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Saturday, February 6, 2016

DNA and Deferred Dreams


DNA and Deferred Dreams

Our public discussions about what matters in our lives have  become increasingly confused,  funky and fatal, but we do have options.  We can resist being swept into intellectual oblivion.  We can resist being arrested and marched into partisan thought-control concentration camps.  One of the tools we might use to defend ourselves is

Nelson, Alondra .  The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Nelson's book is well-researched, logical, nuanced, and very serious about the good and the evil that can be achieved as we make use  of genetic science and its array of data.   Her focused discussion of how genetic data influences social and cultural thought as well as political and legal  decisions provides a new frame of reference for measuring the importance of race in modern life, for remembering why we are so enthralled by what  that four-letter word symbolizes.  The issues of scientific racism exposed by Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981) may be more subtle in the 21st century, but they are still powerful determinants in how we talk about our everyday American lives. 

Nelson is painstakingly exact in explaining the limits of scientific research and reasoning; what non-scientists casually assume is pure evidence may prove under scrutiny to be contaminated.  However persuasive the findings of science may seem, they are theoretical descriptions which contain grounds for refutation.  The portions of The Social Life of DNA which may appeal greatly to some readers are those that deal with the biocultural knowledge we have regarding the African Burial Ground in New York and our ongoing fascination with tracing and documenting our ancestry, the riddles of our genetic heritage.  Much to her credit, Nelson exercises due diligence in exploring her complex subject.

Weary of widely broadcast, hype-infused talks about race, reparations, and reconciliation (which is a tragicomic dream deferred everywhere on our planet), I am impressed with Nelson's integrity and refusal to pander.  Although she is obligated to deal with concepts and vocabulary that some readers will complain are too difficult, she does make a sincere effort to be conversational, to use lively anecdotes to illustrate how her claims function.  Nelson casts light on why STEM has assumed a crucial role in contemporary life and on how what begins as pure science can be corrupted by commercial desires. The Social Life of DNA is a necessary expansion of the reasoning that informs what Michelle Alexander, Ta'Nehisi Coates , Kevin Powell and others have pondered about  the human condition American style. It gives us a modicum of hope that human beings can reclaim and apply common sense as they deal with the inevitable facts of life.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 6, 2016

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