Article first published online: 22 NOV 2012
Copyright © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
American Journal of Human Biology
Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 137–138, January/February 2013
How to Cite
Madrigal, L. (2013), Book review. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 25: 137–138. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22339
- Issue published online: 18 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 22 NOV 2012
Racial Identities, Genetic Ancestry, and Health in South America: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. Edited by Sahra Gibbon, Ricardo Ventura Santos, and Mónica Sans. xvi + 256 pp. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan (St. Martin's Press). 2011. $85.00 (cloth).
Lorena Madrigal*, * Department of Anthropology University of South Florida Tampa, Florida.
This is an edited volume of contributions presented at a conference partly funded by the Wenner-Gren foundation and by the British Academy UK–Latin America/Caribbean Link Program. It consists of ten chapters divided into three sections: (1) The paradox of racial identity, (2) Genomics, genetic admixture, and health, and (3) Genetic, history, nationhood, and identity. These three headings are not entirely reflective of the diversity of chapters under them, a diversity which at times is bewildering to the reader. According to the editors, by focusing on four countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay), the authors provide the reader with representative case studies on the evolutionary history of Latin American human populations.
A common theme in several of the chapters is a contrast between the view on ethnicity/race/human variation held in the USA and that held in the countries discussed in these chapters. This is an important point to be read by USA-based students, especially those who have not traveled abroad; many of them might not be aware that there are other, equally valid culturally specific ways of classifying humans. Several chapters also examine the applications of genetics research or the perception of genetics research in the general public, whether by extreme-right groups (Santos and Maio), the Black-rights movements (Fry), or even by politicians (Sans). Thus, the volume provides us with a rare view of how human geneticists' work may be used (or mis-used), and of the public responsibility we have as biological anthropologists.
Another broad theme common to several of the chapters which sets them apart from the typical USA-edited volume is their reliance on philosophical literature in otherwise typical biological–anthropology chapters. For example, Barragán reminds us of Sir James George Frazer's principle of pre-scientific thinking (p. 54). Birchal and Peña discuss Hume's distinction between facts and values (p. 88) and Popper's theory of knowledge (p. 91). Some readers may find this distracting, while others may find it enriching.
The volume could have benefited from more careful editing so that the contributions were more standard in their format and length. Indeed, some of the chapters read like typical research papers (Florez et al.; Carnese et al.) while others read more like chapters in history books (Sans).
The chapter by Birchal and Pena (The biological nonexistence versus the social existence of human races: can science instruct the social ethos?) reviews data on the origin of modern humans and on the distribution of human variation. It critiques recent attempts to revive the concept of race by human geneticists and articles written in the popular media about such attempts (p. 77). Birchal and Pena then take their chapter to the next level, and ask a provocative question.
Should scientific knowledge instruct society? Given that racism has plagued human societies for centuries, what are the practical consequences of the knowledge they just reviewed in their chapter? To wit, Birchal and Pena write: “…the racist speech is weakened without the support of scientific data. Science cannot say what we ought to do, but it does forbid us to walk on certain paths; when it says ‘what is not,’ it delivers us from errors and prejudices” (p. 92). Indeed, Birchal and Pena argue that since … “there is no sense in talking about races from the biological point of view, we should also avoid the social use of this category.” (p. 92–93). These are powerful statements that should make readers of the AJHB ask why in the USA racial categories are used not only by the Census office, but also by doctors and even human geneticists and some anthropologists.
I recommend that the chapter by Penchaszadeh (Forced disappearance and suppression of identity of children in Argentina: experiences in genetic identification) be part of graduate seminars in biological, cultural, applied anthropology, as well as in seminars on medical and bio-ethics. I have rarely read anything so moving which yet is about the field of human genetics. In this chapter, Penchaszadeh describes the historical events which led to political oppression under military rule in Argentina, with the subsequent disappearance of untold numbers of dissidents, and the appropriation of the dissidents' children by torturers and government officials. It was after the relaxation of military rule that the fields of forensic anthropology and human genetics under the compassionate leadership of Clyde Snow and Mary Claire King developed in Argentina, aided by the heroic organization of Grandmothers looking for their missing grandchildren. The chapter includes several moving stories of actual “appropriated” children and of how genetics techniques were used to solve their identity. Penchaszadeh does not shy away from discussing complex issues such as the question of nature vs. nurture in personality, as some of these children claim that their biological parents' DNA was responsible for their own political views.
In sum, this volume should be acquired by libraries in Universities with programs in Latin American Studies, Anthropology, Sociology, and Bio-ethics. Although not all the chapters are of the same caliber, those discussed here make the purchase worth it. If geneticists, MD's, and anthropologists in the USA question their continuing use of the word race after reading Birchal and Pena's chapter, the effort of editing this book will have been worthwhile. If people around the world say “never again” after reading Penchaszadeh's chapter, we will all be the better for it.