Science is different from religion

51u-xXl9qUL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Atlantic has a long piece up which basically consists of a list of the usual objections to DNA testing from some Native American groups and individuals (which can be generalized to any indigenous group), Genetic Testing and Tribal Identity: Why many Native Americans have concerns about DNA kits like 23andme. There’s the standard stuff about how Native Americans believe archaeological remains are sacred, etc., and how that conflicts with scientific enterprises. The necessary mention of NAGPRA and such. But this quote was rather “interesting”:

“We know who we are as a people, as an indigenous people, why would we be so interested in where scientists think our genetic ancestors came from?” asks Kim Tallbear, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe.

Tallbear says that from her perspective, researchers offering to tell tribes where they’re from doesn’t look any different than the Christians who came in to tell them what their religion should be. “Those look like very similarly invasive projects to us,” she said. Tribes haven’t forgotten the history of scientists who gathered native skulls to prove that native people were less intelligent, and thus less entitled to the land they lived on than the white settlers. To them, these genetic questions of origin look pretty similar.

Tallbear explains that to be able to do ethical genetic research on native people in the United States, you need to understand their history. “You have to know something about the history, and about 20th century Native American policy, and how the U.S. as a colonial power dispersed native people from their historic homelands into urban areas and into reservations, how different groups have put tribes together on reservations who never lived together before. You have to know about about relocation and post-World War II politics. If you don’t understand that you can’t begin to ask informed questions about the genetics of Native Americans.”

Kim Tallbear has an academic page. Here’s a sample:

Indigenous, feminist, and queer theory approaches to critical “animal studies” and new materialisms

I have also recently begun to theorize in the area of indigenous, feminist, and queer theory approaches to animal studies and new materialisms. Last year, I co-organized with the Science, Technology, and Society Center at UC Berkeley a symposium on indigenous and other new approaches to animal studies. I was also part of another UC Berkeley symposium last year on New Materialisms where I did a talk on the role of indigenous thought. Both symposia helped mark a space for the role of indigenous thought in these related and burgeoning areas of contemporary social theory and new ethnographic practices.The recent move to “multi-species ethnography” applies anthropological approaches to studying humans and their relations with nonhumans–beings such as dogs, bears, cattle, monkeys, bees, mushrooms, and microorganisms. Such work is both methodologically and ethically innovative in that it highlights how organisms’ livelihoods are co-constituted with cultural, political, and economic forces.

Let’s not beat around the bush here, Native Americans and the government and culture of the United States have a fraught relationship. That is true. But today genetics has pretty much zero relevance to the various political debates and arguments. Issues like tribal membership are determined by the cut & thrust of politics, not genomics. Frankly, these issues are too important to leave to genetics. The possible consequences of genetics are always vague future possibilities. For people who don’t care about abstract genetic questions though even a vanishingly small probability that genetics might impact their concerns is too much of a risk, so naturally they wish to squelch it. And contrary to the implication that Tallbear makes, most scientists who work on Native American genomics don’t do so because of a deep interest in overturning the religious traditions of Native Americans, but because they are interested in the human story, of which Native Americans are an essential part. Rather than ethnic particularism the motives of scientists on the whole are those of universalist humanism.

So one can understand why political activists might balk at the inquiries of geneticists, as universalist humanism often causes problems for those engaged in the great game of ethnic particularism. But what about the academics who lend their voice in support of the latter? As far as Kim Tallbear’s “scholarship” (I hope I’m using quotations appropriately here) it resembles what I saw in Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. Basically an exercise in lexical obfuscation in the service of nebulous political aims, but clearly with direct consequences for the careers of a small set of academics who operate in an area where politics and activism blend seamlessly into their professional lives and their reputation among their peer groups.

Many of the assertions that Tallbear and company make about science are not totally unreasonable on the face of it. Science is a human enterprise, and scientists bring their own biases, ideologies, and interests into the execution of their endeavours. To some extent science is subjective, insofar as humans are making the judgements. But when you see where these practitioners of science studies take their project, you understand that they’re basically crazy. That is why people like Steve Fuller end up making apologia for Intelligent Design. And that is why Kim Tallbear can boldly analogize scientists to Christian missionaries. There’s simply no acknowledgement of something I like to call objective reality, so they go straight for the most provocative rhetorical tacks to hammer home their polemic.

Higher_SuperstitionHere is an indisputable fact: science is not religion, and the two are very different enterprises. If you don’t accede to this distinction, you have just lost all touch with the empirical world. It is no surprise that Phillip E. Johnson, the doyen of the Intelligent Design movement, has acknowledged a debt to critical theory. The flight from empiricism is exactly what has occurred to many scholars within science studies, probably because that’s where the career incentives are. Instead of actually pursuing a sociology of science*, they just slot science into the theoretical framework of critical theory, postcolonial studies, Marxist analysis, etc. etc., and generate out their truths deduced from a priori in a stream of prolix papers and prose whose primary purpose is to be read by a few other fellow travellers.

Kim Tallbear is really no different form Steve Fuller insofar as she’s acting as an apologist for Creationism, though a different sort from the Christian one. If Christians made the same arguments as Native American spokespersons in relation to these topics there’s no doubt that scientists would react caustically. But Native Americans are a disadvantaged group, and so the skeptical acid which scientists normally reserve for pre-scientific beliefs is withheld in this case (among social justic types this would be “punching down,” though in this case I think some punching is justified). That’s an empirical sociological fact. But, that doesn’t negate the reality that the scientists are right, and indigenous religious traditions which contradict the idea of migration via Beringia are wrong (as are some of the naive ideas about Native Americans being of the lost tribes of Israel, which was a common belief in 19th century America, and has come down in an evolved form within the Mormon religion). And I don’t mean “right” and “wrong.” I mean right and wrong. Like 0 and 1. Black and white. That’s because positivist science illustrates that social and linguistic ideological construction of the world around us runs up against the boundaries of the fact that the world has patterned and structured order which runs in contravention of human intuitions and biases. Most academics who are skeptical of the “objective” “truth” “claims” of “science” also agree with this fact when they have to put their choices where they mouth is. If they’re diagnosed with “cancer” they won’t put chemotherapy in quotations or demand the services of a tribal shaman. It’s going to be the best science for them and their family. That’s not just a theory, that’s a fact.

* Some scholars do do this, but it’s hard.

Addendum: An interesting sidenote is that the solicitation of many American scientists toward indigenous people in North America is itself an ideological orientation. As an example, many Asian Indians are not very happy with the latest results coming out of human genetics because it conflicts with their religious-social beliefs, but generally this is not much on the radar of researchers who are opining about the genetic history of these billion or so people.

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