Can the study of human genetics authoritatively address the subject of race? James Hearing reviews Josie Gill’s new book Biofictions, which won the 2020 British Society for Literature and Science book prize.
In the opening pages of her new book Biofictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel, Josie Gill draws attention to one of the most contentious debates to have arisen from the field of human genetics in recent years. While geneticists appear to agree that race is a modern social construct, Gill identifies opposing views about whether there is a significant genetic substrate – or, in other words, a biological basis – for race (1-4). The view held by the majority of geneticists, which is that there is no biological basis for race, is not one Gill wishes ‘to destroy or break apart’ (149). Instead, Biofictions is concerned with examining the belief which unites divergent findings on the genetics of race – namely, that the field is well placed to address the subject of race at all.
Genetics, Gill proposes, ‘has become the ultimate authority on race, the final arbitrator of race’s meaning’ (3). This could be hyperbole; however, Biofictions delivers a compelling case that the field continues to be one of the most influential shapers of views about race up to the present day. Its five chapters reconsider recent interventions on race from different disciplinary branches of genetic research: biological anthropology, population genetics, genomics, pharmacogenetics and epigenetics. Contemporary fiction acts as the lens through which Gill primarily responds to such developments. Each novel – a total of six are drawn on – offers a fresh perspective onto genetic findings on race not as the conclusive outcome of objective scientific enquiry but as the consequence of overlapping epistemologies, or ‘the imbrication of the factual and fictional in genetic racial formations’ in Gill’s terms (5). It is in this context that race is conceived of as ‘biofiction: an idea constituted through the complex entanglement of scientific and fictive forms’ (5).
This approach bears relation to the sociological work of Jenny Reardon (2004), whom the author cites as advocating for ‘an analytical frame that draws into view the mutual constitution of natural, social and moral orders’ in the construction of biological ideas about race. Gill sets her work against ‘the hybrid model’, which she associates with scholars including Alondra Nelson (2016) and Nikolas Rose (2007), suggesting that this problematically conceives of race as the combined ‘product of pre-existing entities (at their broadest, ‘science’ and ‘society’)’ (16-17). She argues, convincingly, that any distinction between scientific and social concepts of race is both artificial and ahistorical. Ultimately, Biofictions is a plea to move the conversation beyond the genetic status of race, asking ‘how it could ever be conceived as either [real or imaginary], given that genetic facts and cultural fictions of race are mutually informing; together they create the stories about history, ancestry and kinship, as well as racism, illness and the environments in which these arise, which characterise our understanding of race today’ (5).
In Chapter One, Gill considers how ideas about race have shaped and been shaped by both scientific and literary explorations of human origins. Drawing on the African Eve hypothesis, which proposes that the most recent common maternal ancestor of all modern humans lived in Africa 140,000 or more years ago, Gill suggests that Alex Haley’s novel Roots (1976) influenced the emergence and acceptance of the theory itself. This chapter cites the most explicit examples of overlap between science and contemporary fiction put forward in Biofictions, and so operates as a generous invitation to readers who might be less familiar with approaches in literary criticism. Attempts to popularise the African Eve hypothesis drew directly on Roots as ‘a narrative model for thinking about the relationship between African ancestors and present-day humans’ (35), which, as Gill shows, was made simpler by the anthropological traditions imbued in Haley’s own writing (43). She cites striking instances in which the theory’s proponents simultaneously promoted ‘the collapsing of distinctions between Africans of 200,000 years ago, a couple of hundred years ago and the present’ (52). Responding to several authors, Gill suggests that their tendency ‘to compare recent black history with the evolutionary history of humans thus undermines the more overt anti-racist intentions of their writing’ (53). It is a remarkable account of the extent to which disciplinary boundaries can be transcended in conversations on race, while also clearly demonstrating the value of Gill’s conceptual approach.
Provoked by studies in population genetics – most notably, the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) – and the popular rise in DNA ancestry testing, in the second chapter Gill asks whether the notion that we can construct aspects of our identity using genetic data rests on largely unacknowledged assumptions about race. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (2005), which centres on the coming-of-age of human clones, is considered alongside such advances in genetic research. For Gill, both the novel’s world and studies including the HGDP are premised on ‘colourblind ideologies which remove race without removing racism’ (62). Inspired by her reading of Ishiguro’s novel, Gill delivers an unexpected case for opposing the growing emphasis on genetic identities and ancestries. Its narrative, she suggests, proposes adopting an alternative view of identity that favours ‘interactions and affiliations in the present’ above genetic data (75). By applying her biofictional approach to a familiar concern within genetics about the construction of identity using information obtained via DNA analysis, Gill has constructed an argument against this that is not only inventive but perhaps also more convincing.
As someone more familiar with the science than the contemporary fiction to which Gill is responding, it is tempting to read the literary analysis as the author’s extrapolation from developments in genetic science. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand Gill’s approach, for which which she states that ‘(f)acts cannot be privileged over fiction’ (19). Gill is equally careful not to tip the scales in the opposite direction or, in the author’s words, ‘[reverse] the traditional view that nature is the truth underlying culture’, for which earlier constructionist approaches to science have been criticised (10). This balancing act is achieved effectively throughout, but it is most apparent in Chapter Three, in which Gill explores rarely discussed commonalities between science and literature via the Human Genome Project and Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (2000). Gill suggests genetics has emerged as a science reliant on the kind of narrative decision-making more often associated with literature, before taking on science’s complicated relationship with subjectivity via an enthusiastic assessment of Smith’s novel.
In Chapter Four, Gill looks into the marketing of the drug BiDil, which was developed to treat heart failure in the early 2000s and is considered to be ‘the first-ever racially targeted drug’, having been aimed exclusively at the African American population (103). As Gill explains, self-identification with a race was central to the method through which BiDil was developed, suggesting it ‘emerged from a medical understanding of race not as biological essence, but as a proxy for unknown genetic markers’ (103). Although commercially unsuccessful, BiDil ‘legitimized the use of racial categories in medicine and the idea that specific genetic markers could be linked to particular races, while simultaneously underscoring how fragile, unstable and incoherent race becomes in that context’ (105). Drawing on Stuart Hall’s conception of race as a ‘floating signifier’, Gill suggests it is through language rather than genetic discovery that race is attributed meaning in a medical context. She considers Colson Whitehead’s novel Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) as an allegory about the risks of incorporating race into an arena with material consequences such as medicine. Its story follows an African American man who comes up with the naming and branding of products including pharmaceuticals at the expense of his own health. It is, for Gill, a lesson in the ways in which a medical discourse which capitalises on an unstable concept of race undermines self-identification and threatens the safety of individuals. In the very real case of BiDil, it ‘forced black patients to decide what their blackness meant in biological terms and to determine whether it had value in a medical context’ (118).
In the final chapter, Gill proposes epigenetics as a possible remedy to tensions explored earlier in Biofictions. Epigenetics holds understandable appeal for scholars working in the humanities for the emphasis it places on cellular environments past and present, sometimes interpreted as opening the door separating science from history and culture. For Gill, drawing on recent key studies, epigenetics reveals racial difference in the context of biology to be ‘a fluid, complex combination of the influence on the genes of an individual’s current environment and the environment of their ancestors’ (122). Unswayed by suggestions that claims being made for epigenetics now extend beyond the conclusions made available by the science – such as epigeneticist Edith Heard’s remark that ‘the facts are having to catch up (with the fantasy)’ – Gill advances the idea that ‘there might be something to be gained from taking a relational, rather than oppositional, approach to the imagined and the real’ (126). Gill looks back on two novels published prior to epigenetics’ recent rise, Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred (1979) and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), both of which ‘explore how race is created at the intersection of the imagined and the real, through a focus on the impact of racist environments on the body’ (126). This results in arguably the greatest challenge Biofictions poses to genetics by suggesting that by engaging with such fiction, epigenetics can develop a better sense of the understanding it seeks to create. In my opinion, Gill has produced a persuasive case for this.
Biofictions won the 2020 book prize awarded by the British Society for Science and Literature earlier this year, and it is easy to see why. It marks an important intervention in the far-reaching genetic discourse on race, revealing as wishful thinking any notion that the denunciation of a biological basis for race will help to end racism. It asks, instead, whether genetic commentaries on race might say more about genetics than they do about race. This is provocative but not an attack on the sciences. Gill emphasises how the desires of the day can permeate science, suggesting – and it is hard not to agree – that this is a potential source of empowerment when it is acknowledged, paving the way for scientific and literary cultures to develop shared perspectives on the production, constitution and communication of ideas about race. Reading Biofictions more broadly, the sense one builds is that an interest in both genetics and interpretations of its recent and future findings offer profound, provocative and potentially progressive challenges to society. As we journey down this long and winding road, it can only be a good thing if authors such as Gill continue to contribute to its way-marking.
Butler, Octavia E. 1989. Kindred. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Gill, Josie. 2020. Biofictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Haley, Alex. 1976. Roots. London: Vintage, 1991.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. 2005. Never Let Me Go. London: Faber and Faber.
Nelson, Alondra. 2016. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation after the Genome. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Reardon, Jenny. 2004. ‘Decoding Race and Human Difference in a Genomic Age’, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 15: 38-65.
Rose, Nikolas. 2007. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rushdie, Salman. 1988. The Satanic Verses. London: Vintage.
Smith, Zadie. 2000. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Whitehead, Colson. 2006. Apex Hides the Hurt. New York City: Doubleday.
James Hearing is studying for an MA in Health Humanities at UCL, with specific interest in researching and writing about genetics and culture.