The Material Gene: Gender, Race, and Heredity after the Human Genome Project

The Material Gene: Gender, Race, and Heredity after the Human Genome Project

The Material Gene: Gender, Race, and Heredity after the Human Genome Project

The Material Gene: Gender, Race, and Heredity after the Human Genome Project


In 2000, the National Human Genome Research Institute announced the completion of a "draft" of the human genome, the sequence information of nearly all 3 billion base pairs of DNA. In the wake of this major scientific accomplishment, the focus on the genetic basis of disease has sparked many controversies as questions are raised about radical preventative therapies, the role of race in research, and the environmental origins of illness. In The Material Gene, Kelly Happe explores the cultural and social dimensions of our understandings of genomics, using this emerging field to examine the physical manifestation of social relations. Situating contemporary genomics medicine and public health within a wider history of eugenics, Happe examines how the relationship between heredity and dominant social and economic interests has shifted along with transformations in gender and racial politics, social movement, and political economy. Happe demonstrates that genomics is a type of social knowledge, relying on cultural values to attach meaning to the body. The Material Gene situates contemporary genomics within a history of genetics research yet is attentive to the new ways in which knowledge claims about heredity, race, and gender emerge and are articulated to present-day social and political agendas. Kelly E. Happe is assistant professor of communication studies and women's studies at the University of Georgia.


On January 11, 2008, I lost my good friend Chet Meeks to colon cancer. Chet was, without a doubt, one of the smartest, most talented scholars I’ve had the good fortune to know. I learned a great deal from him over the years. Chet was just thirty-two when his cancer was first diagnosed; he died two years later.

Chet did not lead an unhealthy lifestyle. He was not genetically predisposed to colon cancer. No one in his family had been diagnosed with colon cancer. the etiology of Chet’s cancer was, and will remain, a mystery, although he often wondered about the years he spent living near the Hudson River, polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), when he was pursuing his PhD in sociology.

Determining ultimate causes is not, understandably, high on the list of one’s concerns when diagnosed with cancer. Chet’s goal was treating the cancer and curing it despite considerably bad odds. For the cancer patient, little emotional or intellectual space exists for theorizing one’s disease in the midst of learning about the medical array of tests, treatments, and “cures.”

Nevertheless, I know that Chet was, on some level, encouraged by the work I had been doing on genomics, epidemiology, and the politics of cancer, keeping conceptual and critical questions on the table, holding onto the necessity of theory in the midst of crisis—of real, in-your-face, material exigency. He was, after all, a social theorist. Although theory can be abstract, it is also an indispensable tool for making sense of the varied and often contradictory details of individual and collective embodied experience and everyday life. As Paula Treichler reminds us, “theory is not the creature disdained by … anti-intellectual traditions, including U.S. medicine, for whom theory is defined as that which is devoid of relevance . . .

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