Marianne Sommer, History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules, London and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016, 544 pages, cloth $50.00 ISBN 9780226347325.
UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation – is probably best known to the public for the “world heritage site” status it has awarded to buildings, structures, and places including the Acropolis, the Galapagos Islands, and the Taj Mahal since it was founded in 1945. Given this role as a guardian of the globe’s heritage, it might surprise some people that UNESCO’s first director – and the man who insisted it include science as well as education and culture in its remit – was Julian Huxley (1887-1975). Grandson of “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Thomas Henry Huxley, Julian was a distinguished biologist in his own right and a public intellectual who had written numerous best-sellers, including Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942), been Secretary of the Zoological Society of London, and even won an Oscar for his documentary film, The Private Life of Gannets (1934). Julian Huxley’s connection with UNESCO made perfect sense. A campaigner for what he called “evolutionary” or “scientific” humanism, he believed there was no good reason to exclude the stuff of which we are made from our concept of heritage.
Huxley’s vision is one of the three overlapping evolutionary programmes – the others belonging to the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) and the Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (b. 1922) – that Marianne Sommer has weaved into the compelling History Within. Charting almost 100 years across 15 deeply researched and packed chapters, Sommer tells a story about the efforts to come to terms with the biological, social, and cultural meaning of evolution during the twentieth century. Focusing on an evolving understanding of heritage, through which thinkers fused biology, society, and culture whilst avoiding reductionism, History Within documents a complex intergenerational project to provide us with a scientifically-informed account of what it is to be human. In so doing, Sommer takes us from the early twentieth-century world of what historians have called “mainline” eugenics, in which categories like race had essentialist properties, to the triumph of diversity, in both politics and biology, 70 years later.
Central to Sommer’s argument about those developments is the idea that they were both made possible by and a direct consequence of networks that included not only scientific and political ideas but also technology and modes of communication. Whilst Huxley went so far as resigning his university chair to devote more time to communicating his ideas to a wider public, Osborn worked as both a professor of biology at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Cavalli-Sforza, a former student of the British population geneticist R. A. Fisher, integrated his work at Stanford with the latest advances in computing, helping to lay foundations for both the Human Genome Diversity Project and the National Geographic-funded Genographic Project. Immersing ourselves in each of these thinkers’ worlds takes us from an effort to illustrate and encourage people to engage with human evolution through dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History to electronic maps showing the migration of genes across the globe. At each stage, new research techniques made it possible to look deeper into ourselves and increased the amount of information that accounts of human history could include. But they also furnished people like Osborn, Huxley and Cavalli-Sforza with new ways of thinking about humans and opened up new possibilities for people to engage with them.
As Sommer shows, these developments, which have created businesses that will decode genomes for a fee and the idea that heritage can be identified with our genetic makeup, have always existed within a complex and precarious set of political and cultural relationships. Indeed, History Within is most thought-provoking and insightful when it comes to the twentieth-century struggle to fashion a biology that worked productively with left and liberal politics. When allied with his science, Osborn’s somewhat unforgiving eugenics generated a story about humanity that was hierarchical and excluded races and groups. Huxley, however, saw eugenics as having more to do with equality of opportunity – an idea that provided the foundation for his later and more famous work on the UN Statements on Race, which declared race a social, not biological, category. Yet in a post-war world where Huxley’s once-progressive beliefs about eugenics suddenly sounded old-fashioned, Cavalli-Sforza transformed apparently empty biological categories into positive political statements. Genetic geography, with arrows and maps showing the global movement of people, told us about that a common humanity that stretched deep into the past and could be discovered within us.
As Sommer argues, though, problems have persisted, even with this apparent resolution to the challenge set by mid-twentieth-century biosocial progressives. One is the tendency to treat some communities as living fossils – reminders of some geographic and cultural staging post on the way to our own current state. Given that the science involves choices about which groups to sample, stories about genetic and cultural development map historical change in complex and politically fraught ways; for example, by making some people and places part of others’ pasts. At the same time, however, the constant pursuit of diversity in the biosocial sphere threatens to overload us with information, making it difficult to support a story about human heritage that is as coherent as it was when Cavalli-Sforza first started work – a scenario that will be familiar to anyone engaged with the politics of “big data”. Indeed, there is another order of questions that History Within alludes to, namely what all these developments in understanding our past might mean for our future. In the decades after the Second World War, when he was forced to drop eugenics as a frontline concern, Huxley wrote about something he called “transhumanism” – how our knowledge of biological and psychological science might be used to overcome our physical limitations. Diversity was an important part of this project because Huxley had come to believe that, given it was essential for evolutionary progress, society’s role was to compensate for its costs, such as disability. This was a very different answer, of course, to the one offered by earlier mainline eugenicists, who believed in the purity of races. In this respect, progressive social and political ideals have been integral to biology and our understanding of the human during the past 70 years. But with private companies becoming significant actors in the development and communication of these ideas, there are profoundly important questions about the ownership of human heritage, not to mention inequalities in participating in it and accessing any of its future benefits. Sommer offers us a profoundly important historical frame for thinking about this problem, not to mention the others that will emerge in future.
Chris Renwick is senior lecturer in modern history at the University of York and an editor of History of the Human Sciences. He works on the relationship between biology, social science, and politics, and is the author of British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).