The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology

By Egorova, Yulia | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology


Egorova, Yulia, Anthropological Quarterly


Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 328 pp.

The use of genetics in the study of human history and personal ancestry tests has become the subject of a growing literature in the Anthropology, History, and Sociology of Science. The Genealogical Science focuses on the voluminous DNA research carried out among Jewish communities. Do people around the world who identify themselves as Jewish have a common origin? If so, is this origin in Palestine? Is the biblical account about the lineage of the Jewish priests correct? These are some of the questions that the genetic research subject of the Nadia Abu El-Haj's inquiry has tried to address. As the book shows, the scientists' attempts to answer these questions have been informed by the broader socio-cultural discourses about Jewish descent and history.

The Genealogical Science begins with a useful discussion of the origins and historical context of what became known as genetic anthropology or genetic history-studies which attempt to use genetics to describe the formation of human populations. Drawing on the work of other scholars in the Anthropology of Science and wider Science and Technology Studies, Abu El-Haj discusses how human population genetics both reproduces existing concepts of race and creates new, biologized, notions of human diversity. As far as specifically genetic history is concerned, Abu El-Haj argues that DNA data provide the wrong type of evidence to answer the questions that geneticists take upon themselves to address. The book elucidates well the numerous socio-political and ethical problems associated with genetic research. It critiques the attempts made by geneticists to create a "firewall" between questions of culture and DNA evidence, and demonstrates that despite the scientists' assertions that their research does not do much more than reconstruct early human history by using "neutral" markers, genetic anthropology still invites its audiences to "infer behavior from DNA evidence" (48) and contributes to the construction of a "biologico-historical" self. Abu El-Haj argues that while, on the one hand, genetic studies create a discourse suggesting that it is up to the individual to choose whether to learn about his or her biological self or not; on the other hand, they reinforce the idea that it is this biological self that is the most authentic one. The book reminds us that "the search for the biologically meaningless marker cannot be safely cordoned offfrom the search for culturally, medically, or cognitively meaningful traits" (179).

Abu El-Haj has based her analysis of genetic history on studies of Jewish origins, which the book considers against the backdrop of earlier constructions of Jewish physicality. The Genealogical Science first focuses on the work of European and American Jewish scientists devoted to the perceived racial composition of the Jews conducted at the turn of the 20th century. The author then proceeds to explore studies in population genetics carried out in Israel during the 1950s and 1960s, and, finally, discusses more recent genetic history projects which aimed to identify the origins of different Jewish communities around the world, including the communities who declared their affiliation to the Jewish tradition in the 20th century. The book also discusses ancestry tests offered to individuals interested in using genetics as a means of deciphering family history and looking for possible Jewish roots, and on the research which argued for the genetic origins of what has entered the public discourse as Jewish intelligence. In each case, the author argues that the studies in question promote a particular understanding of Jewish peoplehood which constructs the Jews as members of a universal community connected to each other not just on the level of culture and religion, but also through their origin, which is supposed to be evident in their physicality. …

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