Postscript to Human Genome Diversity Project and the Precession of Simulacra
This essay, written in 1998, considered the opposition by some indigenous peoples to the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and focused particularly on the way that certain indigenous populations were treated as doomed “isolates of historic interest” in the designing of the HGDP. The essay compares the logic embedded in the HGDP (in which living populations are treated, in some sense, as effectively already dead – as walking talking warm containers of interesting copies of DNA which would be best kept in frozen sample vials) to the logic animating Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra.
It argues that Baudrillard’s “exposé” of simulation has far less critical force in a context when it is so openly deployed as scientific common sense, and that the effective opposition of indigenous people to its deployment means that the “fantasy enclosure of the simulacrum” is hardly as total as his (un)critical theory supposes (Lowrey 1998: 48). As I put it, “the politics of opposition to bio-prospecting is demonstrating in practice that the semiotic order can be accessed and is definitely worth struggling for, notwithstanding emphatic insistence from some quarters that it is (1) bad for you and (2) passé anyway” and that “an oppositional position is being staked within the terms of that discourse” (1998: 51).
When I was contacted to write a postscript about this essay, which I wrote early in my graduate school career, I was of course tremendously flattered. I thought I had probably best begin by looking up what had happened to the HGDP in the nearly 20 years since my essay’s optimistic publication. It turns out that despite ferocious opposition and criticism, the HGDP never really went away. In 2005, much of it morphed into the privately funded (from the information technology sector – IBM and Gateway) Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society and carries on today.
The Genographic Project was headed, during its first decade (2005-2015), by Spencer Wells. A bit of Wikipedia surfing led me to the fact that Dr. Wells is a recipient of both the Walter P. Kistler book award (for The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey) and the Kistler Prize. A previous recipient of the book award is Steven Pinker, for The Blank Slate; fellow awardees of the Kistler Prize include E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (HGDP lead scientist), Thomas Bouchard, Doreen Kimura, and Charles Murray. Walter P. Kistler, who died in 2015, was the principal donor to the eugenicist Pioneer Fund after its directorship was taken over in 2002 by the Canadian scientific racist J. Philippe Rushton (Beirich 2008).
The final award of the Kistler book prize to authors of science books that “significantly increase the knowledge and understanding of the public regarding subjects that will shape the future of our species” in 2011, before its associated foundation apparently ceased operating, was to Laurence C. Smith for The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. It is a genuinely interesting book. Given its Kistler-approved company I was expecting much worse. I am now a faculty member at the University of Alberta. I enjoyed – and learned from – Smith’s treatment of the development of the North generally and Alberta’s tar sands particularly. Still, you could see why the book was a Kistler pick – and this brings me back to the “future” theme of this virtual edition of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
Smith tells us: “By 2050, I expect much of sub-Saharan Africa – the cradle of our species – to be a dilapidated, crowded, and dangerous place” (2010: 40). So much for anybody stuck there, but things will be looking up for everybody in the North – and not just its whites, mind you. Highly skilled immigrants (mostly from Asia) and the Northern countries that welcome them (hint: not Russia) will do well, as will Northern indigenous peoples who have the right can-do attitude (hint: most indigenous peoples don’t). This is because “a serious attitude contrast exists between the people of Iqaluit and the far larger numbers of aboriginal groups scattered in hundreds of impoverished reservations throughout southern Canada and the coterminous United States” (2010: 205). The former have “blown up the traditional model of Aboriginal Reservation and replaced it with a new one of Aboriginal Business” (2010: 207).
The situation of aboriginal people elsewhere is “unfair” but one of “no hope… There will not be another Nunavut” (2010: 213). Certainly not in Russia, where aboriginal people live in “gritty, impoverished, multiethnic villages rife with unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide” (2010: 217). Anthropologists might “romanticize” them, but nobody else should. In fact, “Nordic and Russian aboriginal policies encourage the mummification of aboriginal people and their historical practices into bits of living folklore. By not going far enough, the new legal protections—well intentioned and keenly desired by their subjects as they may be—lapse into paternalism, pure and simple…. These cultures are denied the right to evolve” (2010: 219; italics mine). The book ends on the next page, with a happy picture of what the “evolution” will look like, full of pipelines, flowing gas, and, in an (unintentional?) parody of Marx, people who “run their business corporations in the morning and go hunting in the afternoon.”
So far, so discouraging. Twenty years along and here we are back at the jolly predictions of the imminent demise of living indigenous peoples characterized as the walking dead (mummies even), the airy writing-off of all of sub-Saharan Africa as a place the glorious winners of the North might long ago have been “born” in (as a species) but whose current and future denizens are definitive no-hopers going forward.
In re-reading this essay from my own past and tracing its current resonances I feel like everything I’ve done since its writing is connected to it: a new project with a colleague about transhumanism and its rather creepy aspirations to selective, elitist immortality; current collaborations in the field of disability studies with its rousing “Not Dead Yet” activism on the part of people constantly declared almost dead or better off dead; my ongoing research with Isoseño people in the Bolivian Chaco, beginning with my doctoral fieldwork, which has given me a set of perspectives and relationships from which all of these sonorous declarations about doomed Southerners and their worldviews and their ways of life look truly, madly, and deeply silly.
This is part of what I anticipated, I think, when I first wrote the essay—though I didn’t quite know it then. It is part of what makes the practice of anthropology, I believe, so fundamentally reassuring about life, the universe, and everything. It’s true that indigenous peoples and their protests (and still less anthropologists and their never-cited critical contributions) haven’t stopped the steaming ahead of the HGDP, the Genographic Project, thinly disguised racism, or cheerfully boosterish annihilating business-friendly death machine bookprize futurism. The world and the world’s people remain stubbornly lumpy, unpredictable and unsimulated even so.
Beirich, Heidi. 2008. “Walter P. Kistler becomes sole donor to the racist Pioneer Fund.” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, May 20th. Accessed July 30, 2016.
Smith, Laurence C. 2010. The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. New York: Dutton.
Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. Kathleen has carried out fieldwork with Guaraní speaking indigenous peoples in the Gran Chaco region of South America since 1997. In 2013 she began a new research and teaching collaboration with the Skills Society of Edmonton, which works with adults with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries. A key interpretant across her work is the notion of “humbug”, and the ways that different cultural contexts ask people to doubt, deny, or disavow different aspects of human experience. In the Guaraní context, she focused on shamans, who were particularly charged with the local cultural work of mediating power and vulnerability and who were sometimes exalted and sometimes excoriated as a consequence. In the Canadian context, she focuses on disability support workers, whose community duties and community status are subject to a similarly ambivalent handling.