Emma Kowal

Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia

Duke University Press, 2023

171 pages


Reviewed by Paige Welsh

Emma Kowal’s Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity seeks to name the troubles of contemporary biological anthropology and genomics without putting them to rest. Kowal takes the reader through five exhibits of the history of race science and colonialism lurking in contemporary objects and discourses on “Indigenous biological difference” in Australia. I use the term exhibits intentionally, as Haunting Biology is entangled with museums and the legacy of stolen remains from Indigenous Australians. The tour is ambivalent as Kowal leaves the definition of Indigenous biological difference “intentionally broad.” Her goal is not to resolve racism in science, but perhaps prevent future racist harm by pushing readers to accept a hauntological method. Science is haunted by both the past, and the specter of the future that asks, what if a significant genetic difference was to be found along a thread of Indigenous ancestry? To Kowal, awareness of these hauntings and their investments are a reflexive aid for considering ethical issues in science.

In the first chapter, Kowal examines discourses around the Australian government demanding biological proof of Indigeneity to draw out “three distinct contemporary orientations to Indigenous biological difference: as a myth, as biological reality that can’t or shouldn’t be used for social purposes, ans as a reality only possible if the science improves and indigenous control is put in place.” Kowal frequently reminds the reader that her project is not to embrace or dismiss any of those orientations. She evidences in her citations that she is aware of how the concept of Indigenous biological difference has been weaponized.

Through Kevin Heatherington’s theory of haunting, Kowal unpacks how questions of repatriating human remains stolen from Indigenous communities disrupt a burial of the past and open the door to haunting in the second chapter. Returning unlabeled remains to the correct descendents has proven difficult, and genetic testing has proven a viable route for some repatriations. The International Biological Program, a global effort to catalog life on earth, also collected blood samples from Indigenous people under circumstances of dubious consent in the 1970s. Materials like blood and saliva have an ambiguous status as shed objects of the body. The decisions of Australian Indigenous communities about the fates of these materials depend on trust. In some cases, they opt to preserve the samples under Indigenous supervision, which speaks to the complexities of categorizing Indigenous specific genomics research as strictly racist.

Chapter Three focuses on the haunting history of a strand of hair collected in 1932, again under questionable consent, from an Indigenous Australian man, name unknown, that was later pulled out of storage by a white Danish researcher to sequence the “first Aboriginal genome.” Kowal argues that Willerslev, the researcher in question, dodged the ethical considerations via geographical distances from ethical discourses in Australia and a last-minute endorsement from an Australian Indigenous led organization after the research. The 2011 article he produced for Science magazine echoes the visual tropes of race science through moves such as selecting an image of a random man non-Indigenous audiences could perceive as aesthetically Indigenous. As Kowal explains, “Bracketing off ‘the effects of European colonization’ is not an option for twenty-first century social scientists like myself. The rocky publication history of the first Aboriginal genome shows it may no longer be an option for evolutionary biologists.”

The fourth chapter observes how serology, the study of blood, both historically served as “scientific” proof of racial difference, and then collapsed in on itself as the field disproved its own narratives. Images of albino Indigenous people, such as an infant named Lorna held by her mother, who had dark skin, take on hyper-visibility because white settler scientists tried to legitimize their presence on the continent by claiming white people descended from the people of the Australian continent. Kowal layers the baggage of these narratives. Child separation plans for Indigenous annihilation through assimilation, and contemporary research into human migration via genomics are all entangled.

Chapter Five follows Kowal herself as she experiences a haunting of racial narratives. A stranger emailed her about alleged secret military projects to develop a technology to induce human hibernation by researching the genetic traits of Indigenous Australians. Such a claim has roots in crude small-scale studies on the metabolisms of Indigenous Australian men who slept outside in below freezing temperatures. A missing row of data in a contemporary scientific article sends Kowal on a “goose chase” to see if there is a “conspiracy of silence” in the scientific community on Indigenous capacity to hibernate. Eventually she finds a clerical explanation for the missing row of data. The chapter concludes with a self-reflexive examination of why this possibility elicited such a strong affective response from her and the geneticists she consulted–another haunting of race science.

In the final chapter and conclusion Kowal pivots to a final case for haunting: a museum exhibit put together by Indigenous scholar and activist Tony Birch. A replica of white, and racist, anthropologist Baldwin Spencer was put on display in a glass case to alert museum visitors to the dehumanizing history of displaying Indigenous peoples as curiosities. Kowal describes this move as post-colonial in its direct rebuttal to racist history. However, what Kowal characterizes as a decolonial turn pushed the Spencer replica into a liminal storage space. Although the display was conceived by Birch, it is considered not Indigenous enough to be in a museum that centers the voices of the local Koorie community. Kowal is skeptical of the emotional investments in both displaying and tucking Spencer away: “If Spencer is in the case and we are outside the case looking at him, then we cannot be Spencer.” Yet, the decolonial turn centers a particular vision of Indigeneity that excludes thinkers like Birch. Kowal concludes, “in the case of Indigenous biological difference, even the most skilled amalgam of science and justice will be haunted.”

Though Kowal’s work is in conversation with Indigenous studies, it more directly intervenes with science and technology studies. Her detailed accounting of the movements and backstories of these exhibits are a boon to historians of science who may want to continue this research. Throughout the text, Kowal moves in and out of frames of interpretation for her exhibits, so the reader is never quite at ease in any one vantage point. The style of the text serves her goal of ambivalence and haunting. The questions she raises would be interesting to analyze through new materialism. Reading this book, I did have moments of pause. The subject matter is risky. I had the greatest reservations about her assessment of hibernation research in Chapter Five and her characterization of post colonialism and colonialism in Chapter Six. Kowal characterizes the unhappy reception from genetics colleagues of her questions about hibernation as an affective haunting–guilt about the field’s racist history. I couldn’t help but wonder if their unhappy reception was also because Kowal’s questions seem out of sync with the contemporary models of genetics, which has moved beyond the Mendelian understanding of traits. Kowal’s critiques of both post colonialism and decolonization have also been explored in existing scholarship. She does not seem to engage deeply with this field before launching her criticism. I would recommend this book to scholars who are already well versed in contemporary discourses on race and genetics who will be able to appreciate the text situated in a larger conversation.