that we are 98% chimpanzee, but also part Daffodil, perhaps 35%, going on to say that we are certainly apes, but only in the same way that we are also fish (page 146). By this Marks points out that we are certainly part of the intersecting paraphyletic category of chimps and orangutans, but in the same position with regard to coelacanths and tuna, namely that true or not, the argument holds equally in phylogentic argument that we may resemble apes, but that is an interesting yet not as profound a statement as we might like to think.

From the first section, on human populations slash genetic resources, this last chapter closes the first nature/culture section, and the approaches switch 180 degrees to the culture/nature section, which looks at all of this from the political and cultural identity side of the argument hinted at above.  Pure genes in contrast to the highly contentious issue of genetically modified organisms in the transgenic and trans-nationalised landscape of tinkering with MacDonald's is the task of Chaia (Chaia=life!) Heller and Aturo Escobar, and in this vein, the idea of the genome scientists such as Craig Venter as sociocultural entrepreneurs is taken up by Joan Fujimura, but referring here to the Japanese Genome Project.  In the country most famous for racial issues within political/cultural identities, South Africa, Himla Soodyall set out to find the commonalities amongst the various racial groups in South Africa in order to enhance the renaissance of a continent plundered by colonialism whose scientists considered many racial groups as either devoid of cortex, or worse, as sub-branches of humans rather than genetically alike.

The racial and human variation section continues with Rick Kittles and Charmaine Royal (so many nice surnames amongst these authors) looks at African Americans and the implications of mapping the disease genes and Templeton follows with another aspect of molecular genetics, namely race in the context of recent human evolution.  This importance of this field has led some of the world's most renowned anthropologists to call for molecular genetics to be included in the curricula of medical schools (see Soodyall above). Troy Duster, apart from another nice name, continues with the style of ritzy titles with "Buried Alive: the concept of race in science" and not to be outdone, Frederika A Kaestle finishes the book off with "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and the promise of the marvels hidden in ancient DNA.  Kaestle brings to the fore the issues of having separate cultures, separate worlds in this debate: all questions cannot be addressed with equal utility and study must be undertaken with much more care than most analyses in the modern world, to paraphrase her.

The book underscores that beyond the two culture divide, it is not simply a matter of discovering the science that will dissect us into our composite parts, fault find, and then apply the incisive knife that fixes and changes.  The debate is similar at times to that around the psychiatric investigation of homosexuality, and its waxing and waning apparition in the textbooks across the latter 20th century.  Investigating or finding what causes homosexuality defines it as different and thus pathological, as finding Khoi or San peoples to be different, and then finding what causes that difference assumes it can be 'cured', like dwarfism, or deafness, and leads to the extermination by cure of that condition. It cannot ever be a simple matter and worlds of race, politics, disease, ethics, genetic modification of crops and farm animals, and the cultures of each of these must clash.

This book cannot be said to settle those issues, and it was not intended to do so: to paraphrase Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end of the debate, and I am sure it is not even the end of the beginning, but perhaps only the very tiny tip of the beginning has emerged with the proceeds of the conference from which this book is drawn.

The reading of the book is made easy for even the most uninitiated, revealing the skill of the convenors of the conference in choosing those experts who, whilst being exemplars in their field, still retain the amazing capacity of good teachers worldwide to impart their information in clear and understandable ways. Not just that, it constitutes such an enjoyable book that it can be taken to bedtime reading, each chapter on its own, racy titles and all, and details recalled easily for the makings of fascinating dinner party conversation, as if Bill Bryson wrote the book alone.

In its way its rather like Bryson's recent short history of nearly everything, and since we have all read the Time magazine debates on these subjects at least, reading and imparting the content of this book is not likely to stop the conversation by boring all and sundry at the dinner table. The authors who came to this particular party, with the express mission of colliding the interfaces of biotechnology and political culture, race and humanity, genetics and nature, understand and elaborate beautifully how vital it is to unify the two cultures that have bred such quandaries, each on their own and together, and to now attempt to reconcile that divide.

Anthropology is not the first discipline or theoretical approach to humans that has had to embark on such debates.  Marxism underwent and still undergoes such analytical debate, scientific and critical Marxists divided, for, in Alvin Gouldner's words, as proletariat groups rise to power, they are forced to shake off the dialectical elements of their theories and think of liberalism and democracy in seeking universal laws, as opposed to those who might need to carry on some form of revolution, and thus cling to the nature of the dialectic.  Enlightenment rationalism is after all not enough for the two worlds debate any more than it was for others, anywhere else.

Goodman and colleagues have done sterling work here, and left us with an interesting and digestible book which launches a more synthetic field in anthropology, and in this they have apparently succeeded in "championing four-field anthropology" (page xi).

 

© 2005 Roy Sugarman

 

Roy Sugarman PhD., Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, Australia


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716