Biocolonialism: perspectives from the humanities (review)

Shelley Angelie Saggar reflects on Biocolonialism: Perspectives from the Humanities, University of Leeds, 22-23rd May, 2019.

Genetic research and the science of salvation

The early years of the 21st century were marked by both a scientific and popular preoccupation with molecular life. Genetic sequencing was intended to map the human genome for the development of medical cures, and the data amassed from the initial project took on new vitality when it was discovered that similar methods could be used to evidence theories of human evolution.

As the initial project drew near completion, and its offshoots began to really take off, genomics figured in the public imagination as a scientific saviour to humankind’s medical diseases and social problems. In fully understanding the code that makes up a healthy human being science could correct genetic predispositions towards illness, and in proving that humans share a single common answer, genetic science could, so the theory goes, forever quash any lingering speculations on racial hierarchies in intelligence, aptitude and character.

Biological control: postcolonial concerns and Indigenous critique

At the same time as interest in genetic research was heating up, in post-colonial nations, particularly across Africa, South Asia and South America, critical attention began to arise around the ways in which commercial interests were dictating bio-agricultural policies and practices. In India, the philosopher-scientist Vandana Shiva encapsulated growing discontent with the commercial patenting of Indigenous ecological knowledge in her idea of ‘biopiracy’, which she characterised as a direct descendent of historic colonial practices of control and the simultaneous expropriation and erasure of traditional Indigenous practices and ecological knowledge.[1] Shiva’s concerns around intellectual property, traditional knowledge and colonial inheritances in scientific spheres intersected with those being proposed by Debra Harry (Kooyoee Dukaddo) and the Indigenous People’s Council on Biocolonialism – an activist and research group founded to resist the kinds of research into “genetic isolates” (i.e. Indigenous peoples) proposed by the Human Genome Diversity Project and other actors in the field of personal genomics. Both movements shared preoccupations with the patenting of biological knowledge and methods, and connect these concerns to the lingering effects of colonial control imposed by the Eurowestern imperial project.

Revisiting genetics: biocolonialism twenty years on

Twenty years on from the beginning of the Human Genome Project and almost fifteen years since both Shiva and Harry joined the call for a Genetic Bill of Rights, our genetic imagination might have moved on, but some powerful preoccupations remain the same.[2] The desire to derive identities from our genetic makeup has driven the rise of personal genomics on an industrial scale. In the political sphere, the imagined authenticity of genetic information as a marker of kinship affiliation and cultural belonging may go some way to securing support for Elizabeth Warren as the Democratic Party’s 2020 candidate to face Donald Trump – intent on weaponizing personal genomics against her.[3]

It is against this background that Dr Clare Barker’s symposium on ‘Biocolonialism: perspectives from the humanities’ was called. Since the initial flurry of genetic research, the development the medical humanities has further focused attention on biomedical research and its representation across different disciplines.

Day one:

Panel 1: Longevity and Futurism in Biocolonial Fictions

The first day introduced the rich body of research being done in the field of literary studies in reading to resist biocolonial impulses. Dr Shital Pravinchandra (QMUL) began with a close reading of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder that concentrated on ideas of reproductive longevity as indicative of ideas about Indigenous exceptionalism and considered the ways in which Patchett’s protagonist, the Kurtz-like researcher Dr Annick Swenson employs protective discourses about health and futurity in order to rationalise a potentially unethical research practice. This imagining of Indigenous peoples as holding a “key” to life-prolonging practices for the rest of humanity was echoed in Dr René Dietrich’s (University of Mainz) presentation on Métis author Cherie Demaline’s novel The Marrow Thieves and Turtle Mountain Chippewa author Louise Erdrich’s dystopian fiction, Future Home of the Living God. In both texts, Dietrich argued, imaginings of Indigenous “futurisms” are not limited to the temporality of the future, but are placed in a colonial continuum.

Panel 2: Framing Indigenous Knowledges

The second panel took us into the realm of Indigenous epistemologies, debates over intellectual property and cultural control. Professor Graham Dutfield (University of Leeds) gave an overview of the ‘cultural landscapes’ of Indigenous knowledge practices and their implications for international law and Dr Sheila Collingwood-Whittick pointed to the increasing interdependence between science and big business, and the ways in which Traditional Ecological Knowledge(s) (TEK) are written in and out of broader scientific practices in light of this relationship.

Panel 3: Museums and Indigenous Treasures

The final panel of the day turned from consideration of how scientific practices themselves are embroiled in debates over biocolonialism to how public institutions tasked with representing science and history imagine the biopolitics of colonial history. Dr Clare Barker placed several ‘repatriation fictions’ in conversation with one another in order to imagine museums, rather than labs, as extended sites of biocolonial practice. This transition from the ‘hard’ sciences to anthropological and curatorial practice, drew us back to the fact that historically, anthropology was neither a distinct, nor a supposedly ‘softer’ discipline, but played a central role in the development of imperial ideology. This reminder of the place of museums in the imperial imagination led into Dr Julie Adams’ presentation of her curation of the Rurutan god A’a at the British Museum, itself currently embroiled in highly public contestations over the representation of colonial history. In researching the statue of the god A’a in the museum’s collection, Adams demonstrated how the development of a double-narrative helped retain Indigenous acquisition truths equitably alongside scientific and historical narratives.

‘Anglo-American research on DNA represented by Britannia and the Statue of Liberty, with festoons of DNA’. Scraperboard drawing by Bill Sanderson, 1990. CC-BY Wellcome Collection

Day two:

Panel 4: Biocolonialism and Indigenous Health

The second day opened with an explicit concentration on the myriad ways in which North American imperialism operates as a nexus of liberal duplicity, settler surveillance and the ‘slow violence’ of disaster.[4] We heard first from Sarah Blacker PhD (Technical University of Munich) who presented on Canadian public health posters targeted at Indigenous peoples to trouble the imagined liberalism of the Canadian settler-state to ask what it means to be “healthy” in a settler society. Dr Michelle Keown (University of Edinburgh) placed Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner‘s poetry in the context of the rippling effects of U.S. nuclear testing to demonstrate the neo-colonial conditions that the nuclear detonation tests on Bikini Atoll have created for medical research measuring the effects of radiation on human beings. Anna Kemball, also from Edinburgh University, followed this with a thoughtful consideration of Lousie Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God as a gendered interrogation of the biopolitics of reproductive rights in the Trumpian era, which works to disrupt the romanticised tropes of imagined genetic Indigeneity through the protagonist’s dual status as an ambiguously Indigenous transracial adoptee and through her insistence on a strictly bio-genetic tracing of genealogy.

Panel 5: Labs and Biobanks

The day came to a close with two considerations of the place of setting and space in medical research practice. Dr Lara Choksey (University of Exeter) critiqued the positioning of the category of “Indigenous” as a condition for teleological narratives of progress and offered a reading of the scientific laboratory as a site is capable of creating the conditions by which to preserve those lives (both human and non-human) which are deemed doomed to biological extinction – a reading that could be linked back to the presentation of museums as biocolonial storehouses for the “preservation” of Indigenous cultures through biological specimens and material culture. The final paper of the day was given by Dr Tess Lanzarotta (Yale University) and explored the casting of Indigenous peoples as scientifically useful ‘experimental populations’ in Cold War Alaska. This move from the settler-colonial drive to eliminate Indigeous peoples to re-discovering their apparent biological vitality in science rests, I would argue, on historic assumptions about the inevitability of extinction. Thus the race to carry out research, often without free, prior and informed consent, or with potentially suspect motives about genetic “purity” is accelerated and critique is suppressed.

The two days were packed with compelling arguments, creative research practices and inspiring strategies for resistance through the unique tools of the humanities. I have come away with a host of readings, references and critical perspectives to follow up on, and am looking forward to connecting these with my own research into medicine, museums and colonialism.


Shelley Angelie Saggar is a Wellcome Trust funded Medicine Galleries Research Fellow looking into culturally sensitive items in the historical collections of Sir Henry Wellcome, held on long-term loan at the Science Museum. Some of her research interests include the representation of museum spaces in postcolonial film and literature, museum curatorial and engagement practice and material history. She is on Twitter @j4lebi 


[1] Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy: the plunder of nature and knowledge, (Berkley, CA: South End Press, 1999).

[2] Sheldon Krimsky, Peter Shorett, Bill McKibben, Paul R. Billings et. al, Rights and Liberties in the Biotech Age: Why We Need a Genetic Bill of Rights, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2005).

[3] Kim TallBear, ‘Statement on Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test’, available at: [accessed 10/06/2019]. Also see: Adrienne Keene, Rebecca Nagle and Joseph M. Pierce, ‘Syllabus: Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Citizenship and DNA Testing’, Critical Ethnic Studies Journal Blog, available at: [accessed 10/06/2019].

[4] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

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