IAS Molecules and Models Public Lecture: The structure, the body, the archive: DNA and history
This Plenary Lecture is linked to the Molecules and Models: Seeing Structures workshops.
Jerome de Groot teaches at the University of Manchester. He is interested in popular history and the various ways that the past is accessed. He is the author of Consuming History (2008/ 2016) and Remaking History (2015).
How does knowledge of DNA change the way we think about the past? How does investigation of ancient DNA from archaeological sites shift our understanding of what it is to be ‘human’? How might our awareness of our genetic make-up change our sense of ourselves?
To address these questions this talk looks at various manifestations of DNA in historical investigation and thinks about how this relates to genealogy, humanness, public history, and the contemporary historical imagination. In particular Dr Groot investigates how the duality of DNA in the historical imagination – material yet unseen evidence that lives within us – allows a dynamic connection with the past. How does the material ‘model’ of DNA impact upon the imagined ‘thing’? To do this, he will think about what Jackie Pearson and others have termed the ‘genetic imaginary’. That is, popular understanding of the work of our DNA and, more particularly, how we might understand, represent, and visualise it. In particular Dr Groot is interested in how genetic science interacts with historical awareness. Therefore this talk investigates the intersection of genetics and popular narratives of the self and the past. How is this science represented and understood? How, particularly, is it visualised? What kinds of models are conceived of and circulated?
Many scholars have written about the new identity politics raised by genetic science. It is important to see these new identities within temporality. DNA brings genetics into a particularly historicised knowability. What was remote is now intimate; what was once ‘science’ is now ‘life’. Our genetic make up allows an enormous historical perspective to open up. The interplay between the imagined and the modelled and the mathematical is immensely rich and complicated. How is DNA conceptualised and rendered? How is it imagined as both past and current, veering between something reified as ancient and at the same time something almost excessively modern? The ‘narrative’ that is constructed depends on a diversity of analysis, probability, and modelling. The results are presented in a variety of formats and interpreted. The evidence is clear – it is us – but it is also unreadable and unknowable. The question of our individual relation to ‘humanness’ is provoked by DNA investigation. How does kinship, race, ethnicity, identity, function here? How does this change our understanding of ourselves in time?
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