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<nettime> The DNA of Culture
Eugene Thacker on Sun, 25 Jan 2004 06:50:14 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The DNA of Culture

The DNA of Culture

The Journey of Man, PBS, 2003

>From WIPs to DNA? Usually I don't have a huge problem with PBS documentaries 
on bioscience. There are other things to complain about: special-interest 
health care policies in the US, the media fear-factor of the "disease of the 
month" (now chicken-flu), and the zombie-mania of the US Bioterrorist Act. 
But check out The Journey of Man, a NOVA science documentary produced in 
2003, which might be subtitled "The Benetton Theory of Genetics." The 
Journey of Man is a documentary that, in its own bizarre way, suggests that 
globalization is about DNA, and that DNA can explain race and ethnicity. It 
is one of a string of recent examples of how biotech is consciously 
fashioning itself as a global industry. Or, put another way, The Journey of 
Man consciously fashions genetics as global, but it does so in a way that 
masks or hides the ways in which this global science is linked to a global 
industry in intellectual property, market-driven health care, and 

But perhaps I am, in a way, giving the program too much credit. The Journey 
of Man is so full of problems that one is overwhelmed at where to start. 
First off, a cynical comment: The Journey of Man is basically an excuse for 
a privileged, American geneticist to take a vacation around the world. 
Travel the world, take a few blood samples, be the host of your own TV show 
- what could be better? The Journey of Man shows population geneticist 
Spencer Wells re-tracing the steps of the earliest human beings. Wells 
begins with Africa, then on to Australia, India, China, Russia and finally 
to Europe and America. Along the way Wells also takes genetic samples of 
volunteers in order to build up a set of genetic markers to tell his genetic 
narrative: that each individual on this planet is related to every other 
individual, that "we" have a common genetic heritage, one that originates in 
Africa, and spreads outwards to Australia, China, and the Middle East. But 
The Journey of Man ultimately fails in its quest: in setting out to prove 
that genetics can explain race and ethnicity, it ultimately ends up showing 
how genetics is totally unable to account for cultural and social factors.

There is something that makes me uncomfortable in seeing a very American 
geneticist supposedly hanging out with African bushmen and Afghanis, 
Pakistanis and Native Americans, generously sharing with each group the 
irrefutable origin narrative of genetics. (Upon first meeting an African 
bushman tribe, Wells, indulging in a bit of physiognomy, immediately notes 
how he can see the myriad of human races in the foreheads, cheekbones, and 
bodily features of the tribespeople.)

The premises which the program makes are twofold: First, that all human 
beings on the planet - and all their ancestors - are "related" via their 
DNA. This is, in a nutshell, the idea behind genetic archaeology, or the use 
of molecular genetics technologies to discern archaeological and 
anthropological relationships. One popular field has been the use of genetic 
analysis to construct or re-construct human racial lineages, thereby re-
telling the "story of man." The idea is that genetics can tell the story of 
the "journey of man," a journey which presumably extends from the Dark 
Continent to the Developed World. The problem is that The Journey of Man 
intimates that the genetic narrative of man is also a progress narrative, 
from the primitive cultures of African plains to the electronic pulse of 
American cities. 

The second premise is implicit in the first, and only emerges near the 
program's end. That premise is that "our" common genetic heritage serves as 
the ground for seeing all human beings and cultures as being essentially 
alike. The biggest and most obvious problem with The Journey of Man has to 
do not with science but with culture. At every step of the way, Wells 
encounters dissent from his so-called ancestors. Wells' genetic narrative is 
Janus-faced: on the one hand it sets itself up as irrefutable science, and 
on the other hand it also claims to explain something about the universality 
of "the human," irrespective of cultural difference, the particular, the 
local, the translocal. African Bushmen, Australian Aboriginals, Native 
Americans - each ethnic group Wells visits directly questions his scientific 
proposition. But they question him not on the details of his science, but on 
the level of culture. One instance is instructive. After an elaborate 
lecture in genetics, an Aboriginal tribesman plainly states he does not 
believe Wells' "story" about the common genetic roots of all human beings. 
The reason? The tribesman points to the long tradition of stories, myths, 
and cultural traditions that explicitly state that the origin of Aboriginal 
tribes is Australia, and not in Africa. The only response Wells can come up 
with is that perhaps genetics is the Western world's own story or myth about 
origins. This is, to my mind, the real message of this documentary. 

But mostly, the individuals, families, and communities Wells visits just 
smile or even laugh while he tells and re-tells his genetic narrative, 
almost like a genetic salesman...

Now the issue obviously isn't who's right and who's wrong. But what is 
important is that at each step of the way, Wells encounters an irreducible 
difference between Western science and local cultural traditions. Put 
another way, the only thing The Journey of Man proves is that the supposedly 
universal, global science of genetics is anything but global (or local). 
Irreducible differences between science and culture, the global and the 
local, race and ethnicity, pop up at each step of the way on Wells' own 

In fact, the documentary is framed narratologically as a giant detective 
story: the geneticist is the sleuth, the evidence or clues are DNA samples, 
the "scene of the crime" different continents and countries, and the "crime" 
itself? Perhaps the crime is simply being different, for the aim of The 
Journey of Man is nothing less than to use population genetics to show the 
universality of the "us" or "we." In fact, the most preposterous statement 
Wells makes comes at the close of the documentary: "We are all literally 
'African' under the skin."

One thing is certain from this documentary, and that is that The Journey of 
Man is a documentary that purports to be about genetics, but is really about 
culture. This is, I agree, an easy target, and a part of me is still trying 
to see programs and books like this in a more complex way, as more than 
attempts to use biology to answer problems that are social, economic, and 
political. But it is hard for me to see this documentary, and fields such as 
population genetics, as disconnected from the medical and economic interests 
of drug development, intellectual property, and the growing hegemony of 
Western/American healthcare systems. A disconcerting scenario comes into my 
mind: if research like this can convince people in various cultures that 
genetics is the answer to the questions of social and cultural origins, then 
it follows that genetics is also the answer to medicine and healthcare, and 
it then follows that a market-based healthcare system is in turn the answer 
to delivering genetic medicine to the "rest" of the world. This is 
reductive, I know, but the clear impression of The Journey of Man is that, 
along his travels, Wells encounters not DNA sequences or test tubes, but 
rather cultural difference, economic hardship, political unrest, unequal 
social development, religious fervor, and suspicion of American culture. 
Wells' "incredible story" of DNA has very little to say in the face of such 
difficult issues.

My big question to Wells is this: why? Why is it so significant to travel 
around the world and lecture people from different cultures about genetics? 
Perhaps the aim is to foster a greater sense of community among the human 
race, or some such idealistic notion. But if this is the aim, surely we need 
more than DNA for that...

Finally, a footnote: Wells himself comes from an interesting professional 
lineage. His mentor, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, is a well-known population 
geneticist, a researcher largely acknowledged for playing a key role in the 
development of  the field of population genetics. Cavalli-Sforza is also 
well known as one of the lead researchers of the Human Genome Diversity 
Project (HGDP), an NIH-funded programmed initiated in the early 1990s. The 
goal of the HGDP was to collect genetic samples from thousands of 
genetically-isolated populations world-wide. The reason was twofold: first, 
to assemble something resembling a genetic archaeology of the human race, 
and second, to make use of these samples for the development of effective 
genetic medicines. Cavalli-Sforza's name, and the HGDP project, gained media 
attention when activist groups such as RAFI showed that project teams had 
filed patents for a number of the genetic samples, without fully informing 
the communities from which the samples were taken. By 1996 the HGDP had 
dropped several of its patent claims and had publicly issued a set of 
protocols for the acquisition of biological and genetic samples. All of 
this, needless to say, was not mentioned in the documentary.

- Eugene Thacker

Eugene Thacker, PhD
Literature, Communication, & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology

eugene.thacker {AT} lcc.gatech.edu

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