The Social Life of DNA

The Social Life of DNA

Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome

Book - 2016
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The unexpected story of how genetic testing is affecting race in America

We know DNA is a master key that unlocks medical and forensic secrets, but its genealogical life is both revelatory and endlessly fascinating. Tracing genealogy is now the second-most popular hobby amongst Americans, as well as the second-most visited online category. This billion-dollar industry has spawned popular television shows, websites, and Internet communities, and a booming heritage tourism circuit.

The tsunami of interest in genetic ancestry tracing from the African American community has been especially overwhelming. In The Social Life of DNA , Alondra Nelson takes us on an unprecedented journey into how the double helix has wound its way into the heart of the most urgent contemporary social issues around race.

For over a decade, Nelson has deeply studied this phenomenon. Artfully weaving together keenly observed interactions with root-seekers alongside illuminating historical details and revealing personal narrative, she shows that genetic genealogy is a new tool for addressing old and enduring issues. In The Social Life of DNA , she explains how these cutting-edge DNA-based techniques are being used in myriad ways, including grappling with the unfinished business of slavery: to foster reconciliation, to establish ties with African ancestral homelands, to rethink and sometimes alter citizenship, and to make legal claims for slavery reparations specifically based on ancestry.

Nelson incisively shows that DNA is a portal to the past that yields insight for the present and future, shining a light on social traumas and historical injustices that still resonate today. Science can be a crucial ally to activism to spur social change and transform twenty-first-century racial politics. But Nelson warns her readers to be discerning: for the social repair we seek can't be found in even the most sophisticated science. Engrossing and highly original, The Social Life of DNA is a must-read for anyone interested in race, science, history and how our reckoning with the past may help us to chart a more just course for tomorrow.
Publisher: Boston : Beacon Press, [2016]
ISBN: 9780807033012
0807033014
9780807033029
Branch Call Number: 305.896 NELSON
Characteristics: xiii, 200 pages ; 24 cm

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RuthAlice
Mar 11, 2016

I was very eager to read The Social Life of DNA. I am interested in genetics and the socio-political implications of DNA research and testing.

Alondra Nelson has a very disciplined framework for The Social Life of DNA. She writes about the history of ethnic genotyping through research mitochondrial DNA (maternal) and Y-chromosome DNA (paternal) and some of the ambiguities that arise.

Nelson also looks at how DNA has been used around the world in reconciliation projects such as restoring the stolen children of Argentina to their grandparents and their biological families. DNA has also been used in seeking reparations. Some of the most interesting chapters of the book detail the history, the research and legal strategies of more than 100 years of seeking reparations for the crimes of slavery. The suits against the insurance and banking companies that profited as supporting industries of slavery by insuring slave ships and slaves and lending money for loan purchases are fascinating even though stymied by sovereign immunity and the ridiculous requirement that plaintiffs prove a direct descent from individual slaves insured by these companies knowing full well that censuses did not names slaves in the census records.

Another interesting section looked at the current movement of reconciliation through DNA testing to find one’s ethnic affiliation in Africa, to travel and connect with “kin” and form bonds. Some people, like the actor Isaiah Washington, have even applied for and been granted dual citizenship as many countries will award dual citizenship based on DNA evidence that African Americans are children of this most consequential involuntary diaspora. Nelson suggests it is possible that this growing interest in returning to the motherland may arise out of disappointment with the retrenchment of civil rights advancements and the frustration of the reparations movement.

Nelson appears well aware than writing about race and genetics is fraught with peril. Adding reparations and reconciliation to the mix just adds more potential for controversy, so she is exceedingly careful to maintain a strict academic tone. This made the book a bit of a chore. For example, when a woman gets her test results back indicating that her ethnic African heritage most likely comes from Sierra Leone and Liberia. Before heading off to Africa, she wants to do a little more digging, to see if she can get a little further back in America before she goes. She seems more interested in Sierra Leone because her late brother-in-law was from there. Except, that is not how Nelson tells us this. Instead, she writes “Her intentions to engage in practices motivated by the findings she received from African Ancestry after she advanced with her conventional genealogy underscores the interpretive work that commences following the receipt of genetic genealogy results. This more deliberative process can involve root-seekers’ efforts to align the DNA analysis with other information about their ancestry as well as with their expectations, prior expectations or existing relationships.” It is a hard slog, I tell you.

This is unfortunate, because there are moments when Nelson writes passionately and then her prose is beautiful and moving. Those moments are few, but I still think the book is worth the effort. The history is interesting and America needs to understand its history. Reconciliation cannot happen in ignorance. I think this is an important book. I would have rated this book higher if it were not, on occasion, quite so tediously detailed, for example, listing the locations of one organization’s conferences over several years, detailing the city, country and year for all of them. My eyes glossed over and I got lost in detail. I wanted more forest, fewer trees.

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