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From racial typology to DNA sequencing

'Race' and 'ethnicity' and the science of human genetic variation 1945-2012. Research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council’s SAMKUL-program.

Over the last decades genome research has undergone a technological revolution and is now producing large amounts of data on human populations. This has opened up new avenues for scientific research and societal development, but has also raised a host of ethical and political questions about the role of genetic information in society. Among these debates are controversies on ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ and human genetic variation. How do social and cultural notions of 'ethnicity', 'race' and ancestry interact with the production of scientific knowledge about human genetic variations? These are important questions in ongoing international academic debates and research.

The overall aim of the project is to investigate the interactions between societal and scientific processes in the establishment of concepts of 'ethnicity' in physical anthropology and human population genetics from 1945 to 2012. In this project genetic data are neither understood as a simple representation of nature nor a product of social and political interests. Instead, we will elucidate how society shapes the production of scientific knowledge in human genetics, and how the scientific knowledge influences the social sphere. Our goal is to identify cultural and societal implications of human population genetics, and provide a knowledge base for normative discussions about these implications.

The project runs for four years and will conclude with an exhibition. It is funded by the Norwegian Research Council’s SAMKUL-program (Cultural conditions underlying social change). It is conducted in cooperation with the Department of Biosciences at the University of Oslo, the Institute of Health and Society at the University of Oslo and The Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen.

Project leader is Jon Røyne Kyllingstad 

For more information, see project website.

The project currently consists of three parts.

Racial typology and genetic research, and constructions of biological difference between Sami and Non-Sami Scandinavians (1945-2012)

This is a historical study of how biological differences between Sami and non-Sami Scandinavians have been construed within physical-anthropological and genomic research from the interwar years and until today. It explores how shifting scientific conceptualizations of ethnic groups have been influenced by – and have influenced – cultural and political discourses on ethnicity. It also explores the degree of continuity or discontinuity between the racial typologies of “old” physical anthropology and the conceptualizations of human biological difference in present day human genetic variation research. The study is undertaken by Jon Røyne Kyllingstad. He is a historian, senior curator at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology, and member of The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains. Kyllingstad has recently published the book Measuring the Master Race


From Calipers to Sequencers: Physical Anthropology in Greece and the Construction of Racial and National Identity, 1950s to present

This study explores how physical anthropology and human genetic variation research have influenced the construction of racial and national identity in Greece from the 1950s and on. From its establishment in the late-19th century, Greek physical anthropology strove to answer the question of the origins of Greek populations in line with the dominant view of a lineal continuity between ancient and modern Greeks. During the following decades, and as the overarching questions and aims remained relatively unchanged, new research settings emerged. By discussing shifts in scientific narratives and methods, along with changing institutional settings, political ideologies and cultural understandings, the research emphasizes the close entanglement between science, the public and the state in the conceptualization of race and ethnicity in Greece. Ageliki Lefkaditou (Ph.D) is responsible for the study. She is a historian of science with a background in biological sciences and holds a postdoc-position at the Institute of Health and Society at the University of Oslo, while her office is at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology.


Human molecular genetics in forensic identification and human evolution, and its relation to identity (1990-2012)

This study explores the implications of the transition from the so-called classical genetic markers (based on blood group and protein polymorphisms) to DNA-based markers, and how definitions of biological race or population are used by molecular biologists, medical researchers, evolutionary biologists, and forensic scientists. Of particular interest is the investigation of how scientists define human population groups for studies in population genetics and DNA forensics, and how the results of these studies are conveyed to the public and ultimately exploited commercially. The study is conducted by Erika Hagelberg. She is professor of evolutionary biology at the Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, and is trained as a biochemist and historian of science. She pioneered the analysis of DNA from bone and has been active in DNA typing, human molecular genetics and molecular evolution for 25 years.


Ethical aspects of research on DNA and ethnicity

This part of the project draws on the other studies and discusses ethical implications of applying various concepts of race or ethnicity to groups of people and to what degree researchers should be held responsible for the political, cultural and societal implications and consequences of the choices they make. Responsible for this study is Hallvard Fossheim. who is Dr.art in philosophy, and associate professor of ancient philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen. He was until recently Director of The National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains, which performs ethical evaluations of research on human remains.

Workshops and international cooperation

In order to develop comparative perspectives and explore the international and transnational aspects of our project, we will arrange three international meetings.
In 2014 and 2015, we will hold two international workshops for small, invited groups of researchers working on questions related to our projects.
In 2017 we will organize a larger conference with a call for papers on a broader scope of topics related to ethnicity and DNA.
These initiatives will be undertaken in cooperation with an international group of experts, who are engaged in public and academic debates and research on questions of race, ethnicity and genetic variation:

Veronika Lipphardt

Professor at the Free University (Berlin) and research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Leader of the research group "20th century histories of knowledge about human variation"

Ricardo Ventura Santos 

Professor at the Department of Anthropology, National Museum and Senior Researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Involved in the project ”Race, genomics and mestizaje (mixture) in Latin America”.

Gisli Palsson

Professor of social anthropology at the University of Reykjavik. Has published extensively on Human Genomics and its interaction with the identities of individuals and groups.

Jenny Reardon

Associate Professor of Sociology and Faculty Affiliate in the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. She founded and directs the Science and Justice Research Center at UCSC. She is the author of "Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics" (Princeton University Press, 2005) and is currently working on a book manuscript entitled "The Postgenomic Condition: Ethics, Justice, Knowledge After the Genome".

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