ArticlePDF Available

DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates



The article explores how the relationship between genetics and history is performed in genetics studies that aim to reconstruct human migrations. It focuses on two case studies: research on the nature of genetic diversity of South Asian populations and on the genetic history of different Jewish communities. Analysis is based on a close reading of 16 articles on the genetic history of Jewish and South Asian populations and on in-depth interviews with eight geneticists who played a key role in either or both types of studies and with 20 historians with expertise in the issues examined in the genetic studies under survey. The paper discusses the way geneticists construct their contribution to historical debates and the way this contribution is perceived by historians. It will be demonstrated that geneticists and historians are keen on demarcating their disciplines from each other with geneticists insisting on keeping some distance from historical evidence for the sake of maintaining ‘objectivity’, and historians questioning the epistemological validity of genetic interventions into their field. It will be argued that what accounts for this lack of engagement with each other's discipline is the sociocultural norms associated with academic practice in the natural sciences and humanities and a tendency towards monodisciplinary peer-review.
Original Article
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic
research on historical debates
Yulia Egorova
Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham, DH1 3HP, UK.
Abstract The article explores how the relationship between genetics and history is performed
in genetics studies that aim to reconstruct human migrations. It focuses on two case studies:
research on the nature of genetic diversity of South Asian populations and on the genetic history of
different Jewish communities. Analysis is based on a close reading of 16 articles on the genetic
history of Jewish and South Asian populations and on in-depth interviews with eight geneticists
who played a key role in either or both types of studies and with 20 historians with expertise in the
issues examined in the genetic studies under survey. The paper discusses the way geneticists
construct their contribution to historical debates and the way this contribution is perceived
by historians. It will be demonstrated that geneticists and historians are keen on demarcating
their disciplines from each other with geneticists insisting on keeping some distance from historical
evidence for the sake of maintaining ‘objectivity’, and historians questioning the epistemological
validity of genetic interventions into their field. It will be argued that what accounts for this
lack of engagement with each other’s discipline is the sociocultural norms associated with aca-
demic practice in the natural sciences and humanities and a tendency towards monodisciplinary
BioSocieties (2010) 5, 348–365. doi:10.1057/biosoc.2010.18
Keywords: population genetics; history; interdisciplinarity; expertise; Jewish communities; India
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the founding fathers of population genetics, asserts on the
cover text of his book Genes,Peoples and Languages (2000):
Historians relying on written records can tell us nothing about the 99.9 per cent of
human evolution which preceded the invention of writing. It is the study of genetic
variation, backed up by language and archaeology, which provides concrete evidence
about the spread of cultural innovation, the movements of peoples ythe precise links
between races’ (Bivins, 2008: p. 16).
Geneticists Mary-Claire King and Arno Motulsky explain that ‘the DNA of modern humans
contains a record of the travels and encounters of our ancestors’ and that ‘[b]y sampling
genotypes from people across the globe, geneticists have reconstructed the major features of
our history: our ancient African origin, migrations out of Africa, movements and settlements
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
throughout Eurasia and Oceania, and peopling of the Americas’ (King and Motulsky,
2002, p. 2342).
The assumption that ‘DNA evidence’ may help in historical research appears to have
informed a whole new field in population genetics, which is sometimes described as genetic
anthropology or genetic history. Such studies aim to reconstruct the history of human
migrations and cast light on the origins of various populations. Their research questions
often come directly from historical debates. At the same time, they are normally performed
solely by geneticists and their results are presented in a ‘technical’ language, which would
hardly be accessible for historians, and are disseminated in mainstream scientific journals
aimed at geneticists and other natural scientists. This raises questions about the intended
audience of these types of genetic interventions and about their actual impact on the
historical research to which they claim to be making a contribution.
This paper explores the way DNA studies of human migrations enact the relationship
between genetics and history and focuses on two case studies: research on the nature of
genetic diversity of South Asian populations and on the genetic history of different Jewish
communities around the world. The potential sociopolitical implications of this research and
the way it was received in the mass media and by the general public have been explored
elsewhere (Parfitt and Egorova, 2006; Egorova, 2009a, b). Here I would like to focus on
studies in population genetics as a site of the encounter between genetics and history. The
objectives of the article cluster around two sets of research questions. First, the paper will
discuss the way geneticists construct their contribution to historical debates. How do they
present the aims of their research in peer-reviewed publications? To what extent do they
view their work as ‘genetic’, ‘historical’ or ‘interdisciplinary’? Who do they consider to be
their main audience? Do they collaborate with historians? Second, the paper will examine
the way this research is perceived by historians working on the problems that geneticists
attempt to cast light on. Do they find this research useful and would they reference it in their
publications? Would they change their position in a historical debate in light of ‘genetic
evidence’? Are they open to the idea of collaborating with geneticists?
Pierre Bourdieu has suggested that ‘contacts between sciences, like contacts between
civilizations, are occasions when implicit dispositions have to be made explicit’ (Bourdieu,
2004, p. 42). The selected case studies provide an opportunity to examine to what extent
geneticists and historians are open to interventions from each other’s disciplines, whether
they draw any boundaries between their fields, how they define their areas of expertise, and
whether they consider each other to be legitimate commentators on the issues they are
In this respect, the article will contribute to academic discussions about the nature of
interdisciplinarity, which is often defined as ‘the integration of existing disciplinary
perspectives’(Lattuca et al, 2004, p. 24). Some commentators have welcomed scholarly
efforts aimed at transcending disciplinary boundaries. For instance, Mary Midgley (2001)
has described the existing division of disciplines into sciences and humanities as rather
artificial. The lack of knowledge of ‘what is going on’ in other disciplines has been critiqued
by a number of scholars (for example, Clark, 1963; Bauer, 1990; Becher and Trowler, 2001;
Moran, 2002). The particularly wide ‘cultural gap’ between humanities and sciences has
been lamented by C.P. Snow (1979) in his famous essay ‘The Two Cultures’. Steve Fuller
opined that only interdisciplinarity promises to bring ‘sustained epistemic change’ (quoted in
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
Barry et al, 2008, p. 26). It has also been observed that interdisciplinarity has recently turned
into a subject of enquiry not just by academics, but also by governments and funding
agencies, and has come to be seen as a solution to a number of contemporary problems, such
as, for instance, the relationship between science and society (Barry et al, 2008). Helga
Nowotny et al (2001) have suggested that this concern with interdisciplinarity can be seen as
part of a shift from what they describe as Mode 1 science to Mode 2 knowledge production,
which is supposed to involve research transcending disciplinary boundaries.
These accounts of interdisciplinarity have been interrogated by Andrew Barry et al, who
on the basis of their empirical study of three interdisciplinary fields have distinguished
between three modes of interdisciplinarity – the integrative-synthesis mode, the subordina-
tion-service mode and the agonistic antagonistic mode. The first mode is supposed to be
achieved through the synthesis of different disciplinary approaches. In the second mode, one
or more disciplines are arranged in a relation of service to other disciplines and presuppose a
hierarchical division of scholarly labour. In the third mode, interdisciplinarity stems from
opposition to the given assumptions of existing disciplines (2008, pp. 28–29). The authors
also stress the importance of distinguishing between different types of cross-disciplinary
research – interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. Unlike interdisci-
plinarity, multidisciplinarity is often described as a type of knowledge production involving
collaborative effort from different disciplines, which remain unchanged in the process. Ian
Hacking has made a case for multidisciplinarity when he stated that disciplines collaborating
in the study of complex objects should retain their disciplinary base. Transdisciplinarity, on
the contrary, is supposed to involve a transcendence of disciplinary boundaries, and is a term
chosen by Nowotny et al for the Mode 2 knowledge production (2008, p. 27).
Studies in ‘genetic history’ considered here cast a new light on these important accounts of
disciplinary boundaries. On the one hand, they fit the description of interdisciplinary
research, as they are supposed to integrate genetics and history to a considerable degree. For
the purposes of fund-raising and popularisation of these studies in the mass media, they are
‘advertised’ as genetics meeting history. Indeed, the aim of these studies is to answer
historical questions, which for geneticists would involve a high level of engagement with the
discipline of history. However, a close examination of scientific papers published on the basis
of these studies and interviews with geneticists and historians reveals that more often than
not this research is mainly conceived as a monodisciplinary effort by geneticists and is
dismissed as alien to the discipline of history by historians.
This article will demonstrate that though geneticists and historians are familiar with
research emerging in the other discipline and are open to the idea of engaging with it to some
degree, they are also keen on demarcating their disciplines from each other. This makes
the relationship between geneticists and historians also interesting from the perspective of
studies on boundary-work in science. Thomas Gieryn (1999) has examined the way
scientists attempt to draw boundaries between disciplines or to demarcate science from non-
science in order to re-claim contested epistemic authority. Olga Amsterdamska has observed
that oftentimes studies in boundary-work have focused on demarcations in conflict, whereas
scientists might also sometimes attempt to demarcate their fields under circumstances when
no actual “enemy” or competitor is in sight and for purposes other than “expansion”,
“expulsion” and “protection of autonomy”(2005, p. 20). This article will explore whether
historians and geneticists construct the relationship between them as competitive or
350 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
complementary. It will be suggested that while geneticists see it as the latter, historians tend
to perceive it as the former. For geneticists their relationship with history does not involve
conflict or contestation of power. They see it as a way of filling in gaps in historical
knowledge by using more ‘objective’ and therefore reliable methods than those traditionally
available to historians. However, geneticists argue that to be able to make this ‘more
objective’ contribution to history, they need to dissociate themselves from historical research
and to make sure the validity of their work is recognised first and foremost by colleagues
from their ‘home’ discipline.
At the same time, historians appear to see genetic studies as an unwelcome attempt to
colonise their discipline. Symptomatic of this concern is their statements about natural
sciences being perceived both by the public and the funders as having more cognitive
authority. The article will argue that in responding to genetic research historians renegotiate
the boundaries between ‘science’ and ‘pseudoscience’, and between ‘good’ and ‘bad’
scientific practice. These boundaries, which are often used rhetorically in scientific discourse
to demarcate practices vested with cognitive authority from research of inferior epistemo-
logical significance, are reinterpreted by historians trying to reclaim their field of expertise.
Boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ scientific research are redefined by them not just on the
basis of the perceived cognitive value of these studies but also in relation to their social and
political implications. In this respect, it will be suggested that historians distinguish between
what I will term Science with a capital ‘S’ and science with a small ‘s’. They appreciate that
the genetic studies in question may be considered bona fide science by other geneticists,
however, they still see them an overall failure, because they do not succeed in answering the
set historical questions to the satisfaction of historians.
The case studies considered here also provide an intriguing new perspective on the three
modes of interdisciplinarity suggested by Barry et al (2008). As in Mode 2, both historians
and geneticists see their relationship as hierarchical. Both groups appear to view genetics as
a discipline, which is in a service position in relation to history. However, ironically,
geneticists nevertheless consider their discipline to be cognitively superior to the one from
which they are deriving their research questions. At the same time, historians see this
relationship also as antagonistic (Mode 3), as their attitude towards genetics is mainly
characterised by a desire to challenge its epistemological assumptions. This divide is
reinforced by a lack of accountability that geneticists demonstrate vis-a
`-vis historians.
Despite the fact that geneticists are supposed to be contributing to historical questions, they
do not appear to be under any pressure either to publish in historical journals or to be peer-
reviewed by historians. As a result, their findings, which appear in high-profile journals of
the natural sciences, are discarded as flawed and meaningless by the very scholars whose
work they are supposed to augment.
This paradoxical situation may be symptomatic of some of the more general problems
that prevent interdisciplinarity from emerging as a new form of knowledge production
‘on the ground’, rather than just in media headlines, grant applications and policy
documents. These problems include the perceived hierarchy of disciplines, unequal
distribution of funding and lack of accountability to researchers from other disciplines,
effected by the peer-review system.
My analysis is based on a close reading of 16 papers on the genetic history of Jewish and
South Asian populations, and in-depth interviews conducted with eight geneticists who
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
played a key role in either or both types of studies and with 20 historians with expertise in
the issues examined in the genetic studies under survey. Interviews were conducted in India,
Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
History without History: Accounts of Geneticists
Genetic studies on South Asian populations that engage with historical topics often attempt
to cast light on the origin of the caste system and on the nature of genetic diversity on the
subcontinent. Some of them explicitly address the debate about Aryan migration. According
to a historical narrative dating back to the British period, the caste system was established
as a result of so-called Aryans, who originated in Eurasia and descended on the subcontinent
in the second millennium BC, forming the upper strata of society, while pushing the
‘indigenous’ groups into subservient positions. The ‘Aryans’ were supposed to be of the
same stock as those groups who went west to Europe. Allegedly the Aryans brought to
the subcontinent an Indo-European language that later developed into Sanskrit. This account
started losing its popularity around the middle of the twentieth century due to a lack of
adequate archaeological evidence (Trautmann, 1997; Sharma, 1999; Thapar, 2002). The idea
that Indian castes may be representing groups of different ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ origin and that
members of upper and lower castes may differ in terms of their physicality rather than only in
respect to their occupation and culture has proved to be extremely controversial. In British
India debates about the relationship between caste and ‘race’ appeared in the discussions of
colonial scholars-administrators and of Indian nationalists. In independent India, these
debates, as well as the theory of Aryan migration, featured prominently in the discourses of
the Hindu right and activists of the Dalit (untouchable) movement. When the Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was in power from 1998 to 2004, its leaders attempted to
revise Indian history textbooks to argue that ‘Aryans’ originated on the subcontinent,
construed as the cradle of both Indian and European civilisations (Roy et al, 2005). Some
Dalit ideologues, on the contrary, have sought to argue that Indian upper castes are the
descendants of Aryans who came from outside of the subcontinent and therefore should be
considered as ‘newcomers’ and ‘conquerors’ in respect of the autochthonous populations that
formed the lower castes and untouchable groups. It has also been suggested by them that
caste discrimination could be equated with racism (Prashad, 2000; Reddy, 2005).
The past decade has witnessed a growth in the number of DNA studies that aim to explore
the genetic relationship between the different castes and tribes of India. Some of them
explicitly and others implicitly attempt to contribute to the debate about Aryan migration.
As was shown elsewhere (Egorova, 2009b), so far these studies have not reached a consensus
about the nature of genetic diversity of the subcontinent. Some of them have argued that
upper castes demonstrate more significant genetic proximity to ‘Europeans’, which may date
back to the period of the alleged Aryan migration (Bamshad et al, 2001; Cordaux et al,
2004). Others arrived at the conclusion that the genetic diversity of the South Asian
population predates the possible Aryan migration and does not map easily, if at all, on caste
groups (Kivisild et al, 2003; Sahoo et al, 2006).
Just like DNA research conducted in South Asia aimed to address the ‘big mysteries’ of
early Indian history, genetic studies of Jewish populations attempted to cast light on some of
352 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
the puzzles of Jewish history, which have both occupied the attention of professional
historians and were of importance in public imagination. These studies claimed to test the
idea about contemporary Jewish communities being descended from one source in the
Middle East, as well as other Biblical, rabbinic and popular traditions pertaining to Jewish
history. The research that was publicised most widely has included studies on the Cohens
and the Levites, on the ‘Jewish mothers’, and on the Lemba Judaising movement of South
Africa. The first two sets of studies attempted to test the tradition, according to which
the status of Jewish priests and Levites had been for centuries transmitted from father to
son (Thomas et al, 1998; Behar et al, 2003). The study on the ‘founding mothers’ of different
Jewish communities tried to determine whether the maternal transmission of the status of
the Jew would be reflected in the DNA of Jewish populations (Thomas et al, 2002; Behar
et al, 2004; Behar et al, 2006). The study on the Lemba explored the possible Jewish origin
of this Bantu-speaking community of southern Africa (Thomas et al, 2002).
This section will examine the way the relationship between genetics and history is
constructed in scientific papers presenting the results of genetic studies on South Asian and
Jewish populations and how it is conceptualised by scientists interviewed by the author. The
overwhelming majority of papers were published in major peer-reviewed scientific journals,
such as Nature,American Journal of Human Genetics,European Journal of Human
Genetics,PNAS and Current Biology. As one of the interviewed geneticists explained to me,
this choice of journals was determined by the fact that the number of population geneticists
working on the history of human migrations was not large enough to establish a separate
journal. Publishing in journals of history was deemed to be even more problematic, as such
publications would neither count as eligible in various assessments of research outputs,
nor would they be read and acknowledged by his colleagues – natural scientists. When asked
whether they normally try to disseminate the results of their research among historians or
would consider publishing in journals of history, all respondents noted that they were under
too much pressure to publish in ‘proper’ journals of their discipline to be able to invest
enough time in publishing outside of the narrow circle of high-impact scientific periodicals.
In this respect, it is interesting to consider the way geneticists present the objectives and
research questions of their studies. Do they engage with historical sources in their
publications? Do they stress the relevance of their work to historical debates or do they
prefer to downplay it and emphasise the significance of their results for genetics?
Practically all papers contain only a minimal number of references to historical, social
anthropological, archaeological or linguistic studies. Only very few of them have historians
as co-authors (Thomas et al, 1998; Thomas et al, 2000). At the same time, most of them aim
to cast light on a historical question. The titles of most of them indicate which historical
issues they are dealing with and what argument they are going to develop.
Most papers begin with a reference to a specific historical question and make a bold
statement about how the analysed genetic data may help to cast light on this question. For
example, this is the opening paragraph from one of the papers on the genetic profile of
Jewish priests:
According to Jewish tradition, following the Exodus from Egypt, males of the tribe
of Levi, of which Moses was a member, were assigned special religious responsibi-
lities, and male descendants of Aaron, his brother, were selected to serve as Priests
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
(Cohanim). To the extent that particular inheritance has been followed since sometime
around the Temple period (roughly 3000–2000 years before present), Y chromosomes
of present-day Cohanim and Levites should not only be distinguishable from those of
other Jews, but – given the dispersion of the priesthood following the Temple’s
destruction – they should derive from a common ancestral type no more recently than
the Temple period. Here we show that although Levite chromosomes are diverse,
Cohen chromosomes are homogenous. We trace the origin of Cohen chromosomes
to about 3000 years before present, early during the Temple period. (Thomas et al,
1998, p. 138)
Similarly, Bamshad et al’s paper on the origin of Indian caste populations begins with a very
clear outline of the historical debate that it attempts to contribute to.
Shared Indo-European languages (i.e. Hindi and most European languages) suggested
to linguists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that contemporary Hindu Indians
are descendants of primarily West Eurasians who migrated from Europe, the
Near East, Anatolia and the Caucasus 3000-8000 years agoyThese nomadic
migrants have consolidated their power by admixing with native Dravidic-speaking
(e.g. Telugu) proto-Asian populations who controlled regional access to land, labour
and resourcesyand subsequently established the caste hierarchy to legitimate and
maintain this poweryIt is plausible that these West Eurasian immigrants also
appointed themselves to predominantly castes of higher rank. However, archeological
evidence of the diffusion of material culture from West Eurasia into India has been
limitedyTherefore, information on the genetic relationships of Indians to Europeans
and Asians could contribute substantially to understanding the origins of Indian
populations. (Bamshad et al, 2001, pp. 994–995)
Thus in Barry et al’s terms, the authors firmly position genetics as a service discipline in
respect to history. DNA tools are here for historians to help them do their job. Some papers
make specific suggestions about how historians could take their research further by using
genetic data. For instance, Behar et al’s paper (2003) on the origins of Ashkenazi Levites
demonstrates that this population has a distinctive haplogroup R1a1 at high frequency,
which is very common in populations of Eastern European origin, and a common ancestor
within the past 2000 years. It is implied in the article that what may have led to a high
frequency of R1a1 within the Ashkenazi Levites was that this group had a founder
(or a limited number of founders) of non-Jewish European origin, whose descendants
assumed Levite status. The paper goes on to speculate about the possible historical context
of these events and suggests that ‘[o]ne attractive source would be the Khazarian kingdom,
whose ruling class is thought to have converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century’
(Behar et al, 2003, p. 777). Thus, the ‘objective’ scientific results about the presence of R1a1
modal haplogroup among the Ashkenazi Levite Jews are further interpreted in the direction
of an intriguing and historically relevant suggestion about a possible conversion event
preceding the formation of the Ashkenazi community. The article concludes by saying that
the study ‘has revealed evidence for an unexpected and unusual historical event, which was
not appreciated using other, more conventional historical approaches’. It even asserts that
the presented findings ‘may motivate historians and social scientists to seek further
354 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
information regarding the possibility of such an event, and, more generally, to include
information gleaned from studies of DNA variation in the repertoire of tools used to uncover
historical events y’ (Behar et al, 2003, p. 778).
Just like the papers explicitly state their objective of intervening in historical debates, in
the interviews almost all respondents observed that they deliberately chose to explore
historical questions by using DNA analysis. At the same time, just like the papers failed to
demonstrate adequate engagement with historical literature, interviewed geneticists
expressed only a very limited degree of interest in actively collaborating with historians in
the process of their everyday research. Moreover, all of them explicitly or implicitly tried to
dissociate their work from historical research at least to some extent. Despite the fact that
in the papers research questions are formulated in such a way that genetics seems to be
just a tool summoned to serve history, in the interviews geneticists portray history as
a cognitively inferior discipline by presenting it as an infantile activity. I asked each
interviewee to define their disciplinary affiliation. Every one of them stressed that they were
first and foremost geneticists and happened to be doing this kind of research by chance.
When I asked one respondent how he became interested in applying genetics to history
he laughed and said, ‘I used to have a respectable career’. He went on to explain that he
was trained as a geneticist and was initially involved in medical research, but then an
opportunity came up to work on human history. As he had always had a genuine interest in
history he was glad to take it up. His ironic remark constructs a juxtaposition between his
current research on genetics and history and earlier work which career-wise was more
‘respectable’. This assessment of his career path most probably reflects the views of the wider
scientific community on these types of studies.
Several respondents spoke about history as their childhood hobby. These remarks again
contribute to the narrative about history being somewhat ‘easier’ than genetics, a job that
even a child can do. This is how one of the geneticists described his research interests:
So, I’m not a trained historian of pre-history or historical times. But it’s been a theme
that’s always been one of my interests, a hobby interest. So I was fortunate that I could
merge my professional training in biology and molecular biology and then look at
history from a DNA perspective. And that sort of helped me satisfy (y) helped me get
more involved in one of my earlier interests as a child, history.
One of my respondents admitted that he and his colleagues in this field were often under
pressure to overemphasise their potential contribution to historical debates when applying for
funding, and to over-interpret their results when preparing papers for publication.
He noted that it was hard enough to obtain funding for these types of studies – studies that
dealt with history, rather than, for instance, with medicine – not to try to sensationalise them
at least to some degree. This response demonstrates that scientists feel that they are under
pressure to achieve interdisciplinarity ‘on the paper’. The deeper their research proposals
engage with historical debates, the more likely their projects are to attract financial support.
This is not surprising given the interest that governments and funding bodies currently express
in interdisciplinary research – a phenomenon described by STS scholars and mentioned in the
introduction. However, once funding has been obtained, geneticists feel the need to shed the
‘spoilt identity’ of humanities scholars (Goffman, 1963) by minimising their involvement with
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
academic history. Ironically, they defend their position by claiming that the deeper they engage
with history, the less ‘objective’ (and therefore ‘correct’) their findings will be.
One informant stressed that interpreting genetic data was always a challenge, particularly
if they had to be considered in light of specific historical debates. He suggested that even the
most up-to-date techniques developed in population genetics could not give researchers
enough ‘molecular resolution’ to offer anything like a definitive answer to such complex
questions as those about the dispersal of the Jewish people or about the formation of the
caste system. Ironically, in his view, one way of avoiding over-interpretation was not getting
involved in historical and archaeological scholarship on the studied subject. The interviewee
argued that paying too much attention to historical and archaeological evidence could lead
to the possibility of bias:
What I like out of a historian (y) you know (y) they’re certainly welcomeybut what
I’m looking for (y) is ideally two competing models (y) And one model suggests this
and one model suggests that (y) And I go in there with neutrality for either model
because I’m ignorant to what (y) I don’t have any vested interest of which model is right
from an archaeological perspective. But that provides a framework for a potential genetic
investigation if one can get the appropriate samples etcetera (y) Then you can (y)then
you have a framework to do very traditionalyyou know here’s the data and let’s analyse
the results and let’s compare the results, are they more consistent with model A or model
B. And then you write your discussion and you say well my results are consistent with
neither model. Or I have a hybrid model or my results are very consistent with A and not
consistent with B. And you don’t get too bogged down about why B’s wrong or A is right
from an archaeological perspective because you’re writing for a genetics journal and it’s
going to be read by geneticists primarily, not necessarily archaeologists. But then you
know you’ve contributed a little piece of evidence and the archaeologists are going to
eventually fight over what your genetic data means (y) You’re hoping that you’re
contributing a small piece of a puzzle (y) And it’s not necessarily going to be a tipping
point. But you’ve added to a course correction towards the truth.
Historical and archaeological research here are construed as ‘biased’ and ‘subjective’.
Therefore, paradoxically, the geneticist’s argument is that to be able to provide ‘objective’
data that will help historians in solving their controversies, scientists should not be engaging
too deeply with historical and archaeological research.
At the same time, most interviewees admitted that though they would hardly be able to
invest much time and energy in it, they would benefit from some form of collaboration with
historians if it was initiated by historians or organised by a third party and was not too time-
consuming. As one of them put it, ‘I would not mind attending a workshop or two with
historians. Why don’t you arrange something like this?’ Two of them were ready to make
significant effort to engage with historical research. One interviewee stressed that it was
imperative for geneticists to disseminate the results of their research among historians and
for this reason he would sometimes attend conferences organised by historians and other
social scientists and humanities scholars. At the same time, he admitted that his career
depended entirely upon his track record of publications in scientific journals and the opinion
that his geneticist colleagues, rather than historians, had about his work.
356 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
One interviewee was actively collaborating with historians already. Together with
colleagues from a history department he was applying to an external funding body for
a grant which would sponsor a PhD studentship. The student would be working on a project
concerning genetic history and ideally would have an undergraduate degree in history and
would later receive training in genetics. Reflecting on his experience working with histo-
rians, my respondent observed that lack of expertise in each other’s fields was a considerable
stumbling block for him and his collaborators. He also pointed to other structural problems
in the relationship between geneticists and historians, such as the lack of an adequate peer-
review process of genetic papers on human migration. He suggested it would be useful to
send papers by population geneticists not just to their peers but also to relevant historians for
review. I pointed to him a paper where in the view of the historians whom I interviewed the
lack of proper engagement with up-to-date historical research rendered the results of
the genetic study invalid. My respondent admitted that this was an example of a flaw in the
review process, and due to a lack of multidisciplinary refereeing it was all too easy for
geneticists to get away with poor engagement with history, even if it significantly affected the
outcomes of their work. Even this interviewee kept stressing that it was hard to obtain
funding for these types of studies and that, like some of his other colleagues, he had to do
other work which had nothing to do with human history.
Almost every interviewee raised the question about the potential social and ethical
implications of their research. They all seemed to be fully aware of the possible impact of
their research on the self-identification of the studied communities. In this context one of the
respondents observed that sometimes he wished he was studying animals, as he did not want
to deal with the possible social consequences of his work. All respondents were very well
aware of the tragic history of Nazi science and eugenics and in the interviews did their best
to dissociate their research rhetorically from this history. However, they also insisted that
they could not control the way their research was going to be interpreted by the ‘general
public’ and claimed that they could not be held accountable for the possible consequences of
their work. To use Anne Kerr et al’s terms, my respondents tended to relegate the ethical
implications of their studies to the ‘macrorealm’ of the wider social context of scientific
research, which had nothing to do with ‘pure’ science (1997).
Duana Fullwiley (2007) has observed on the basis of her study of the way American
geneticists use the concept of race in their work, that as much as scientists try to dissociate
themselves from racialist thinking, they use racial categories as a practical and conceptual
tool without interrogating critically their function. Similarly, in the examples presented here,
geneticists fail to acknowledge that their research unnecessarily biologises the caste system
and definitions of Jewishness.
One respondent, who was involved in studies on Jewish
populations, mentioned that his research was likely to be misinterpreted and misused by
some, but insisted that it was out of his hands. He said that people used to approach him and
ask whether it could be ‘genetically’ tested if they were Jewish. He was adamant to stress that
being Jewish was not about genetics and it was wrong that this research was interpreted this
way, but claimed that he had no control over these types of ‘popular’ representations of his
work. Another respondent, who was engaged in research in India, suggested that the caste
system is far too complex to reduce it to genetics. As will be demonstrated below, this
1 For a discussion on biologisation and molecularisation of race see also Duster (2005), Fullwiley (2008).
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
position, which disentangles caste and Jewishness from physicality ‘in real life’, is very
similar to that of the historians. However, in their scientific work geneticists still link these
categories to biology without interrogating the rationale for this practice.
Science with a Small ‘s’: Historians’ Responses to Genetics
It has been demonstrated by social scientists that the usage of ‘DNA evidence’ beyond the
realm of academia has hardly proved to be uncontroversial. For instance, Amade M’charek
(2005) has shown in the context of her study of a Forensic DNA laboratory that a genetic
marker is much more of an invested category, rather than a universal tool. Michael Lynch
et al (2008) have argued on the basis of their ethnography of ‘DNA fingerprinting’ that the
value of DNA evidence in the courtroom very much rests on practices and circumstantial
knowledge, which are not radically different from those that support more conventional
forms of evidence.
This section will explore to what degree historians accept ‘genetic carbon dating’ as
a valid historical method and whether they see DNA techniques as a more effective and
‘objective’ tool that they could use instead of or alongside historical methods. To examine the
impact that population genetics may have had on the discipline of history I have interviewed 20
historians working in the fields of South Asian and Jewish Studies. Most of them were senior
scholars who have made a significant contribution to their discipline. In addition, I have also had
numerous informal discussions on the issue with my colleagues from the fields of Jewish Studies
and the history and social studies of South Asia. The respondents were asked whether they were
aware of any genetic studies conducted in their field of enquiry, and if yes, if they could assess
their significance for historical research.
Unlike the jurors in the courtroom, historians hardly felt they were under any pressure to
consider ‘DNA evidence’ in their work. All the respondents working in the field of Jewish
Studies said that they were familiar with the study on the ‘common’ origin of the Jewish
communities worldwide, on the Cohen Modal Haplotype and on the Lemba, as they had
been widely publicised in the mass media. Similarly, all historians of caste were aware of
some genetic research on Indian populations, but would not seriously consider using it in
their own studies.
Almost every interviewee observed that they could not understand genetic research
completely and that generally historians and social scientists could hardly be expected to
know enough genetics to be able to ‘check up on’ these studies unless the entire system of
academic education was restructured. Most of them observed that geneticists themselves
disagreed with each other and it was impossible for a historian to determine whose findings
were ‘correct’. One person said that it was a classic example of C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures
divide’ (Snow, 1979). Another respondent, who was happy to refer to genetic research on the
Kohanim in his Jewish history class, stated that he had to read the relevant article every year
before the class, where he mentioned it, because it would not ‘sink in’ for him.
However, at the same time, my respondents were all able to make constructive criticisms
about the way geneticists formulated their questions, and selected their target populations.
2 Some parts of this section have been published in Egorova (2009b).
358 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
One historian, commenting on a paper on the origin of Indian castes, argued that he was
happy to believe it was probably ‘scientifically correct within the discipline of genetics’, but
on the whole it was a failure because the researchers were not up-to-date with current
historical research on caste, did not define their categories properly and got their sampling
wrong. As one historian observed, ‘they may think that they got their science right but at
the end of the day it is bad science because their poor knowledge of history rendered their
results useless’. It is interesting how he distinguishes the science that geneticists have ‘got
right’ from the science that they ‘got wrong’. This feeling was shared by most of the
interviewed scholars. In discussing genetic studies on human history, they were creating
a dichotomy between what I would refer to as science with a small ‘s’ and science with
a capital ‘S’. Science with a small ‘s’ that in the view of my respondents the geneticists ‘got
right’ is laboratory science, statistics, benchwork, but science with a capital ‘S’ that they
‘got wrong’ is this grander investigatory process that was supposed to cast light on the origin
of caste or on Jewish history. It is in this process that, according to the interviewed, the
geneticists were a failure, as their research methodology did not allow them to answer the set
research question in a meaningful way. To use Barry et al’s typology, they clearly saw
genetics as a service discipline in relation to history, but considered the service provided by it
of very little use to their research.
About two-thirds of my respondents felt very strongly that geneticists should not interfere
in historical debates at all because they were bound to be asking wrong questions and
unnecessarily naturalising social categories. Some historians of South Asia noted that the
question about the ethnic composition of different castes was of no historical significance.
On the whole they could not see historians using it as yet another methodological tool for
their research in the foreseeable future. One of them attempted to dissociate both himself
and his discipline completely from genetics:
I don’t think that genetic research is going to be of any help to me in ancient Indian
history. Maybe other historians would be able to make use of genetics, but I can’t think
of any such historians. Maybe there are some historians who can make use of scientific
data better generally or of genetic data in some places. But by and large I do not know
of any historians that make use of genetic data generally and certainly in the context of
India I don’t think anyone has used genetics.
Many historians also observed that it had already been established by historians and social
anthropologists that the caste system was a social phenomenon, and they dismayed to see
that this issue was now being re-visited by geneticists. My interviewees were also concerned
that genetic ‘explanations’ were likely to receive more weight in the public imagination
because of the perceived ‘objectivity’ of the natural sciences as opposed to humanities. Thus,
despite the fact that they considered genetics to be in a service position, they were not
comfortable with the potential that it had for ‘colonising’ history with what could be seen by
the public (and therefore funders) as ‘superior’ methods.
The remaining one-third of respondents argued that they could see how genetics could be
useful for historians, provided geneticists had ‘proper’ methodology – by which they meant
consulting historians at the stage of determining their research objectives and sampling. One
respondent wished it was possible to organise forums for geneticists and historians to meet
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
and discuss the possibility of using genetics in historical research. He was convinced that it
was historians that should be initiating these types of studies by formulating questions
themselves and then directing geneticists by telling them what exactly it was that they
wanted to be checked with the help of DNA tests, rather than leaving it to geneticists to be
setting up their aims on the basis of their ‘general knowledge’ of history. Here genetics is
again perceived as a service discipline; however, it is argued that it does not properly enact its
‘place’ in the hierarchy of disciplines.
At the same time, even those who were more optimistic about using genetics in history
were not sure about how soon it will become a common tool for historical research. The
general feeling was that they needed to learn more about it to be able to assess its prospects
for the future. Many of them felt that geneticists had to do more outreach work and
disseminate their results in historical journals or at least in popular science magazines. If they
were to be published only in scientific periodicals, which had a narrow focus they could
hardly be expected to be noticed by historians and social scientists.
One of the experts on Jewish history suggested that he would sometimes use genetic
studies as a ‘teaching device’:
On the first day of my history class I bring the genetic question to their attention.
On the very first day in the introductory lecture to kind of challenge them, to open up
the discussion around what we can know and what we can’t know and how the stories
that are passed on to us may or may not be corroborated.
At the same time, he was not ready to reference these studies in his own research on the
grounds that being a ‘non-scientist’ he did not know how to evaluate them. Thus for him
genetic research on the Jewish communities is a social phenomenon, a ‘study-object’ to be
explored by historians and social scientists. Instead of using it as a new tool to solve already
existing controversies in Jewish history, he sees it as a new topic for historians to ponder. The
respondent was ready to acknowledge that interesting findings could come up from a
collaboration between geneticists and historians, but this kind of interdisciplinarity, ideal in
principle, would be very hard to achieve: ‘if historians are expected to study genetics and
geneticists are expected to study history, well this is too much to ask. Specialisation is the
future of the academy and a future of our modern world. And so I don’t know how that
would look’. This attitude mirrors the responses of the interviewed geneticists, who quoted
‘structural’ pressures, such as the peer-review system and requirements of research output
assessments, as factors preventing them from collaborating with historians more closely and
presenting the results of their studies in history journals.
‘Structural’ pressures aside, almost every respondent appeared to be reluctant to engage
with genetics because of its cultural image. Just like geneticists were concerned about being
associated with a discipline occupying a lower level in the cognitive hierarchy, historians
sought to avoid being ‘tainted’ by a discipline whose history was associated with eugenics.
For instance, one respondent, who worked in the field of ancient Indian history, expressed
concern about the extent to which genetic studies of human migrations were ‘scientifically
correct’. Thus, he seemed to have doubts even about the science with a small ‘s’ involved in
these types of studies. He wanted to see other scientists confirming the validity of these
findings, as population genetics was a relatively new field. He would not mind using science
360 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
in his work, but wanted to make sure that it was bona fide science. Interestingly, in this
respect he went on to draw parallels between population genetics and eugenics:
In a sense, we have been here before with phrenology and craniometry. It all looked
like scientific research at the time, but then it turned out that it was just a racist myth.
How are we supposed to know if this study has any scientific value to it?
Like scientists themselves, this respondent is eager to engage in boundary-work (Gieryn,
1999) and to demarcate ‘superior’ explanations of ‘proper’ sciences from ‘meaningless’
explanations of ‘pseudo’ sciences. It is just that for him population genetics does not
completely count as a ‘proper’ science because of its historical baggage and association with
eugenics. He felt that this type of research was somehow too controversial to be valid and
he expressed his reservations about it by suggesting that it was faulty by the standards of
other sciences.
All respondents, irrespective of what they thought about the explanatory power of science
in general or about using genetics in historical research, stressed that no matter whether
the geneticists got their science and historical references right or wrong, this kind of research
was very controversial by virtue of the fact that it could have negative social and political
implications. Practically everybody observed that it was unnecessarily naturalising such
categories as castes and Jewishness and was likely to weaken claims of origin of at least some
of the groups concerned. In this respect several respondents based in India called on the
example of the tragic controversy around the Babri Masjid when some archaeologists were
volunteering to ‘prove’ that the mosque was or was not built on the site of the temple that
allegedly commemorated the birthplace of Rama.
According to them, even if it were
somehow possible to establish what was originally built on this site, this information would
be completely irrelevant for the discussion of who should worship here now, and any
conclusion to such a study could be used to disempower either the Hindu or the Muslim
groups. Many interviewees working in the field of Indian history noted that though the
scientists who conducted genetic studies on caste most probably did not have any vested
interest in arriving at a particular conclusion in their work and participated in their research
out of ‘pure academic interest’, this ‘re-naturalisation’ of caste represented a throwback to
colonial discussions of the relationship between caste and ‘race’.
A respondent from Jewish Studies noted that though he found genetic research on the
Jewish communities interesting, he thought that it did bring up questions that were normally
associated with Nazism and white supremacy, and that this research was going against
everything he had learnt and taught about Jewish identity. In this case, like in the other
responses of historians, the relationship between genetics and history is construed not just as
hierarchical (with genetics being supposed to serve history), but also as antagonistic (Mode 3
of interdisciplinarity in Barry et al’s terms) in the sense that my interviewees were determined
to challenge the epistemic assumptions of population genetic research. Interestingly, his
words echoed those of one of the geneticists quoted above, who was perplexed about some
3 The Babri Masjid (the mosque of Babur, Urdu) was constructed in Ayodhya in the sixteenth century at the
site, which many Hindus believe was the birthplace of Rama, one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu. The
mosque was destroyed in 6 December 1992 by the crowd brought in by the Hindu communalist party
Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and associated groups. The destruction of Babri Masjid
sparked one of the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence in contemporary Indian history.
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
people wanting their Jewishness to be genetically tested. However, the historian argued that
the impossibility of reducing Jewishness to genetics rendered genetic research aimed at
searching for markers associated with Jewish populations meaningless. The geneticist, at the
same time, was convinced that this was bona fide science. For the former, it was a failure of
Science with a capital ‘S’. For the latter, there was no contradiction between not being able to
reduce Jewishness to genetics and still continuing to sample populations by their affiliation
to Jewish tradition.
On the whole, the interviewed historians did not appear to be very comfortable dealing
with ‘scientific interventions’ in their field. Contrary to the suggestions of geneticists, it was
very difficult for them to view DNA-testing as yet another tool for historical research, which
they should ‘take on board’ and use. Even those who did entertain the idea of using genetics
in historical research, provided it was done in collaboration with historians, had reservations
about using it because of its perceived association with eugenics and discriminatory
anthropometric practices of the past. As was shown above, this even led one of them to
question the very epistemological authority of this research.
In this respect, historians’ responses to studies in population genetics could be viewed
as an interesting case of public engagement with science and an example of ‘non-scientists’
renegotiating the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science. As it has been demonstrated
by STS scholars, the credibility of science is validated by public trust. Once this trust is lost,
science’s explanatory power is also undermined in the eye of the public (Wynne, 1995). It is
also interesting to consider their responses in light of studies that explored the social
constructions of ‘ignorance’. Peter Dickens (2004) has argued that public ‘ignorance’ of
science may reflect an active moral stance countering what is seen as an irresponsible culture
of scientism. Mike Michael (1996) has demonstrated that when publics find available
knowledge useless or socially dangerous they may refuse to assimilate it. Interviewed
historians felt very strongly that they did not need to know the science behind genetic studies
to discard them on the basis of their own expertise and moral judgment. Their reactions
may be seen as an example of what Brian Wynne has described as ignorance, which is ‘not
a cognitive vacuum, or a deficit by default of knowledge, but an active construct, and one
with cognitive content, about the social dimensions of science’ (Wynne, 1995, p. 380).
The geneticist David Goldstein reflecting on his work on the Jewish communities wrote that
‘genetics is slowly earning a place in the historical sciences’ and that ‘our narratives describing
the histories of peoples and events yare all being augmented and refined by genetic analyses
in a field now often called genetic history’ (2008, p. 3). ‘Genetic history’ may indeed be
gaining weight as a new field in its own right, but ironically its impact on the existing
discipline of history so far seems to be rather modest. Studies, which were meant to employ
expertise from different disciplines, instead of becoming interdisciplinary, are evolving into
a new field. Interestingly, this evolution is happening despite the aspirations of geneticists to
portray their research as ‘genetics and nothing else’. The new field could be described as
transdisciplinary (Barry et al, 2008), but only in a rather negative sense. It is neither welcome
on the territory of the ‘more respectable’ genetics, nor is it accepted by historians.
362 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
What appears to have prevented ‘genetic history’ from achieving more positive interdisci-
plinarity is the perceived and structural constraints that geneticists and historians feel they are
under, and the way they view each other’s fields. For the purposes of fund-raising and
publicity geneticists are happy to stress the interdisciplinary nature of their work. They frame
their research questions in line with significant historical debates and interpret their results in
a way that would make them look like solutions to historical mysteries. However, on the level
of everyday research, they are keen on keeping some distance from the discipline of history in
the name of maintaining objectivity. On the whole, ‘doing history’ is explicitly or implicitly
construed by them as a ‘step down’ from ‘proper’ scientific work. Although, as the example of
one of my informants demonstrates, obtaining funding for engaging in a formal and
meaningful collaboration with historians is not outside of the realm of possibility, most of my
respondents shied away from it. Instead, they are anxious to gain recognition from fellow
geneticists whose research may be very different from theirs, rather than from historians
working on similar issues. As a result, they manage to maintain their reputation of ‘good
scientists’ and publish their findings, despite the fact that in the view of historians their studies
completely fail to answer the very research questions that they set for themselves.
Similarly, historians feel reluctant to refer to ‘DNA evidence’ in their work, because it is
not a common practice in their discipline. They are also wary of genetic research, because of
its perceived place in the hierarchy of disciplines. They view these studies as an attempt by
scientists to push out the frontiers of their cultural authority into spaces already claimed by
others (for relevance to theory of boundary-work see Gieryn, 1995, p. 429). By pointing to
lapses in the geneticists’ knowledge of relevant theories and findings from history and other
social sciences and humanities disciplines, they are renegotiating the boundaries between
‘good’ and ‘bad’ science and reinstating themselves as experts in the field in question.
Historians’ perceptions of the epistemological validity of this research also seem to be
intertwined with their attitudes towards its possible social outcomes. Both geneticists and
historians appear to be aware of the ethical implications of this kind of research. However,
while scientists tend to dissociate their work from its political context, historians insist on
playing the part of ‘responsible citizens’ and cast doubt on the validity of this research
because of its social implications.
These predispositions towards or against taking into consideration the social context of
research may be seen as what Bourdieu has described as ‘disciplinary habitus’ (2004, p. 42),
or a package of sociocultural norms that comes to be associated with a particular discipline.
Together with an orientation towards monodisciplinary peer-review and the perceived place
of genetics and history in the hierarchy of disciplines, this prevents geneticists and historians
from engaging with each other’s work in a more fruitful way.
Material that this paper is based upon was collected in the course of the projects sponsored
by the British Academy (grant ref. SG: 41704) and by the Nuffield Foundation (SGS/36124).
I am very grateful to Troy Duster, Sara Shostak and the four anonymous reviewers for their
valuable comments. I would also like to thank Soraya de Chadarevian for the opportunity to
present this paper in the special issue of BioSocieties.
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
About the Author
Yulia Egorova is Lecturer in Anthropology at Durham University. She is the author of Jews
and India: Perceptions and Image and a co-author of Genetics, Mass Media and Identity:A
Case Study of the Genetic Research on the Lemba and the Bene-Israel.
Amsterdamska, O. (2005) Demarcating epidemiology. Science, Technology and Human Values 30(1):
Bamshad, M. et al (2001) Genetic evidence on the origins of Indian caste populations. Genome Research
11(6): 994–1104.
Barry, A., Born, G. and Weszkalnys, G. (2008) Logics of interdisciplinarity. Economy and Society 37(1):
Bauer, H.H. (1990) Barriers against interdisciplinarity: Implications for Studies of Technology and Society
(STS). Science, Technology and Human Values 15: 105–119.
Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001) Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Inquiry and the Cultures of
Disciplines, 2nd edn. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University
Behar, D. et al (2003) Multiple origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y chromosome evidence for both Near Eastern
and European ancestries. American Journal of Human Genetics 73: 768–779.
Behar, D. et al (2004) MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish
Population. European Journal of Human Genetics 12: 355–364.
Behar, D. et al (2006) The matrilineal ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a recent founder event.
American Journal of Human Genetics 78: 487–497.
Bivins, R. (2008) Hybrid vigour? Genes, genomics, and history. Genomics, Society and Policy 4: 12–22.
Bourdieu, P. (2004) Science of Science and Reflexivity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Clark, B. (1963) Faculty culture. In: T.F. Lunsford (ed.) The Study of Academic Cultures. Boulder, CO:
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Cordaux, R., Aunger, R., Bentley, G., Nasidze, I., Sirajuddin, S.M. and Stoneking, M. (2004) Independent
origins of Indian caste and tribal paternal lineages. Current Biology 14: 231–235.
Dickens, P. (2004) Society and Nature. Towards a Green Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Duster, T. (2005) Race and reification in science. Science 307: 1050–1051.
Egorova, Y. (2009a) The truth is in the genes? Jewish responses to DNA research. Culture and Religion 10(3):
Egorova, Y. (2009b) De/geneticising caste: Population genetic research in South Asia. Science as Culture 18: 4.
Fullwiley, D. (2007) The molecularization of race: Institutionalizing human difference in pharmacogenetic
practice. Science as Culture: 1–30.
Fullwiley, D. (2008) The biologistical construction of race: Admixture technology and the new genetic
medicine. Social Studies of Science 38(5): 695–735.
Gieryn, T. (1995) Boundaries of science. In: S. Jasanoff, G.E. Markle, J.C. Petersen and T. Pinch (eds.),
Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage, pp. 393–443.
Gieryn, T. (1999) Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma. London: Penguin.
Goldstein, D. (2008) Jacob’s Legacy. A Genetic View of Jewish History. New Haven and London: Yale
University Press.
Kerr, A., Cunningham-Burley, S. and Amos, A. (1997) The new genetics: Professionals’ discursive boundaries.
The Social Review 45: 279–304.
King, M. and Motulsky, A. (2002) Human genetics: Mapping human history. Science 298: 2342–2343.
Kivisild, T. et al (2003) The genetic heritage of India’s early settlers persists both in Indian tribal and caste
populations. American Journal of Human Genetics 72: 313–332.
Lattuca, L.R., Voigt, L.J. and Fath, K.Q. (2004) Does interdisciplinarity promote learning? Theoretical
support and researchable points. The Review of Higher Education 28: 23–48.
364 r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
Lynch, M., Cole, S.A., McNally, R. and Jordan, K. (2008) Truth Machine: The Contentious History of DNA
Finger-Printing. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
M’charek, A. (2005) The Human Genome Diversity Project. An Ethnography of Scientific Practice.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Michael, M. (1996) Ignoring science: Discourses of ignorance in the public understanding of science. In:
A. Irwin and B. Wynne (eds.), Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Public and
Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 107–126.
Midgley, M. (2001) Science and Poetry. London and New York: Routledge.
Moran, J. (2002) Interdisciplinarity. London and New York: Routledge.
Nowotny, H., Scott, P. and Gibbons, M. (2001) Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of
Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity.
Parfitt, T. and Egorova, Y. (2006) Genetics, Mass Media and Identity: A Case Study of the Genetic Research
on the Lemba and Bene-Israel. London: Routledge.
Prashad, V. (2000) Afro-Dalits of the earth, unite! African Studies Review 43: 189–201.
Reddy, D. (2005) The ethnicity of caste. Anthropological Quarterly 78: 543–584.
Roy, K., Chakrabarti, K. and Sarkar, T. (2005) The Vedas, Hinduism, Hindutva. Kolkata, India: Ebong Alap.
Sahoo, S. et al (2006) A prehistory of Indian Y chromosomes: Evaluating demic diffusion scenarios. PNAS
103: 843–848.
Sharma, R.S. (1999) Advent of the Aryans in India. New Delhi: Manohar.
Snow, C.P. (1979) The Two Cultures and a Second Look. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thapar, R. (2002) The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. London: Penguin.
Thomas, M. et al (1998) Origins of old testament priests. Nature 394: 138–139.
Thomas, M.G., Skorecki, K., Ben-Ami, H., Parfitt, T., Bradman, N. and Goldstein, D.B. (2000)
Y chromosomes travelling south: The Cohen modal haplotype and the origins of the Lemba – The ‘Black
Jews’ of Southern Africa. American Journal of Human Genetics 66: 674–686.
Thomas, M. et al (2002) Founding mothers of Jewish communities: Geographically separated Jewish
groups were independently founded by very few female ancestors. American Journal of Human Genetics
70: 1411–1420.
Trautmann, T. (1997) Aryans in British India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Wynne, B. (1995) Public understanding of science. In: S. Jasanoff, G.E. Markle, J.C. Petersen and T. Pinch,
Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage, pp. 361–389.
DNA evidence? The impact of genetic research on historical debates
r2010 The London School of Economics and Political Science 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 5, 3, 348–365
... In this chapter, the concept of postcolonial racial surveillance requires scrutinising the ways in which science may reinforce racial and ethnic categories, as it might happen in some emerging technologies used in forensic genetics that are applied in criminal justice, are rather illustrative of the matrix of Western modernity and its logic of coloniality, which survived the collapse of colonial empires. Accordingly, this text, supported by the tools of history and sociology (Mignolo, 2007;Santos, 2007;Egorova, 2010;Tutton, Hauskeller and Sturdy, 2014), aims to demonstrate how the processes of transference of imperial legacies today reveal their presence in more subtle or more apparent processes of racialisation, by summoning, on the one hand, and mirroring, on the other, old logics of coloniality, social domination and control and subjugation. ...
... With this in mind, the paradoxical emphasis on the diversity embedded in the national genome reflects the tensions of social and geographical scale (individual, community, humanity: nation-state, region, world) that characterize human genetics both as a professional activity and as a mechanism for identity formation. (Burton, 2018, 20) The presence of projects dedicated to the study of the human genome has been accompanied by arid and thorny debates between geneticists and academics from the social sciences, in particular historians (Egorova, 2010). India, a postcolonial country and the subject of a long experience of British colonialism, is still dealing with the concern regarding the understanding of migratory movements and the legacies of these migrations in the cultural and genetic grammar of its people and castes in the geography of the Indian subcontinent (Egorova, 2010;Marshall, 2019;Roy, 2019). ...
... (Burton, 2018, 20) The presence of projects dedicated to the study of the human genome has been accompanied by arid and thorny debates between geneticists and academics from the social sciences, in particular historians (Egorova, 2010). India, a postcolonial country and the subject of a long experience of British colonialism, is still dealing with the concern regarding the understanding of migratory movements and the legacies of these migrations in the cultural and genetic grammar of its people and castes in the geography of the Indian subcontinent (Egorova, 2010;Marshall, 2019;Roy, 2019). Yulia Egorova demonstrates in her various important works (2010/2011, 2010, 2018) how population genetics studies are captured and imprisoned by historical and cultural dimensions that are tied firmly to a timeframe, which constantly pushes the interpretation of genetic results towards other readings, senses and meanings, thus calling for colonial legacies and mechanisms of social and cultural hierarchisation. ...
... As I have demonstrated elsewhere, genetic studies do not always reach a consensus about the way Jewish populations were founded (Egorova 2009a, 171-172). More importantly, so far professional historians have engaged with genetic research only to a very limited degree and normally refrain from using the findings of genetic anthropology as historical evidence (Egorova 2010a). ...
... Elsewhere I have discussed the socio-political context of studies in population genetics in India, and particularly, the time-old assumptions about the alleged 'biological' differences between Indian caste and linguistic groups that such studies appear to be based on (Egorova 2009a(Egorova , 2010a. Here, I will focus on one aspect of population genetic mapping in India, which connects this research to international clinical trials conducted in South Asia. ...
Full-text available
Drawing on two ethnographic examples of the sociocultural aspects of populations genetic research in India, the article explores in what ways tests aimed at assessing ‘genetic differences’ between populations can be viewed as enabling or disempowering for individuals, communities or nations subjected to such tests. The first builds on a response to DNA research demonstrated by the leaders of the Jewish Bene Ephraim community of Andhra Pradesh, a Dalit group who in the late 1980s declared their descent from the Lost Tribes of Israel. The second focuses on the Indian Genome Variation Consortium, a research network established in India in 2003 with the aim of mapping the country's human genetic diversity. Building upon Prainsack and Toom's theoretical concept of situated dis/empowerment, I suggest that in both case studies empowering and disempowering elements of DNA testing appear to co-constitute and co-produce each other, as they both reinforce reductionist accounts of human sociality and serve as rhetorical tools for social and political liberation.
... In her work as a medical geneticist in a Californian clinic, Mason serves as a kind of broker of such questions of descent and belonging. When Mason says that conversion does not count for access to the test and that "you have to be" Jewish, she also references a long-standing struggle over authenticity, that is, of viewing biological kinship as the real basis of membership, and conversion as less than real or constructed (Egorova 2010;M'charek 2013;Tamarkin 2020). The idea is that pure groups once existed that excluded not only conversion but also intermarriage or (god forbid) unmarried intercourse. ...
Full-text available
Genetic counselors in the US assess disease risks by drawing on family histories, genetic tests, and patients’ racial, ethnic, national, or religious self-identifications. The bodily risks of kinship articulated by family histories can be defused by genetic tests that highlight the contingency of biological inheritance and decouple kinship from genetics. However, such tests, as well as self-identifying patients, also entwine genetic risk with older indicators of kinship: biologically understood race and ethnicity. Across these scales, counselors calculate relative risks to the future health of individuals, in the process measuring kinship as genealogical closeness, genetic dis/similarity, and biocultural race and ethnicity. As counselors personalize the universal promises of genomics at a biomedical nexus of risk and prophylaxis, they tap into anxieties about the changed natures of American kinship.
... Science studies scholars call for researchers in all disciplines to recognize that the past is part of a complex ongoing socio-cultural setting and that science is never pure or uncontaminated by the social and political landscape (Egorova, 2010). Historians of science have pointed out that current discourses are part of that setting and research on past identities is in many ways related to the construction of identities in the present. ...
Full-text available
In this article on the history of ancient DNA research, we argue that the innovation of next-generation sequencing (NGS) of the early 2000s has ushered in a second hype cycle much like the first hype cycle the field experienced in the 1990s with the advent of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). While the first hype cycle centered around the search for the oldest DNA, the field’s current optimism today promotes the rhetoric of revolution surrounding the study of ancient human gnomes. This is evidenced from written sources and personal interviews with researchers who feel the vast amount of data, the conclusions being made from this data, and the ever-increasing celebrity status of the field are perhaps moving too fast for their own good. Here, we use the concept of contamination, in both a literal and figurative understanding of the term, to explore the field’s continuities and disparities. We also argue that a number of additional, figurative interpretations of “contamination” are useful for navigating the current debate between geneticists and archaeologists regarding the origin, evolution, and migration of ancient humans across space and time. Our historical outlook on aDNA’s disciplinary development, we suggest, is necessary to accurately appreciate the state of the field, how it came to be, and where it might go in the future.
Full-text available
The article aims at questioning the Egyptological communal opinion that “in ancient Egypt, there was no artist in the proper sense of the word”, as stated in the Lexikon der Ägyptologie (III, 833). It starts with a brief historiography of this assumption before addressing the issue of the definition of art and artist, in general, and more specifically from an ancient Egyptian point of view. After a broad statistical overview of the numerous Egyptological data which allow us to trace members of the trades recognized as artistic by ancient Egyptians themselves, it analyses how one may study their social profile and perception in Antiquity, before concluding on the necessity to re-integrate the concept of artist in the discourse of Egyptology
Full-text available
If most academic debates surrounding the recent boom of ancient DNA (aDNA) so far have concerned conflicting research epistemologies, this article is a call for taking aspects of media and communication more seriously. Analyzing the fates of two recent research papers on Viking Age Scandinavia, we show how aDNA research is communicated, narrated and infused with meaning in the public sphere, particularly in relation to popular narratives and political debates. We observe significant interlacing of scientific, political and media discourses in and around the papers, and conclude that archaeogenetics is a highly mediatized scientific field.
Full-text available
In recent years, molecular genetics has opened up an entirely new approach to human history. DNA evidence is now being used not only in studies of early human evolution (molecular anthropology), but is increasingly helping to solve the puzzles of history. This emergent research field has become known as »genetic history«. The paper gives an overview on this new field of research. The aim is both to discuss in what ways the ascendant discipline of genetic history is relevant, and to pinpoint both the potentials and the pitfalls of the field. At the same time, we would like to raise the profile of the field within the humanities and cultural studies. We hope that the opportunity for communication between representatives of different disciplines will contribute to loosening up the widespread monodisciplinary method of working and, in particular, bring together the relevant scientific and cultural streams of research.
The scientific research under consideration in this essay has many disciplinary roots. It also has several names, such as anthropological genetics or genetic anthropology. As early as 1962, prior to the possibility of sequencing DNA, the biochemist Emile Zuckerkandl introduced the term ‘molecular anthropology’ to characterize the study of primate phylogeny and human evolution at the molecular level (Sommer, 2008). Since then, the ‘revolution’ in DNA and information technologies has made it possible to use DNA markers to study the processes of evolution, to map genes and genomes, and to reconstruct the human diaspora. In this last aspect, genetic anthropology or genetic history studies the relationship between population history and genetic variation in humans. It investigates the human ‘family tree’ and tries to ‘map’ it onto the globe. It is thus concerned with a special sub-set of biohistories — those based on DNA analyses. Through the global initiatives of the Human Genome Diversity Project and its successor, the Genographic Project, the field has gained public attention. These projects seek to reconstruct the migratory history of the entire human species through the collection of DNA samples from indigenous populations worldwide. The DNA databanks should allow scientists to identify genetic markers that appear with different frequencies in different populations and therefore allow insights into the genetic relationships and movements of human groups.
Warum sind Juden so intelligent ? Weil sie sich im Rahmen einer evolutionären Gruppenstrategie gezielt „hochgezüchtet” haben: Dieses Erklärungsmuster hat Thilo Sarrazin von dem amerikanischen Antisemiten Kevin MacDonald übernommen. Das Klischee vom intelligenten Juden wurzelt in der uralten Vorstellung eines rassisch homogenen „jüdischen Typus”, der sich durch besondere Schlauheit und Raffinesse auszeichnet. Das war nur selten freundlich gemeint, denn der Vorteil für die Juden wurde oft als Nachteil für die Gesamtgesellschaft gedeutet.
This review aims to explore the relationship between anthropology and genetics, an intellectual zone that has been occupied in different ways over the past century. One way to think about it is to contrast a classical "anthropological genetics" (Roberts 1965), that is to say, a genetics that presumably informs anthropological issues or questions, with a "genomic anthropology" (Palsson 2008), that is to say, an anthropology that complements and relativizes modern genomics (on the model of, say, medical anthropology and legal anthropology). 1 This review argues that a principal contribution of anthropology to the study of human heredity lies in the ontology of genetic facts. For anthropology, genetic facts are not natural, with meanings inscribed on them, but are instead natural/cultural: The natural facts have cultural information (values, ideologies, meanings) integrated into them, not layered on them. To understand genetic facts involves confronting their production, which has classically been restricted to questions of methodology but which may be conceptualized more broadly. This review is not intended as a critique of the field of anthropological genetics, but as a reformulation of its central objects of study. I argue for reconceptualizing the ontology of scientific facts in anthropological genetics, not as (value-neutral) biological facts situated in a cultural context, but instead as inherently biocultural facts.
Misunderstanding Science? offers a challenging new perspective on the public understanding of science. In so doing, it also challenges existing ideas of the nature of science and its relationships with society. Its analysis and case presentation are highly relevant to current concerns over the uptake, authority, and effectiveness of science as expressed, for example, in areas such as education, medical/health practice, risk and the environment, technological innovation. Based on several in-depth case-studies, and informed theoretically by the sociology of scientific knowledge, the book shows how the public understanding of science questions raises issues of the epistemic commitments and institutional structures which constitute modern science. It suggests that many of the inadequacies in the social integration and uptake of science might be overcome if modern scientific institutions were more reflexive and open about the implicit normative commitments embedded in scientific cultures.
Who are the Jews? Where did they come from? What is the connection between an ancient Jewish priest in Jerusalem and today's Israeli sunbather on the beaches of Tel Aviv? These questions stand at the heart of this engaging book. Geneticist David Goldstein analyzes modern DNA studies of Jewish populations and examines the intersections of these scientific findings with the history (both biblical and modern) and oral tradition of the Jews. With a special gift for translating complex scientific concepts into language understandable to all, Goldstein delivers an accessible, personal, and fascinating book that tells the history of a group of people through the lens of genetics. In a series of detective-style stories, Goldstein explores the priestly lineage of Jewish males as manifested by Y chromosomes; the Jewish lineage claims of the Lemba, an obscure black South African tribe; the differences in maternal and paternal genetic heritage among Jewish populations; and much more. The author also grapples with the medical and ethical implications of our rapidly growing command of the human genomic landscape. The study of genetics has not only changed the study of Jewish history, Goldstein shows, it has altered notions of Jewish identity and even our understanding of what makes a people a people.
This paper interrogates influential contemporary accounts of interdisciplinarity, in which it is portrayed as offering new ways of rendering science accountable to society and/or of forging closer relations between scientific research and innovation. The basis of the paper is an eighteen-month empirical study of three interdisciplinary fields that cross the boundaries between the natural sciences or engineering, on the one hand, and the social sciences or arts, on the other. The fields are: 1) environmental and climate change research, 2) ethnography in the IT industry and 3) art-science. In the first part of the paper, in contrast to existing accounts, we question the idea that interdisciplinarity should be understood in terms of the synthesis of two or more disciplines. We stress the forms of agonism and antagonism that often characterize relations between disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, and distinguish between three modes of interdisciplinarity. In the second part we outline three distinctive logics or rationales that guide interdisciplinary research. In addition to the logics of accountability and innovation, we identify the logic of ontology, that is, an orientation apparent in diverse interdisciplinary practices in each of our three fields towards effecting ontological transformation in the objects and relations of research. While the three logics are interdependent, they are not reducible to each other and are differently entangled in each of the fields. We point to the potential for invention in such interdisciplinary practices and, against the equation of disciplinary research with autonomy, to the possibility of forms of interdisciplinary autonomy.
The origins and affinities of the ∼1 billion people living on the subcontinent of India have long been contested. This is owing, in part, to the many different waves of immigrants that have influenced the genetic structure of India. In the most recent of these waves, Indo-European-speaking people from West Eurasia entered India from the Northwest and diffused throughout the subcontinent. They purportedly admixed with or displaced indigenous Dravidic-speaking populations. Subsequently they may have established the Hindu caste system and placed themselves primarily in castes of higher rank. To explore the impact of West Eurasians on contemporary Indian caste populations, we compared mtDNA (400 bp of hypervariable region 1 and 14 restriction site polymorphisms) and Y-chromosome (20 biallelic polymorphisms and 5 short tandem repeats) variation in ∼265 males from eight castes of different rank to ∼750 Africans, Asians, Europeans, and other Indians. For maternally inherited mtDNA, each caste is most similar to Asians. However, 20%–30% of Indian mtDNA haplotypes belong to West Eurasian haplogroups, and the frequency of these haplotypes is proportional to caste rank, the highest frequency of West Eurasian haplotypes being found in the upper castes. In contrast, for paternally inherited Y-chromosome variation each caste is more similar to Europeans than to Asians. Moreover, the affinity to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank, the upper castes being most similar to Europeans, particularly East Europeans. These findings are consistent with greater West Eurasian male admixture with castes of higher rank. Nevertheless, the mitochondrial genome and the Y chromosome each represents only a single haploid locus and is more susceptible to large stochastic variation, bottlenecks, and selective sweeps. Thus, to increase the power of our analysis, we assayed 40 independent, biparentally inherited autosomal loci (1 LINE-1 and 39 Aluelements) in all of the caste and continental populations (∼600 individuals). Analysis of these data demonstrated that the upper castes have a higher affinity to Europeans than to Asians, and the upper castes are significantly more similar to Europeans than are the lower castes. Collectively, all five datasets show a trend toward upper castes being more similar to Europeans, whereas lower castes are more similar to Asians. We conclude that Indian castes are most likely to be of proto-Asian origin with West Eurasian admixture resulting in rank-related and sex-specific differences in the genetic affinities of castes to Asians and Europeans.
Scitation is the online home of leading journals and conference proceedings from AIP Publishing and AIP Member Societies
Un groupe de chercheurs africains américains et dalits travaillent actuellement sur un projet portant sur les similarités dans l'histoire et la vie des peuples africains et dalits. Des chercheurs tels que Ivan van Sertima, Runoko Rashidi, V. T. Rajshekar et d'autres forment ce réseau occulte de littérature afro-dalite. Le Projet afro-dalit cherche à avancer une origine commune pour les africains et les dalits dans le but d'appeler à la solidarité politique dans le présent. 'Afro-Dalits of the Earth, Unite!' ('Afro-dalits de la terre, unissez-vous!') examine la structure du savoir universitaire afro-dalit, en fait une critique puis offre une approche alternative aux interconnections présentes dans la vie africaine et indienne. Plutôt qu'à un déterminisme épidermique, cet article appelle à une approche polyculturelle du caractère cosmopolite de notre vie. A group of African American and Dalit scholars are at work on a project on the similarities in the histories and lives of African and Dalit peoples. Scholars such as Ivan van Sertima, Runoko Rashidi, V. T. Rajshekar, and others form this submerged network of Afro-Dalit literature. The Afro-Dalit project seeks to posit a common origin for Africans and Dalits as a means to call for political solidarity in the present. "Afro-Dalits of the Earth, Unite!" explores the framework of Afro-Dalit scholarship, critiques it, and then offers an alternative approach to the interconnections in African and Indian life. Rather than endorsing epidermal determinism, this article calls for a polycultural approach to the cosmopolitanism of our lives.