[A hybrid orchid. Photo by Mark Freeth.]
[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 2]
Genomes of indigenous people, which often include genes found nowhere else in the world, can be powerful symbols for nations that want to showcase their uniqueness.
But when the Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genómica (INMEGEN) set out to find examples of Mexico’s indigenous genome, they ran into problems. Namely, that pretty much every population in Mexico, no matter how remote, includes people of mixed ethnic ancestry.
INMEGEN’s attempts to reconstruct an indigenous identity were the focus of not one, but two talks at Harvard STS’s “Molecularization of Identity Conference“, one by Vivette García Deister–who teaches in the Science & Technology Studies department at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México– and one by Ernesto Schwartz Marin of Durham University. Since that conference was chock-full of important studies on the social dynamics around science, I’m writing a 3-part recap, of which this post is part 2. (See Part 1 here).
García Deister began her presentation by introducing the concept of Mestizaje, a blend of Native American, Spanish/European, and African heritage that characterizes Latin American countries. The majority of Mexicans are of Mestizo–or “mixed” descent–so naturally, the Mexican government wanted to know the ratios of “Amerindian”, “European”, and “African” genes in their country’s population.
To do that, they had to try to establish a baseline “Indigenous” genome to compare to their representative “Mestizo” genome. García Deister calls these hypothetical representative genomes “Genetic Avatars”.
[Interestingly, the “avatars” in the uber-successful movie Avatar are literally synthetic genetic hybrids, with human DNA spliced into Na’vi genome. Image by Michael Kordahl.]
Colonist outsiders love to look for “Genetic Avatars” because it gives them a way to quantify and tell stories about Latin American hybridity, or Mestizaje, García Deister argued. Scientists and policy makers justify it by arguing that it’s important to know their country’s history and vital to look for genetic clues to various diseases.
But does any of that make the Mexican Genome Project any less of a colonial enterprise? Not really…