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This article explores a scientific technology—mitochondrial analysis—that underlies contemporary technoscientific phenomena such as genetic ancestry tests, ethnic diversity projects, and national genome projects. The article focuses on the figure of “Mitochondrial Eve,” the most recent common matrilineal ancestor of modern humans, who lived in Africa a few hundred thousand years ago. Introduced by Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan Wilson in 1987, Mitochondrial Eve became the object of an intense scientific and cultural debate, appearing in numerous journal articles and on the cover of Newsweek magazine, as well as in media commentaries on gender roles and popular culture. Through a critical reading of the press coverage of the mitochondrial debate between 1987 and 2000, this article explores an evolving set of cultural emotions, including hope, celebration, suspicion, and anxiety that shaped the idea of human ancestry during the debate. The article argues that the introduction of “Y-chromosome Adam” in 1995 marked a key shift in these affective negotiations, as it engendered a strictly heteronormative and symbolically white dynamic that rendered safe the feminist and multicultural potential suggested in early commentaries. The article concludes by considering how the affective politics of the mitochondrial debate inform the affective politics of today’s biotechnologies.
Mitochondrial Eve and the Affective Politics
of Human Ancestry
Winner of the 2015 Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding
Feminist Scholarship
In today’s genomic science, race and gender are characteristically fickle
concepts, as feminist and postcolonial technoscience scholars have often
cautioned. On the one hand, race and gender disappear in the language
of information science, emerging as statistical details or molecular codes
rather than embodied categories of identity ðHaraway 1997; Thacker
2006; Chow-White 2012Þ. As cultural studies scholar Eugene Thacker
puts it, genomics has become “an informatics of the population in which
cultural issues ðethnicity, cultural diversityÞare translated into informa-
tional issues” and thereby marginalized and depoliticized ðThacker 2006,
167Þ. On the other hand, genetic models of race and gender proliferate
new forms of gendered and racialized belonging that may have momen-
tous political and social implications. The use of forensic DNA testing to
determine a suspect’s racial background ðKahn 2012; Sankar 2012Þ, the
online marketing of genetic ancestry tests to consumers seeking their roots
ðSkinner 2006; Nelson 2008a, 2008bÞ, and pharmaceutical products tai-
lored for a particular gendered or racial group ðFausto-Sterling 2004; Lee
2009Þredefine individual rights, identities, and experiences in often prob-
lematic ways.
This article proposes that the ambivalent role of race and gender as both
informational and embodied in genomics arises from a scientific history
characterized by shifts, erasures, and continuities. Thus, in order to un-
derstand the political consequences of today’s genomics, we need to in-
terrogate the historical processes that engendered the current representa-
tion of human difference as statistical and yet emotional, informational and
yet embodied, significant and yet insignificant. The article focuses on one
This research is part of a three-year postdoctoral project funded by the Academy of Finland.
The idea for the article took shape during my visit to the Centre for Gender and Women’s
Studies at Lancaster University, where I presented an early version of this article. I would like to
thank my Lancaster colleagues for their helpful observations and suggestions. I would also like
to thank the two anonymous readers for the journal for their insightful comments.
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2015, vol. 40, no. 3]
© 2015 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2015/4003-0009$10.00
Venla Oikkonen
key genealogy that underlies this understanding of human difference: the
emergence of the population genetic study of mitochondrial ancestry.
Such contemporary practices as genetic ancestry tests and ethnic diversity
projects utilize technological and theoretical developments within the
study of mitochondrial ancestry. My approach follows the strand of sci-
ence studies that emphasizes the connection between the genealogy of
scientific phenomena and the future orientation of scientific innovation.
Feminist anthropologist Sarah Franklin’s Dolly Mixtures ð2007Þ, a study
of the famous cloned sheep Dolly, is a powerful example of this approach
to the past. Franklin’s method of “genealogical reckoning” ð2007, 127Þ
posits her ovine protagonist as “both a frontier and a horizon” ð5Þ, noting
that “the forms of order that made Dolly possible are organized in ways that
have profoundly shaped the pastand will have effects on the future that
are, in part, discernible from these histories” ð10Þ. Thacker’s The Global
Genome ð2006Þprovides a related and similarly effective way of reading
scientific genealogy. Thacker’s examination of twenty-first-century geno-
mics posits population genetics as “an extension of the informatics and
biological aspects of Foucauldian biopolitics” associated with eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century scientific and demographical work ð153Þ. This his-
torical trajectory enables Thacker to critique central population genetic
conceptspopulation, informationas well as identify future tendencies
that organize the field.
Working from a similar genealogical perspective, this article traces the
history of mitochondrial analysis in science and popular discourse, con-
necting its discursive, imaginative, and affective tendencies to today’s
biotechnological phenomena. Inherited maternally, mitochondrial DNA
ðmtDNAÞprovides a unique viewpoint on how gender organizes human
ancestry. The history of mitochondrial analysis also demonstrates how as-
sumptions about human difference as statistical information and yet as em-
bodied identity took shape and circulated long before our postgenomic age.
Mitochondrial DNA became the object of an intense scientific and public
debate in the late 1980s, as mitochondrial mutations were used to evaluate
the early migrations of human populations. In a landmark paper published in
the prestigious journal Nature in 1987, Berkeley scientists Rebecca Cann,
Mark Stoneking, and Allan Wilson ð1987Þintroduced a prehistoric female
figure, the most recent common maternal ancestor of currently living hu-
mans, from whom all modern human mtDNA is derived. Dubbed “Mito-
chondrial Eve” or “African Eve” in the debate that followed, this female
ancestor raised intense affective reactions ranging from awe and admiration
to rage and frustration. These affective responses indicate that the idea of
human evolution is deeply entangled with cultural assumptions of gen-
der, sexuality, and race.
748 yOikkonen
My article focuses on this affective dynamic. I propose that the affective
underpinnings of the debate about mitochondrial ancestry and the figure
of Mitochondrial Eve ðhenceforth: “mitochondrial debate”Þplayed a key
role in the entanglement of the informational and embodied in genetic
discourses of human difference. Furthermore, I argue that by exploring
the affective politics of the mitochondrial debate, we may better under-
stand why today’s genetic practices such as ancestry tests or research on
human diversity appeal to us, and how that appeal is gendered and racial-
ized. In what follows, I first examine the incendiary scientific debate that
Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s mitochondrial paper engendered.
This is
followed by a discussion of the representational politics in the media cov-
erage of Mitochondrial Eve. I then turn to another prehistoric figure, “Y-
Chromosome Adam,” which appeared in the mid-1990s, as Y-chromosome
history emerged as an evolutionary parallel and methodological corrective
to mitochondrial ancestry. The figure of Adam gave rise to familiar hetero-
sexual scenarios, thereby rendering safe some of the openly feminist and
multicultural potential of the early visions of our mitochondrial past. The
final sections elaborate on the affective dynamic of the mitochondrial debate
through Sara Ahmed’s work on how cultural emotions take shape through
objects. The article concludes with a discussion of the connections between
the affective politics of the mitochondrial debate and today’s biotechnolog-
ical practices.
My analysis is based on a range of scientific and mass media sources. I
traced the scientific debate through citations in articles and through com-
mon academic databases such as JSTOR . I collected press accounts of
the debate through the LexisNexis database using “Mitochondrial Eve”
as the search term and focusing on the years 19872000.
The media texts
located through the search were mostly newspaper and news magazine arti-
cles from the United States and the United Kingdom, although the search
also engendered texts in popular science magazines such as New Scientist
as well as short news reports from Australian, Canadian, and South African
newspapers. My analysis focuses on texts that invoke gender, sexuality, or
race. This means that I have left out texts that discuss the cultural tensions
between mitochondrial ancestry andthe biblical narrative of creationalink
The research in question took place in Allan Wilson’s lab at Berkeley, where Cann
worked as a postdoctoral researcher and Stoneking as a graduate student. When discussing
the research done at Wilson’s lab generally, I refer to “Wilson’s team” or “Wilson’s lab.”
When discussing the 1987 mitochondrial paper, however, I refer to “Cann, Stoneking, and
Wilson,” as this is the order in which the authors are listed in the paper.
Because most of the news sources cited throughout this essay were accessed through
LexisNexis, I have been unable to provide online links or page numbers for some references.
S I G N S Spring 2015 y749
that US journalists writing in the context of the evolution-creation contro-
versy often endorsed.
I approach these texts with the analytical tools of feminist cultural
studies. Feminist literary scholar Priscilla Wald has argued that while media
texts tend to “writ½ethe complexities and hesitations out of the hypothe-
sis,” they often articulate “assumptions embedded in the methodologies
through which the geneticists formed their hypothesis and the represen-
tations through which they presented them” ðWald 2000, 682Þ. Like Wald,
I explore the discursive shifts, cultural resonances, and gendered and ra-
cialized vocabularies that take shape as the figure of Eve travels between
science and the media. I pay particular attention to the affective work that
texts do, that is, to the ways in which they invoke and rework the cultural
organization of emotions. I understand emotion as a cultural intensity
rather than a personal experience or a psychological effect. By appropriat-
ing cultural emotions, the texts I study invite readers to be affected in par-
ticular ways.
The science of mitochondrial ancestry
The study of mitochondrial ancestry marks a particularly intense, inno-
vative, and tumultuous phase in the history of population genetics, the
study of genetic variation between populations. Research on mitochon-
drial genealogy is based on the observation that genetic mutations accu-
mulate in the course of evolution. This process of molecular evolution
means that organisms that diverged recently have fewer genetic differences
than those that diverged earlier in evolutionary history. Building on esti-
mated mutation rates, DNA can be used as a molecular clock that records
the passage of time and thus the distance between species or populations.
The theory of molecular evolution arose from the work of such scientists
as Emile Zuckerkandl, Linus Pauling, and Emanuel Margoliash in the early
1960s ðMorgan 1998; Kumar 2005Þ. It was developed further by re-
searchers like Motoo Kimura, Allan Wilson, and Vincent Sarich in the late
1960s, and by Wilson and Mary-Claire King in the 1970s ðSarich and
Wilson 1967; Kimura 1968; King and Wilson 1975Þ. These scientists
sought to produce statistical models through which molecular difference
could be translated into evolutionary distance and thus into prehistoric
By the early 1980s, the team led by Wilson at Berkeley had turned to
mtDNA as a source of evolutionary information. What makes mtDNA par-
For an overview of the various uses of affect and emotion in feminist affect studies, see
Gorton ð2007Þ.
750 yOikkonen
ticularly attractive in the study of molecular evolution is its location in the
cytoplasm outside the cell nucleus. Unlike nuclear DNA, mtDNA is inher-
ited only from the mother, and thus it does not recombine with paternal
DNA. For this reason, mitochondrial mutations accumulate faster and at a
more predictable rate than nuclear mutations. Furthermore, mtDNA is rel-
atively concise ð16,600 base pairsÞcompared to nuclear DNA ð3 billion base
pairs in gametes, 6 billion in somatic cellsÞand is hence easier to work with
than nuclear DNA. Indeed, the mitochondrial genome was sequenced as
early as 1981, two decades before the completion of the Human Genome
Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s 1987 landmark paper, “Mitochondrial
DNA and Human Evolution,” relied on the analysis of 145 geographically
diverse placentas, as well as two cell linesHeLa and GM 3043rep-
resenting, respectively, African American and aboriginal ð!KungÞSouth
African inheritance. Wilson’s team used placentas because they are rich in
DNA, a practical necessity in the 1980s before the invention of polymerase
chain reaction, the technique that enabled the multiplication of genetic
material. Two-thirds of the placentas came from US hospitals, while the
rest were collected in Australia and New Guinea. The authors emphasize
that the sample included “representatives of 5 geographic regions: 20 Af-
ricans ðrepresenting the sub-Saharan regionÞ, 34 Asians ðoriginating from
China, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia and TongaÞ, 46 Cau-
casians ðoriginating from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle EastÞ,21
aboriginal Australians, and 26 aboriginal New Guineans” ðCann, Stone-
king, and Wilson 1987, 32Þ. However, only two of the African samples
came from individuals born in Africa; the rest were collected from African
Americans. Science studies scholar Amade M’charek ð2005, 95100Þnotes
that Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s paper relies on a logic of circulation and
availability characteristic of laboratory science: the placentas had to be fresh
and correctly transported; the cell lines had to be among those available
to the lab. Rather than being based on the ideal choice of material, analy-
tical practices naturalize the use of particular tissues and techniques.
Based on a computer analysis of the mitochondrial data, Cann, Stone-
king, and Wilson argue that “in general, Africans are the most diverse and
Asians the next most, across all functional regions,” which suggests that
“Africa is a likely source of the human mitochondrial gene pool” ð1987,
33Þ. Accordingly, the paper proposes an evolutionary tree that connects
“maternal lineages in modern human populations to a common ancestral
female ðbearing mtDNA type aÞð33Þ. As many have pointed out, com-
puter programs produce several alternative genealogy trees ðMarks 2001;
Bolnick 2008Þ. Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson addressed this problem by
choosing a parsimony tree, the genealogy that relies on the fewest number
S I G N S Spring 2015 y751
of evolutionary changes. They also gave this tree a temporal scope, as their
estimated mutation rate of 24 percent per million years “implies that the
common ancestor of all surviving mtDNA types existed 140,000290,000
years ago” ðCann, Stoneking, and Wilson 1987, 34Þ. This use of statistical
models puts the ontological status of the mitochondrial ancestor in an
ambiguous light. While today’s mitochondrial lines must converge at a
specific point in prehistory, the exact moment and location of that con-
vergence is produced through the choice of method and material. In this
sense, the historically specific female body from which all our mtDNA is
derived is a logical necessity, a material fact, and yet a statistical inference.
Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s mitochondrial hypothesis touched di-
rectly upon two heated scientific debates. The first one was the question
of where and when anatomically modern humans emerged. At the time
there were two competing theories, each of which had supporters in both
paleontology and population genetics. The multiregional hypothesis pro-
posed that anatomically modern humans evolved in several different lo-
cations in Asia, Africa, Indonesia, and Europe since the beginning of the
Pleistocene era some two million years ago ðWolpoff et al. 1988; Frayer
et al. 1993; Templeton 1993Þ. The out-of-Africa hypothesis maintained
that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa some hundred thou-
sand years ago and then migrated across other continents, eventually re-
placing other hominids ðStringer and Andrews 1988a, 1988b; Vigilant
et al. 1991; Stoneking 1993Þ. The Berkeley scientists’ mitochondrial hy-
pothesis represented this latter approach. The second debate was the con-
troversy between paleontology and population genetics over what should
count as evidence in the study of human evolution. While many paleon-
tologists considered fossil evidence as the epistemically privileged source
of evolutionary knowledge, many geneticists saw molecular knowledge as
the cutting edge that would finally lead the study of human evolution be-
yond the incomplete fossil record.
Emotions played a central role in the mitochondrial debate from the
very beginning. In a 2010 interview for the journal PLoS Genetics, Cann
describes the tensions and outcries among scientists that followed the
publication of the 1987 mitochondrial paper:
I got a lot of hate mail, crank mail, some with strange scrawling
notes. I even got a visit from the FBI after the Unabomber attacks. I
got random calls in the middle of the night, and people on flight
layovers wanted to talk. I was unprepared for this role as the molecu-
lar person questioning the fossils . . . It made me mad because people
752 yOikkonen
were doing the same thing with birds and lizards and fish and they
weren’t taking anywhere near the amount of crap I was taking. I could
see it was only because I was talking about humans. These arguments
raised so much emotion, and that really depressed me. ðin Gitschier
2010, 4Þ
This is, of course, a retrospective account by one involved individual and
should therefore not be read as an exhaustive description of the contro-
versy. Nonetheless, it explicates how the issue of mitochondrial ancestry
was construed as a deeply affective terrain from the outset. These emo-
tional tensions become apparent in journal articles and scientific com-
mentaries published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For example, in a
series of commentaries published in the journal American Anthropologist,
scientists engaged in a heated exchange about the merits and weaknesses of
mitochondrial theory. Critics of mitochondrial theory used emotionally
charged phrases such as “dogmatic assertions” ðFrayer et al. 1993, 36Þ,
“damaging contradictory data” ðTempleton 1993, 69Þ, and “attempts to
shoehorn fossils into a discredited genetic framework they do not ðand
never didÞmatch” ðFrayer et al. 1993, 42Þ. In an equally spirited tone,
critics of multiregional theory referred to “double standards” ðStringer
and Bra
¨uer 1994, 422Þand “the perils of ignoring or dismissing genetic
evidence” ðStoneking 1994, 138Þ.
While these examples suggest that feelings of annoyance and alliance
must have affected the involved parties intimately, my focus is not on such
private feelings but on the ways in which texts about science appropriate a
cultural logic of emotions. Cann’s interview and the American Anthro-
pologist exchange indicate that despite the original framing of mitochon-
drial ancestry in terms of computational models and gene frequencies, the
idea of an African mitochondrial ancestor resonated strongly among sci-
entists. The figure of Eve, then, was embedded in affective politics from
the very beginning. These affective negotiations concerned the epistemic
status of DNA evidence, the point of origins for modern humanityand,
as we shall see next, the role of gender, race, and sexuality in that history.
The public life of Eve
While Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s 1987 article avoided naming the
inferred mitochondrial ancestor, this abstract point of genetic convergence
became quickly known as “Mitochondrial Eve” or “African Eve” in the
ensuing controversy. This marks a key shift in how genetic ancestry is
imagined: human difference as statistical variation largely disappears be-
S I G N S Spring 2015 y753
hind the image of a unique, original ancestral mother. The name Eve was
introduced in Jim Wainscoat’s commentary, published in the same issue of
Nature as Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s paper ðWainscoat 1987Þ, and it
was recognized widely in the scientific debate, as suggested by repeated
references to “Eve theory” or “Eve hypothesis” in the heated exchange in
American Anthropologist. A January 1988 Newsweek feature, titled “The
Search for Adam and Eve,” was instrumental in turning Eve into a popular
figure ðTierney 1988Þ. The issue’s cover depicts a dark-skinned couple in
a garden: the woman holds an apple, the man places his empty hand under
it, and there is a tree and a serpent in the background. Although culturally
provocative, especially in the US context, this mock-religious framing did
not emerge only from popular sources but was recognized by scientists
from the start. For example, Robert Eckhart’s response to Cann, Stone-
king, and Wilson’s paper in an April 1987 issue of Nature is titled “Evolu-
tion East of EdenðEckhart 1987Þ, and the biblical framework persistently
appears in the American Anthropologist debate, as when the multiregion-
alists portray Eve as “the equivalent of the Garden of Eden and the em-
barkation point for Noah’s Ark rolled into one” ðFrayer et al. 1993, 33Þ,
and their opponents quip that “the Bible does not identify exactly where
Eve lived!” ðStringer and Bra
¨uer 1994, 421Þ.Thescienticandcultural
debates about Eve, then, were mutually embedded.
I focus here on the cultural emotions pertaining to race, gender, and
sexuality that Mitochondrial Eve invoked, since the fundamental ambiva-
lence of today’s genomic practices arises largely from the changing mean-
ings assigned to these categories of difference. The opening paragraph of
the Newsweek article indicates that Mitochondrial Eve was seen as poten-
tially challenging gendered and racial categories. The text imagines the
mitochondrial ancestor as the polar opposite of “the weak-willed figure in
Genesis, the milk-skinned beauty in Renaissance art, the voluptuary gar-
dener in ‘Paradise Lost’ðTierney 1988Þ. This new Eve is a “dark-haired,
black-skinned woman, roaming a hot savanna in search of food,” who is
“as muscular as Martina Navratilova, maybe stronger” and “might have
torn animals apart with her hands” ðTierney 1988Þ. The text also insists
that this Eve was not “necessarily the most attractive or maternal” woman
living at the time, thereby refusing to define her through culturally sanc-
tioned femininity, maternal attachment, or heterosexual romance ðTierney
1988Þ. At the same time, this protofeminist heroine embodies the insta-
bility of racial categories in contemporary society: she is “black-skinned”
and “dark-haired” and yet the “10,000th-great-grandmother” of every
human being of any racial background ðTierney 1988Þ. A quote from
paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explicates this challenge to race. Echoing
754 yOikkonen
the celebratory tone that underlies much of the text, Gould sees mito-
chondrial analysis as “tremendously important” because it points to a “bio-
logical brotherhood that’s much more profound than we ever realized”
ðTierney 1988Þ.
Apart from erasing the original statistical framing, this embodied image
of Mitochondrial Eve is itself ambiguous. The above reference to “broth-
erhood” contradicts the premise that mitochondrial genealogy is strictly
maternal. It does, however, find support in the rhetoric of “family trees,”
“a family record,” and “one great family” evoked throughout the text
ðTierney 1988Þ. Such familial language trivializes gender by highlighting
the family as a nongendered unit, a kind of natural organism that extends
in different temporal and geographical directions. The idea of an evolu-
tionary brotherhood then regenders the familial entity, aligning it with
symbolically male genealogy. For example, paleoanthropologist Milford
Wolpoff, one of the most ardent critics of Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s
paper, is quoted as suggesting that if Eve’s descendants replaced all other
lineages, “maybe the theory should be named after her murderous son,
Cain” ðin Tierney 1988Þ. This regendering of origins also underlies the
article’s invocation of scientists’ pioneering attempts to identify a genetic
Adam. The text’s conclusion highlights this message by suggesting that
Eve’s father could be seen as the Adam of all humans. Such ambivalence
between female autonomy and male primacy indicates that the figure of
Mitochondrial Eve resonated with mutually contradictory cultural narra-
tives of gender.
The ensuing coverage of Mitochondrial Eve introduced further varia-
tions of gendered imagery. A key discursive shift involves the portrayal of
Eve as a fashionable but unsubstantiated idea and thus as a purely imagi-
nary figure. For example, in a text published in the popular science mag-
azine New Scientist, Wolpoff, Alan Thorne, and Roger Lawn continue
their scientific critique by characterizing Eve as “a newspaper celebrity”
and “the brainchild of Allan Wilson” while asking: “Did Eve really exist, or
is she an illusion?” ðWolpoff, Thorne, and Lawn 1991Þ. Similarly, a 1992
Newsweek article titled “Eve Takes Another Fall” describes Mitochondrial
Eve as “a sensation,” refers to Wilson’s team as “Eve’s creators,” and insists
This antiracist framing reflects the problematic relationship between population genetics
and the concept of race. In the wake of the horrors of the Nazi regime and early twentieth-
century eugenics programs, scientists sought to explain human differences through other
vocabularies than those of race. As Jenny Reardon ð2005Þshows, this move from race to
population or haplotype has not resolved the underlying problems about how to theorize
genetic differences.
S I G N S Spring 2015 y755
that “now Eve has gone the way of all flesh” ðBegley 1992Þ. Instead of the
prehistoric hunter with the strength of a female tennis champion, we en-
counter here a fragile figure associated with the fickleness of popular star-
dom and, by implication, idealized femininity. Furthermore, she is por-
trayed as the creation of others rather than as her own autonomous self.
This invocation of celebrity culture is reinforced through the discourse of
fame and glory, as when the New York Times refers to the “glorious mo-
ments” of discovery while insisting that “the glory was short lived” ðAngier
1990Þ. Celebrity culture and scientific culture appear here as parallel phe-
nomena, in which overambition leads to an inevitable failure. This end is
given religious and moral significance through the rhetoric of the biblical
fall, invoked, for example, in the description of “Eve’s expulsion from the
African Garden of Eden” in the British newspaper The Independent ðKohn
1993Þ. As a product of scientists’ blind ambition, Eve embodies her bib-
lical namesake’s assumed shortcomings, including impatience, unreliabil-
ity, and weak-willedness. This invocation of moral vocabulary echoes the
tradition of morally framing science news identified by media studies and
science studies scholars ðMalone, Boyd, and Bero 2000; Wilcox 2003Þ.
Apart from being a fickle and material gal, Eve also loses the sexual au-
tonomy suggested by the self-sufficient figure of the 1988 Newsweek arti-
cle. This takes place through references to Eve’s biblical counterpart, Adam.
For example, while imagining Eve as “the single putative matriarch,” the
New York Times emphasizes that “she obviously needed the help of a male
to pass her mitochondrial genes along” ðAngier 1991Þ. While you certainly
need an egg and a sperm to produce human offspring, the language of nat-
uralness ð“obviously”Þplays with cultural expectations about heteronorma-
tive gender roles, such as strong men supporting weak women ð“the help of
amaleÞ. Similarly, the 1992 Newsweek piece begins with the words “They
called her Eve. She was born not of Adam’s rib but out of a marriage of
silicon and DNA” ðBegley 1992Þ. Such a framing associates Eve theorists’
and, by implication, Eve’sassumed failure with Eve’s transgression against
the logic of female subordination to male sexuality. This suggestion is ech-
oed in an article published in the Times in the United Kingdom, which
reports that a group of scientists claim that “descent from a single Eve-like
figure would leave us bereft of the protection of our complex immune sys-
tem: the effects of AIDS show how unlikely our species’ survival would have
been under such conditions” ðHammond 1994Þ. This portrayal renders Eve
antithetical to continuity, replacing her with the multitude of reproducing
heterosexual ancestors. By invoking the AIDS epidemic, it also associates
Eve with the threat of contagion and uncontrollable sexuality.
756 yOikkonen
Finally, there is a curious imbalance between the treatment of gender
and race in the news coverage. While Eve’s gender and sexuality are re-
peatedly reimagined throughout the 1990s, they remain integral parts of
her story. This is not the case with race. Compared to the explicitly visual-
ized dark-skinned woman in the 1988 Newsweek feature, the Eve invoked in
the media in the following years is oddly nonracial. Although often referred
to as “African Eve,” the emphasis falls on her being an Eve rather than an
African. Similarly, while the widely repeated invocation of “a mother of us
all” ðe.g., Angier 1991Þimplies that we are all ultimately African, it distin-
guishes this imagined, idealized prehistoric cradle from the postcolonial
realities of the African continent, as Kim TallBear points out ðTallBear
2013, 519Þ. This fantasized prehistoric “Africa” thus emerges as a conve-
niently blurry object with a range of possible connotations depending on
the cultural contextsay, the history of slavery in the United States versus
the history of the British Empirein which Eve’s story was told.
All in all, this shift from the strong-willed and dark-skinned Eve to a
fickle and symbolically white “mother of us all” points to a fundamental
ambivalence in the emotional investments of mitochondrial ancestry. It
also reveals considerable flexibility in how cultural emotions governing
gender, sexuality, and race may be appropriated: while the autonomous
African ancestor celebrated female initiative, the fickle feminine figure
placated a cultural sense of unrest raised by the former’s subversion of
proper gender and racial relations. As we shall see next, the affective un-
derpinnings of gender, race, and sexuality became increasingly pronounced
with the introduction of Y-chromosome Adam in 1995. At the same time,
the idea of Eve as a mere statistical estimate was increasingly buried under
gendered and racialized cultural narratives.
Meet the boyfriend
As we saw above, the Newsweek feature from 1988 already invoked the idea
of a genetic Adam, Eve’s prehistoric counterpart. In November 1995, the
journal Nature published two papers on Y-chromosome ancestry. Both
studies worked from the premise that since the Y-chromosome is not
paired with another Y-chromosome, a large part of it is nonrecombining,
and can thus be used as a molecular clock similar to mtDNA. Michael F.
Hammer from the University of Arizona reported on having examined six-
teen human and four chimpanzee Y-chromosomes ðHammer 1995Þ.His
analysis suggested that the common ancestral human Y-chromosome, to
which all current Y-chromosomes can be traced, appeared approximately
S I G N S Spring 2015 y757
188,000 years ago. This was followed by a paper by Simon Whitfield, John
Sulston, and Peter Goodfellow ð1995Þfrom Cambridge. Based on their
examination of five human and one chimpanzee Y-chromosomes, Whitfield
and colleagues estimated that the ancestral human Y-chromosome was only
37,00049,000 years old. Thus, while Hammer found “no evidence for a
recent, strong selective sweep on the human Y chromosome” ðHammer
1995, 376Þ, Whitfield, Sulston, and Goodfellow speculated on a “selected
sweep of an advantageous Y chromosome or extensive migration of hu-
man males” ð1995, 379Þ. In other words, whereas the former emphasized
a steady process of molecular replacement, the latter highlighted the pos-
sibility that the surviving Y-chromosome may be connected topossibly
even contributing toa particular pattern of male behavior. This invocation
of prehistoric gender roles and reproductive strategies echoes the claims
made in the field of evolutionary psychology, a theoretical alliance that sci-
ence studies scholar Catherine Nash ð2012Þsees as a growing tendency in
population genetics.
While the Nature articles used the language of statistical estimates and
ancestral Y-chromosomes, the media framed the news as concerning a real,
embodied male ancestor, who provided a counterpart for Eve. For ex-
ample, the New York Times explained that “scientists think they have found
strong evidence that there was an ancestral ‘Adam’ about 188,000 years
ago to go with the previously discovered ‘EveðWilford 1995Þ. This fram-
ing was emphasized in accounts with a less matter-of-fact tone, as when a
commentary published in the British paper The Independent refers to
“Mitochondrial Eve and her friend African Adam,” describing the former
as “the girl they dug up a few years ago” and the latter as “the equiva-
lent chap” ðHartston 1995Þ. Such playful language extends the popular
imagery associated with Eve the fickle celebrity to the figure of Adam, a
prehistoric “chap” and Eve’s “friend.” While this rhetoric is consistent
with the genre of news commentary, it also points to the ease with which
a scientific report can be embedded within a culturally familiar narrative
framework, a phenomenon discussed by Sarah Wilcox ð2003Þin the con-
text of the scientific study of homosexuality.
The narrative invoked in the press coverage was explicitly hetero-
normative. The above quoted New York Times article illustrates this
point. After noting that Hammer had located the common ancestral Y-
chromosome “reasonably close to the time for the common mitochondrial
ancestor,” the text continues: “Mitochondrial Eve, meet Y-chromosome
Adam” ðWilford 1995Þ. While the text reports that Mitochondrial Eve and
Y-chromosome Adam “could have lived at slightly different times” and that
they “were probably two random individuals in the small population of
758 yOikkonen
early humans,” it nevertheless quotes Hammer’s “joking” response to the
possibility that Adam and Eve lived on different continents: “It would just
mean that Adam and Eve must have run up some big phone bills” ðWilford
1995Þ. The fact that the quotation is from Hammer himself suggests that
scientists played a key role in the erasure of the language of statistical esti-
mates, and the emergence of Eve and Adam as embodied historical fig-
ures. That journalists highlight such familiar heteronormative narratives in
turn reinforces cultural assumptions about what kind of knowledge science
canand shouldoffer contemporary society. As a result, such playful
statements as “The genetic Eve gets a genetic Adam” and “Now, Eve has
an Adam” ðUS News & World Report 1995Þroot popular ideas of hetero-
sexual courtship in an imagined prehistoric landscape while shoring up the
role of genetics as the privileged gateway to human relationships.
This heterosexual courtship plot invokes cultural ideas of masculinity
and femininity. For example, the description of the Y-chromosome as
“what makes a man a man” operates in a circular fashion, invoking an
unspecified set of assumptions about how men are different from women
ðMilius 1995Þ. Likewise, the portrayal of the Y-chromosome ancestor as
“the original dad” invites common assumptions about family dynamics,
including ideas about patriarchal heads of the family ðMilius 1995Þ. This
potential to cater to the popular imagination becomes evident in a 1998
New Scientist article titled “All about Adam.” The text describes the Y-
chromosome as “a guy thing” and declares that “wags will tell you it’s the
site of the genes for incessantly clicking the TV remote control and for the
excruciating embarrassment that accompanies asking a stranger for di-
rections” ðJensen 1998Þ.
The text then states that “a small band of pio-
neering researchers is now finding that the Y chromosome is an unmatched
repository of human evolutionary and behavioural information,” and that
“warmongering and polygamy have both played their part in determining
human genetic inheritance. Only Y chromosome analysis will reveal the
evolutionary significance of history’s Genghis Kahns and Casanovas” ðJen-
sen 1998Þ. Genetic ancestry is given an evolutionary psychological inter-
pretation that posits a genetically determined desire to propagate as the
driving force of human behavior, a representation that echoes Whitfield,
Sulston, and Goodfellow’s ð1995ÞNature article. Headlines like “Adam and
Eve’s Children” in the Montreal paper the Gazette reinforce this repro-
ductive framing ðWade 2000Þ. Tellingly, the piece in question does not
actually claim that Adam and Eve reproduced together but simply discusses
“Wags” is an acronym for “wives and girlfriends.”
S I G N S Spring 2015 y759
the range of haplotypes ðmutationsÞthat the ancestral Y-chromosome and
mtDNA gave rise to.
The heterosexual courtship plot was given another twist in November
2000, when Peter Underhill’s team at Stanford University published a
paper that estimated that the human ancestral Y-chromosome emerged as
recently as 35,00089,000 years ago ðUnderhill et al. 2000Þ. The news-
paper headlines invoked the familiar courtship framework: The Daily Tele-
graph in London promised to tell “How Eve Was Left Waiting for Adam”
ðDerbyshire 2000Þ, the Melbourne Herald Sun stated that “Adam Had
No Eve” ðWilliams 2000Þ, and the Canadian Calgary Herald declared:
“Adam, Eve No Couple” ðCalgary Herald 2000Þ. These similarities attest
to the ways in which the conventions of science journalism travel globally
ðO’Mahony and Scha
¨fer 2005Þ, as well as to the cultural resonance of the
courtship plot across the English-speaking West. One prominent version
of the heterosexual plot is the narrative of the battle of the sexes. Totally
misunderstanding the science, the Scottish Daily Record announced that
“Men Are 84,000 Years behind Women; DNA Proves GapðDaily Record
2000Þ, and the Melbourne Herald Sun suggested that “female genes were
early developers” ðWilliams 2000, 24Þ. In a similar vein, the South West
England paper Western Morning News answered the question “What Eve
Was Doing before She Met Adam?” with the tongue-in-cheek speculation
that Eve “was breeding . . . with a male less developed than she or, depend-
ing on your viewpoint, the male has now evolved one stage further while
womankind has remained its primitive original self ” ðWestern Morning News
2000, 10Þ. One particularly skillful appropriation of cultural vocabulary
appeared in The Scotsman. The piece suggested that “Adam may have had
a soft spot for the Garden of Eden’s apples, but he must also have found
it impossible to resist older women, it emerged yesterday. ...So based on
the findings of researchers at Stanford University in California, Adam was
not only the first man, he was undoubtedly a toy boy of biblical propor-
tions” ðMontgomery 2000Þ. These variations of the courtship plot point
to its flexibility as a cultural narrative. They also suggest that it carries con-
siderable affective potential through which ideological commitments con-
cerning gender, sexuality, and knowledge can be evoked and reinforced.
We saw above how the language of the “mother of us all” renders the
imagined prehistoric Africa symbolically white. The discourse of hetero-
sexual courtship reinforces this representation of race. The portrayal of
Adam and Eve as our shared original parents invokes a temporal dynamic
that posits Africa as a realm of the past. The 1998 New Scientist article
quoted above explains that scientists found “the ancestral haplotype
760 yOikkonen
nuclear Adamby looking at the corresponding section of Y in chim-
panzees, gorillas and orang-utans,” which turned out to match “the one
Underhill found in small human populations in northern and southern
Africa” ðJensen 1998Þ. This portrayal continues the old colonial repre-
sentation of Africa as belonging to an earlier, not-quite-human evolu-
tionary stagea logic that is repeated in genetic diversity projects launched
in the 1990s and 2000s ðReardon 2005; Wald 2006; TallBear 2007,
2013Þ. As Kim TallBear demonstrates, this kind of rhetoric denies con-
temporary Africans access to modernity, leaving them outside the collec-
tive “us” whose history scientists and science journalists are narrating
ðTallBear 2013, 51920Þ. This does not mean that differences between
contemporary populations would not countquite the contrary, the geo-
graphic diversity of molecular material is the very condition of population
genetic analysis. However, differences between populations are subjugated
to the symbolically white cultural framework through which the mito-
chondrial and Y-chromosomal ancestors are made sense of.
The fantasized reproductive coupling of Adam and Eve adds to this
rhetorical dynamic. The language of dating, phone bills, and toy boys
posits Western culture as the primary frame of interpretation for scientific
innovation, while the courtship plot itself reflects a familiar Western way of
organizing emotions and expectations. Associated with a symbolically
reproductive mission, Adam and Eve cease to be geographically located
individuals ðthe initial popular viewÞor random carriers of particular ge-
netic structures ðthe scientific viewÞand come to stand for what is imag-
ined as the fundamental, biological heterosexual dynamic. In her discus-
sion of genetic imagery in the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer
Olympic Games, Nash suggests that the valorization of a single, symbol-
ically reproductive couple in the public spectacle echoed a “contemporary
vocabulary of universal humanity” while positioning the couple as “that
which transcends cultural difference” ðNash 2005, 450Þ. This observation
also applies to the public life of our imagined prehistoric couple. Through
their fantasized reproductive union, Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome
Adam promise reproductive continuity while substituting universal human
experience for racial differences. As with the Olympic couple, this univer-
sality is of course illusionary. Indeed, the coupling of Mitochondrial Eve and
Y-Chromosome Adam finds another parallel in the image of the universal
human family that Donna Haraway ð1997Þconnects to the scientific idea
of population. Reflected in such postwar cultural documents as the 1955
“Family of Man” exhibition, the reproductive heterosexual nuclear family
appears to celebrate human difference while in fact reproducing what Har-
S I G N S Spring 2015 y761
away calls a “grammar of indifference, of the multiplication of sameness”
ð1997, 243Þ.
Affective objects
The history of the figure of Mitochondrial Eve is above all an account of
travelthe travel of gendered narratives, racialized imageries, and as-
sumptions about knowledge across textual genres and cultural contexts.
Such travels suggest that popular narratives about science undergo trans-
formations that open up new interpretations. The role of race is a prime
example of this malleability: while the introduction of the idea of a global
human family generated considerable appeal across the Western world, it
resonated differently, say, in the context of African American history or
British multiculturalism. The cultural travels of Mitochondrial Eve also
demonstrate the worrying ease with which the language of statistics and
computer models is replaced by the language of fleshed embodiment and
identity discourse.
This imaginative flexibility is part of Eve’s appeal, as it enables the
invocation of a range of cultural emotions. Such emotions invite audiences
to sympathize with particular ideological positions, thus engaging in cul-
tural negotiations over what kinds of futures contemporary science should
strive for.
In order to examine the role of emotions in the mitochondrial
debate more closely, I shall turn to feminist cultural studies scholar Sara
Ahmed’s work on affect. Ahmed’s approach is particularly useful for my
analysis because it centers on the ways in which objectsin this case,
mtDNA and the figure of Evebecome invested with emotions. In The
Cultural Politics of Emotion ð2004Þ, Ahmed argues that emotions should
not be understood as things we “have” but as orientations through which
we “respond to objects and others” ð2004, 10Þ. For Ahmed, “emotions
are both about objects, which they hence shape, and are also shaped by
contact with objects” ð7Þ. Ahmed connects this dynamic to an underlying
capitalist logic. In such a logic, “affect does not reside positively in the sign
or commodity, but is produced as an effect of its circulation” through a
web of shifting associations ð45Þ. Hence, “the more signs circulate, the
more affective they become” ð45Þ.
The connection between biotechnologies and visions of a better future have been noted
by a number of science studies scholars. See, e.g., Borup et al. ð2006Þand Bloomfield and
Doolin ð2011Þ.
762 yOikkonen
This process of circulation results in objects becoming “sticky, or sat-
urated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension” ðAhmed 2004,
11Þ. Such stickiness is not, however, equally distributed. Some figures and
bodiesthose of racial and sexual minorities, for exampleare more likely
to emerge as affective objects toward which and through which emotions
take shape. The circulation of objects is also characterized by what Ahmed
calls “metonymic slide” ð2004, 44Þ. Certain objects become mutually as-
sociated, with the result that the evocation of one effects the invocation
of another. According to Ahmed, this “sideways movement between ob-
jects . . . works to stick objects together,” so that emotions emerge and
travel through chains of movement and displacement ð66Þ. Crucially, this
logic of circulation makes emotions both persistent and malleable: they can
be directed toward new phenomena while adhering to old objects and
The mitochondrial debate is characterized by a series of metonymic
slides. As Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s mitochondrial theory of recent
African origins moved from the lab to the journals to the media, the object
of debate metamorphosed from a molecular estimate to a hypothetical
historical person to a culturally provocative female figure to a fantasized
heterosexual union. At one end of this spectrum, we have Allan Wilson’s
laboratory in California, where scientists are collecting and analyzing hu-
man tissue and trying out different statistical methods to produce a web of
genetic difference and distance. Such a web is, by its very nature, always
theoretical, so that changes in laboratory practice produce new sets of con-
nections, as we saw in the case of the different estimates of Y-chromosome
ancestry by Hammer ð1995Þ; Whitfield, Sulston, and Goodfellow ð1995Þ;
and Underhill et al. ð2000Þ. Furthermore, as M’charek observes, mtDNA
as a scientific object is fundamentally fluid: Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson’s
mitochondrial paper relied on constructed entities such as the 1981 Cam-
bridge reference genome for human mitochondria, or the rapidly mutating
HeLa cells ðM’charek 2005, 84119Þ. At the other end of the spectrum, we
have emotionally appealing appropriations of mitochondrial theory, such
as geneticist Bryan Sykes’s book The Seven Daughters of Eve ð2001Þ, which
explores the maternal lineages connecting modern Europeans to seven hy-
pothesized female ancestors, from whom the mitochondrial haplotypes
present in European populations allegedly stem. Through its familial lan-
guage, Sykes’s book imagines an emotionally loaded bond between Mito-
chondrial Eve, her seven symbolic “daughters,” and modern Europeans. A
number of metonymic slides have taken place between the two end points of
the spectrum, sticking molecular entities to gendered and racialized cultural
S I G N S Spring 2015 y763
figuresthe shared mother, the attention-hungry celebrity, Adam’s girl-
friendin ways that cannot be easily undone. Through this process, feelings
of surprise, anxiety, longing, and belonging have been evoked, rejected, and
The mitochondrial debate also shows that the emotional commitments
invoked through shifts in the framing of science are always plural. For
example, the portrayal of Eve as a protofeminist independent spirit may
invoke a range of emotions, including elation, admiration, irritation, and
even outright hatred. This affective potential becomes evident in Hideaki
Sena’s popular horror novel Parasite Eve, published in Japan in 1995 and
in the United States in 2005. Premised on the maternal inheritance of
mtDNA and its suggested origins in bacteria, the novel portrays “Eve” as a
self-conscious life form that seeks to take over the world by controlling
people’s bodies through their mitochondria. When a car accident ðor-
chestrated by Eve, of courseÞleaves a male scientist’s wife in coma, her
kidney is transplanted into a young woman, who becomes the inadvertent
host of the novel’s “parasite,” the dangerous and destructive mitochon-
drial enemy. This portrayal of mitochondrial inheritance as a specifically
female threat to the human species registers and reinforces the sense of
anxiety that the protofeminist figure of Mitochondrial Eve may have ini-
tially raised.
Such emotions are not, however, exclusive to public dis-
course. Exploring representations of the HeLa cell-lineone source of
mtDNA for Wilson’s labLisa Weasel ð2004Þdemonstrates that medi-
ated emotions and cultural images also underlie the production of knowl-
edge in laboratory science. Weasel documents how the unusually aggres-
sive growth of HeLa cells is associated with promiscuous female sexuality,
which in turn is linked to women of color through the figure of Henri-
etta Lacks, the African American patient whose deadly cervical cancer pro-
videdwithout her consentthe immortal cell line. This suggests that
scientific assumptions about molecular matter take shape through a cul-
tural politics of emotion, turning a cell line into an affective object through
which anxieties and prejudices about gender, race, and sexuality are artic-
ulated and reshaped.
This affective multiplicity shapes the ways in which gender, sexuality,
and race intersect in the mitochondrial debate. For example, Africanness is
Laura Briggs and Jodi I. Kelber-Kaye ð2000Þidentify a similar logic in Michael Crich-
ton’s 1990 science fiction novel Jurassic Park. While the novel does not focus on mito-
chondria, it posits the nuclear family as the only possible defense against chaos and destruction
caused by attempts to clone dinosaurs from ancient DNA. In the novel, the absence of males
in both human and dinosaur reproduction constitutes a threat to order, while gender non-
conformity and feminism appear as dangerous aberrations that will be punished with death.
764 yOikkonen
located in a prehistoric scene preceding the universalized couple and their
fantasized progeny through a series of associations that connect a conti-
nent, a matrilineal form of ancestry, premarital and extramarital sexuality,
and not-quite-human bodies into an undefined and resonant cultural en-
tity. In the process, race is sexualized, sexuality is racialized, and gender
is heterosexualized in ever new ways. As with molecular objects, slight
shifts in how intersecting differences are imagined may change the emo-
tional commitments of the story. Priscilla Wald ð2000Þoffers an intriguing
reading of such narrative revisions in the media coverage of a possible
genetic link between susceptibility to HIV among African Americans and
the geographical spread of the bubonic plague in medieval Europe. Ac-
cording to Wald, both the science and its reception understood genetics
as “a genealogical system that maps not just relationships but rules that
govern relatedness,” a premise that was imagined by some journalists in
pseudoevolutionary terms as indicating black weakness and white survival
ðWald 2000, 705Þ.
This logic of genetic kinship replaced the politics of
affiliation central to HIV activism with heteronormative language of white
familialism, thereby dismissing the affective resources of queer commu-
nities and communities of color. Crucially, as this imagined “genetic di-
aspora incorporates white men and women, regardless of their choice of
affiliation, on the basis of their genes,” it engenders “a community that
one cannot not join: an inalienable community” ðWald 2000, 694Þ.At
the same time, it leaves other racial identities and other sexual practices
outside the logic of ancestry.
The mitochondrial debate, too, is underwritten by a similar reconfig-
uration of the affective potential of genetic kinship. The differences be-
tween the 1988 and 1992 Newsweek articles demonstrate the point: while
the former text posits the intersection of visibly nonwhite origins and
fantasized female strength as a cause for celebration, the latter constructs
the same intersection as a source of misguided belief. At the heart of this
discursive shift is the idea of reproduction. Whereas the first Newsweek ar-
ticle envisions reproduction as universal connectedness that ties together
the whole human race, the second text equates genetic ancestry with
symbolically Western heterosexuality. In so doing, both accounts tap into
popular vocabularies invested with cultural resonance and affective po-
tential. At the same time, they clearly depart from the understanding of
genetic kinship as statistical correlation and transferred molecular infor-
mation in population genetic literature.
For discussion of gender and sexuality in genetic kinship, see also Nash ð2005, 2012Þ
and Lee ð2012Þ.
S I G N S Spring 2015 y765
Affective trajectories
While my account of the mitochondrial debate ends with the media re-
sponses to Underhill et al.’s 2000 study, the past decade has engendered
new estimates of Adam and Eve’s evolutionary age and the mitochondrial
and Y-chromosome ancestors of various modern populations. I cannot
trace these developments within this article, but I wish to conclude by
outlining some ways in which the affective politics of the mitochondrial
debate structures the emotional investments of today’s genetic practices.
What is striking about current biotechnological phenomena is that they
embody “affective economies” that differ clearly from the ones that or-
ganized the mitochondrial debate ðAhmed 2004, 44Þ. For example, ge-
netic ancestry tests appeal to emotions of longing and personal fulfillment
encouraged by cultural ideas of roots, identity, and personal discovery.
National genome projects rewrite the idea of personal longing as one of
communal belonging by invoking assumptions of shared cultural ethos,
racial coherence, and a clearly defined historical trajectory. These both
stand in striking contrast to forensic genetic databases used in criminal
investigation. Embedded in an affective economy of surveillance and fear,
forensic databases suggest unforgiveness, as genetic ties are recorded so
that any future offence may be mapped into a web of biologized guilt.
Notwithstanding these differences, all the phenomena continue the debate
about how we should orientate ourselves affectively toward the epistemic
objects produced by genetics.
I opened the article by suggesting that we need to carefully examine the
connection between the affective politics of the mitochondrial debate and
those of the later biotechnologies in order to understand how genomics
may shape our futures. I suggested that Sarah Franklin’s ð2007Þexami-
nation of “the highly motivated, interested, constitutive, organized, stra-
tegic, and cumulative ways in which genealogy is directed toward certain
ends” in the history of animal cloning provides guidelines in this task
ðFranklin 2007, 157Þ. Significantly, Franklin’s study demonstrates that the
future-orientation of genealogy is informed by larger affective structures,
as in the case of the discourses of death, sacrifice, and grief surrounding the
2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom. My ac-
count, too, points to the future-orientation of sciencepresent, for ex-
ample, in the way in which the need to find an Adam was already em-
bedded in the project of finding an Eve. Similarly, the idea of a global
human family continues to organize the understanding of human con-
nectedness in genetic ancestry tests, national genome projects, and various
ethnic diversity projects such as the Genographic Project or the Interna-
766 yOikkonen
tional HapMap Project ðWald 2006; TallBear 2013Þ. These biotechno-
logical phenomena are extensions of the claimembodied in Eve and
Adam’s fantasized unionthat reproduction is the ultimate human glue
that ties generations and populations together. At the same time, the very
idea of family carries a range of shifting meanings that open up various
imaginative horizons in contemporary projects.
As we have seen, the mitochondrial debate constitutes a key moment
in the history of population genetics when the idea of a statistically hy-
pothesized molecular ancestor gives way to a vividly imagined great-
grandmother, in whose body and behavior the roots of true womanhood
can be located. This same ambivalence between the language of statistics
and the language of embodied identity tends to underlie current genetic
practices that utilize mitochondrial and Y-chromosome analysis. Online
genetic ancestry tests, for example, vacillate between a theoretical frame-
work that highlights mutation rates and haplotypes, and the idea of inti-
mately felt connection between customers and their ancestral “mothers”
or “fathers.” The discursive framing of national genome projects often
makes a related move from a hypothetical reconstruction of molecular
lineages to the image of a coherent group of prehistoric founders of the
national community ðHinterberger 2012Þ. In forensic DNA testing, this
discursive shift does not produce a fantasized object of longing but an
abject image of the pathological criminal, whose criminality arises from the
same set of genes that gives him ðit usually is a heÞhis racial characteristics.
These affective trajectories show that the ambivalence about the ab-
stract and embodied aspects of genomic knowledge continues to provide
a site where cultural emotions are appropriated and reinforced. In these
processes of affective invocation, shifts between statistical estimates and
gendered and racialized identities produce emotionally powerful visions of
the directions in which science and society should reach. For example, such
shifts reinforce the idea that science should work toward detecting not
only criminal offenders’ race but also their facial features, and that such an
innovation would be progressive rather than reactionary, making society
These discursive shifts warrant careful attention by feminist, queer,
and postcolonial scholars, as the ever new discoveries of genomics are
being narrated and debated in contemporary culture. The mitochondrial
debate shows that a critical analysis of media texts may help us in this task
by revealing how shifts between the informational and the embodied
M’charek ð2008Þprovides an insightful discussion of the idea of using genetic infor-
mation to produce a photographic image of the criminal.
S I G N S Spring 2015 y767
naturalize gendered and racialized assumptions. Most important, the
mitochondrial debate demonstrates that such shifts constitute textual
fractures through which the underlying roles of gender, sexuality, and race
in genomics may potentially be challenged.
Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies
University of Helsinki
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... Venla Oikkonen (2015) remarks how genetics entices "us" to form such modes of belonging that question the borders of the nation-state. According to Oikkonen (2015, 766), contemporary thinking around genetics understands all human beings as "a global human family." ...
... Even though these ideas appear to contest racist and nation-state-based assumptions, Oikkonen shows how the cultural texts around genetics, which have put forward these inclusive-appearing ideas, assume a human being who belongs to "the global human family" to be a white, heterosexual European. Whereas Oikkonen (2015) has investigated what kinds of forms of belonging are at stake in the context of genetics, this chapter explores how able-bodied belonging intersects with outwardly more inclusive forms of belonging in the context of evolutionary biology. ...
... In 2008, The Telegraph stated that Shubin's popular scientific book Your Inner Fish "would be Darwin's book of the year if he were around today" (Katsoulis, 2008). Indeed, as early as the nineteenth century popular science was a crucial part of more conventional modes of science (Castañeda, 2001;Oikkonen, 2013Oikkonen, , 2015. Furthermore, science and culture, rather than being a dichotomy, have been two interwoven registers. ...
The chapter investigates cultural attachments to able-bodiedness as affective reactions that have a history and introduces the formulation of “able-bodied belonging” to re-articulate such attachments. The chapter focuses on how popular evolutionary biological accounts articulate the idea that human beings belong to the animal world in a way that emphasizes ableist understandings about bodies. I analyze how popular evolutionary biological accounts create the forms of belonging that emphasize humans’ connections to nonhuman animals by presenting humans as exceptional animals and associating the potentiality of varied abilities with humanity. Finally, I will argue that by examining the heterogeneous articulations and affective attachments about bodies, it is possible to challenge the seemingly collective affinities toward able-bodiedness.
... Furthermore, in relation to nationhood, Finland has sought to use genetics as a tool for recreating and perpetuating notions of genetic uniqueness (Tarkkala and Tupasela 2019). The fluidity and malleability of genetic identity is an ongoing process, where the analysis of new samples and their comparison to samples collected from other populations generate new ways of understanding identity and ancestry (Oikkonen 2015). ...
... Given that the study of rare diseases has involved special and unique communities, which were the result of isolation, as well as bottlenecks, it is surprising to see the degree to which these narratives have influenced more general population genetic studies. As Oikkonen (2015) has noted, however, population genetic studies draw on a multitude of technological and material practices, and the FDH-derived historical narrative represents only one theory of Finnish genetic origins and identity (cf. Sundell et al. 2010). ...
... Furthermore, in relation to nationhood, Finland has sought to use genetics as a tool for recreating and perpetuating notions of genetic uniqueness (Tarkkala and Tupasela 2019). The fluidity and malleability of genetic identity is an ongoing process, where the analysis of new samples and their comparison to samples collected from other populations generate new ways of understanding identity and ancestry (Oikkonen 2015). ...
... Given that the study of rare diseases has involved special and unique communities, which were the result of isolation, as well as bottlenecks, it is surprising to see the degree to which these narratives have influenced more general population genetic studies. As Oikkonen (2015) has noted, however, population genetic studies draw on a multitude of technological and material practices, and the FDH-derived historical narrative represents only one theory of Finnish genetic origins and identity (cf. Sundell et al. 2010). ...
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This multidisciplinary volume reflects the shifting experiences and framings of Finnishness and its relation to race and coloniality. The authors centre their investigations on whiteness and unravel the cultural myth of a normative Finnish (white) ethnicity. Rather than presenting a unified definition for whiteness, the book gives space to the different understandings and analyses of its authors. This collection of case-studies illuminates how Indigenous and ethnic minorities have participated in defining notions of Finnishness, how historical and recent processes of migration have challenged the traditional conceptualisations of the nation-state and its population, and how imperial relationships have contributed to a complex set of discourses on Finnish compliance and identity. With an aim to question and problematise what may seem self-evident aspects of Finnish life and Finnishness, expert voices join together to offer (counter) perspectives on how Finnishness is constructed and perceived. Scholars from cultural studies, history, sociology, linguistics, genetics, among others, address four main topics: 1) Imaginations of Finnishness, including perceived physical characteristics of Finnish people; 2) Constructions of whiteness, entailing studies of those who do and do not pass as white; 3) Representations of belonging and exclusion, making up of accounts of perceptions of what it means to be ‘Finnish’; and 4) Imperialism and colonisation, including what might be considered uncomfortable or even surprising accounts of inclusion and exclusion in the Finnish context. This volume takes a first step in opening up a complex set of realities that define Finland’s changing role in the world and as a home to diverse populations.
... 71 A label: "ANCE-STOR," marks the root of the PAUP-generated branching order at the midpoint of the longest path between lineages: the split between exclusively 'African' mtDNAs and the rest of the samples. 72 This 55 M'charek (2005); Oikkonen (2015). For more on the medicalization of birth and maternal bodies, see Kukla (2005). ...
... 74 Susan Cohen (1990), "Roots." West, November 1990 For a detailed and sophisticated account of the use of Mitochondrial Eve as an affective object, see Oikkonen (2015). 76 Klein and Takahata (2002) 84 As an anonymous reviewer pointed out, ordinarily, publishing in PNAS would have been much less difficult than publishing in Science or Nature, since papers submitted by members of the National Academy of Sciences were almost always automatically accepted; see Mac Lane and Saunders, 1997. ...
In their 1987 Nature publication, “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution,” Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan C. Wilson gave a new reconstruction of human evolution on the basis of differences in mitochondrial DNA among contemporary human populations. This phylogeny included an African common ancestor for all human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineages, and Cann et al.’s reconstruction became known as the “Out of Africa” hypothesis. Since mtDNA is inherited exclusively through the maternal line, the common ancestor who was first branded African Eve later became known as Mitochondrial Eve (mtEve, for short). In this paper, I show that mtEve was not a single, successful, or purely scientific discovery. Instead, she was produced many times and in many ways, each of which informed the next. Importantly, though Wilson and colleagues heralded mitochondrial DNA as a source of certainty, objectivity, and consensus for evolutionary inference, their productions of Mitochondrial Eve depended as much on popular assumptions about the certainty of maternal inheritance as they did on new molecular and computational tools. This recognition lets us reevaluate the complex consequences of these productions, which, like mtEve herself, could not be confined to a purely social, material, or scientific dimension.
... The nuclear analysis in turn posited the Denisovans as a sister group to Neanderthals, arguing that while "the divergence of the Denisova mtDNA to present-day human mtDNAs is about twice as deep as that of Neanderthal mtDNA, the average divergence of the Denisova nuclear genome from present-day humans is similar to that of Neanderthals" (Reich et al. 2010(Reich et al. , 1055. In this respect, the two papers illustrate a central characteristic of population genetic knowledge production: different types of genetic material engender different patterns of ancestry (M'charek 2005;Nash 2015;Oikkonen 2015Oikkonen , 2018. Which genetic markers and molecular loci are chosen for analysis also matters, as patterns of relatedness are produced by comparing markers (Hamilton 2012;M'charek 2005, 2014Sommer 2016;Oikkonen 2018). ...
... In this framework, mutations measured the passage of time from moments in the past when mitochondrial lineages diverged. The same model was applied to Y-chromosome lineages in the mid-1990s (see Oikkonen 2015). This premise still underlies Krause et al.'s study of Denisovan mtDNA. ...
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The study of ancient DNA (aDNA) has gained increasing attention in science and society as a tool for tracing hominin evolution. While aDNA research overlaps with the history of population genetics, it embodies a specific configuration of technology, temporality, temperature, and place that, this article suggests, cannot be fully unpacked with existing science and technology studies approaches to population genetics. This article explores this configuration through the 2010 discovery of the Denisovan hominin based on aDNA retrieved from a finger bone and tooth in Siberia. The analysis explores how the Denisovan was enacted as a technoscientific object through the cool and even temperatures of Denisova Cave, assumptions about the connection between individual and population, the status of populations as evolutionary entities, and underlying colonialist and imperialist imaginaries of Siberia and Melanesia. The analysis sheds light on how aDNA research is changing the parameters within which evolutionary history is imagined and conceptualized. Through the case study, it also outlines some ways in which the specific technoscientific and cultural entanglements of aDNA can be critically explored.
... However, in recent years, they have become increasingly present in a large range of domains including clinical research, biomedicine, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Mitochondria have also been popularised through genealogical searches and migration studies where mitochondrial DNA testing is used to trace maternal ancestry and population origins (Cannell 2011;Oikkonen 2015). Moreover, a large number of recently published papers have shown the crucial role mitochondria play in the development of cancers as well as Parkinson disease (Gómez-Sánchez et al. 2016;Kalyanaraman et al. 2018), generating high hopes in the biomedical field. ...
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Mitochondria, the organelles providing the cell with energy, have recently gained greater public visibility in the UK and beyond, through the introduction of two reproductive technologies which involve their manipulation, specifically 'mitochondrial donation' to prevent the maternal transmission of inherited disorders, and 'Augment' to improve egg quality and fertility. Focusing on these two 'Mito-Technologies' and mobilising the conceptual framework of "bio-objectification", we examine three key processes whereby mitochondria are made to appear to have a life of their own: their transferability, their optimisation of life processes and their capitalisation. We then explore the implications of their bio-objectification in the bioeconomy of reproduction. Drawing on publicly available material collected in two research projects, we argue that mitochondria become a biopolitical agent by contributing to the redefinition of life as something that can be boosted at the cellular level and in reproduction. Mitochondria are now presented as playing a key role for a successful and healthy conception through the development and promotion of MitoTechnologies. We also show how their "revitalising power" is invested with great promissory capital, mainly deriving from their ethical and scientific biovalue in the case of mitochondrial donation, and from the logics of assetisation, in the case of Augment.
... She was as muscular as Martina Navratilova, maybe stronger; she might have torn animals apart with her hands, although she probably preferred to use stone tools. (Tierney 1988: 46) Much can be said about the entwinement between race and gender in this quotation, such as the reification of differences, here between the fragile beauty of the white woman in theology and that of a brutal black woman in biology (see also Oikkonen 2015). Yet by comparing Mitochondrial Eve to the muscular Martina Navratilova, the star tennis champion of the 1980s and 1990s, rather than the frail figure of Genesis, we see that something else happens as well. ...
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In this chapter I use the metaphor of the triptych to tell a story about race, gender, and science. The triptych is a threefold, and it is a work of art to narrate stories that do not hang together in a straightforward way, in which time and place relate in nonlinear ways: The three panels of the triptych can be folded and unfolded, superimposing historically remote moments in time or setting them apart. Taking the folding-effect of the triptych seriously the stories in this chapter are not written in a chronological order but jump back and forth in time. Each of the panels in this chapter focuses on DNA and its relation to race and the female body. In each subsequent panel we will zoom in further on the crucial role of gender in the production of race. The first panel sketches the use of DNA in “root-seeking practices” (Nelson 2008). In this panel I show how the attempt to restore genealogies comes with the price of fixating African-ness and representing an archaic image thereof. The second panel takes us to the field of population genetics and drafts the genetic out-of-Africa story, also called the Mitochondrial Eve theory. Starting with a seminal paper published in 1987, I examine how it un/doesrace by situating it in a longer history of racial science and attend to the crucial role of gender therein. The third panel zooms further in on genetics, focusing on one key technology, a DNA reference sequence, on which all research discussed here is based. Unraveling the history of the sequence shows how it folds in itself histories of race and racism, as well as misogyny, such as the history of Henrietta Lacks.
How do Wisconsin-based descendants of Belgian immigrants – living in a mid-western, largely white, and mostly rural community – connect a perceived common Belgian ancestry to a contemporary sense of belonging through genomic ancestry testing (GAT)? Members of this community negotiate GAT’s results in relation to their prior self-identification with Belgian ancestry and present- identity claims, highlighting two important findings. First, in this community, prior self-identification with both Belgian ancestry and present-day identity are important for understanding how group members negotiate GAT’s results. GAT results have meaning for group members as long as they can be interpreted in a way that re-establishes the histories of connectedness and social life experiences that underpin a specifically ‘Belgian’ identity. Second, another feature of more interest for STS researchers is that there are no specific genomic markers clearly linking individuals to a ‘Belgian’ ancestry. The lack of genomic markers for Belgian ancestry ends up enabling a socially flexible interpretation of results. Indirectly and with inventiveness, community members establish their Belgian ancestry through the genomic results, despite the absence of a ‘Belgian’ category derivable from the tests. As such, there is significant flexibility in the way that genomic ancestry testing ends up filtering into everyday practices.
In his introduction, Tupasela outlines the theoretical contours of population branding. Taking science and technology studies (STS) as his starting point, he locates his work at the intersection of critical data studies (CDS) and nation branding. Using examples from two Nordic countries—Denmark and Finland—he identifies changes during the past ten years that suggest that state-collected and maintained resources, such as biobank samples and healthcare data, have become the object of marketing practices. Tupasela argues that this phenomenon constitutes a novel form of nation branding in which relations between states, individuals, and the private sector are re-aligned. Population branding, which he identifies as originating in the field of medical genetics, has increasingly incorporated marketing practices developed in the private sector in order to market state-controlled resources. The exploration of population branding practices helps provide understanding of how state-controlled big data is increasingly being used to generate new forms of value.
This chapter focuses primarily on theorising the concepts of emotion and affect within feminist theory, however, the final sections works to bridge the gap between theorising emotion and studying it in relation to television and ethnography. This chapter considers central themes within feminist work on the concepts of emotion and affect such as: 'the personal is the political,' ;affective contagion,' language as affect,' and 'shame'. Drawing on several prominent theorists within the field of emotion research such as Sara Ahmed, Elspeth Probyn, Ann Cvetkovich, Denise Riley, Eve Sedgwick, and Anna Gibbs, this chapter offers a fundamental critique of the place of emotion in our everyday lives and the way in which affect works to inform and inspire action.
At the 2004 Forensic Bioinformatics conference in Ohio, a speaker announced that a new software program, DNAwitness, had triggered the start of the revolution in forensics. Ushering in the new era would be the program's capability to decipher "an individual's race" "from crime scene DNA." Based on analysis of "the heritable component of race," referred to as biogeographical ancestry, the program would produce a "precise estimation" of the percentages of different types of ancestry present in the DNA sample, including Indo European, Sub-Saharan African, East Asian, or Native American and, using these estimates, produce a description of a person's appearance that police could use to narrow down a pool of suspects. © 2012 by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. All rights reserved.
In our time-at the end of the twentieth century-the crisis of race⋯ is still raging⋯. In this age of globalization, with its impressive scientific and technological innovations in information, communication, and applied biology, a focus on the lingering effects of racism seems outdated and antiquated. The global cultural bazaar of entertainment and enjoyment, the global shopping mall of advertising and marketing, the global workplace of blue-collar and white-collar employment, and the global financial network of computerized transactions and megacorporate mergers appear to render any talk about race irrelevant. (West and Gates 1997:68). © 2012 by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. All rights reserved.
In the summer of 1991, population geneticists and evolutionary biologists proposed to archive human genetic diversity by collecting the genomes of "isolated indigenous populations." Their initiative, which became known as the Human Genome Diversity Project, generated early enthusiasm from those who believed it would enable huge advances in our understanding of human evolution. However, vocal criticism soon emerged. Physical anthropologists accused Project organizers of reimporting racist categories into science. Indigenous-rights leaders saw a "Vampire Project" that sought the blood of indigenous people but not their well-being. More than a decade later, the effort is barely off the ground. How did an initiative whose leaders included some of biology's most respected, socially conscious scientists become so stigmatized? How did these model citizen-scientists come to be viewed as potential racists, even vampires? This book argues that the long abeyance of the Diversity Project points to larger, fundamental questions about how to understand knowledge, democracy, and racism in an age when expert claims about genomes increasingly shape the possibilities for being human. Jenny Reardon demonstrates that far from being innocent tools for fighting racism, scientific ideas and practices embed consequential social and political decisions about who can define race, racism, and democracy, and for what ends. She calls for the adoption of novel conceptual tools that do not oppose science and power, truth and racist ideologies, but rather draw into focus their mutual constitution.
The time has come to ask how and when, if ever, is it appropriate to use race in the presentation of forensic DNA evidence in a court of law. Recently much attention has been devoted to some of the ethical, legal, and social issues presented by the emerging use of DNA typing to produce phenotypic "profiles" of crime suspects based on DNA samples found at the scene of a crime. Of particular concern is the growing tendency to use so-called "ancestry informative markers" (AIMs) to predict a suspect's race or ethnicity. While important and well deserving of such concern, these discussions largely overlook the conceptually distinct and far more prevalent, indeed standard, use of race in the development and presentation of forensic DNA evidence in criminal trials. © 2012 by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. All rights reserved.