Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity

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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

1:30 pm — 3:30 pm


Open to the Public

The Race and the Middle East/North Africa Mellon Sawyer Seminar presents a book conversation with author Elise Burton and Professors Eve Troutt Powell and Dorothy Roberts

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Online registration required to participate via Zoom

The Race and the Middle East/North Africa Mellon Sawyer Seminar at The Graduate Center, CUNY, is excited to inaugurate its programming with a book conversation on Genetic Crossroads (Stanford University Press, 2021) with author Elise Burton and Professors Dorothy Roberts and Eve Troutt Powell.

The Middle East plays a major role in the history of genetic science. Early in the twentieth century, technological breakthroughs in human genetics coincided with the birth of modern Middle Eastern nation-states, which proclaimed that the region’s ancient history—as a cradle of civilizations and crossroads of humankind—was preserved in the bones and blood of their citizens. Using letters and publications from the 1920s to the present, Elise K. Burton follows the field expeditions and hospital surveys that scrutinized the bodies of tribal nomads and religious minorities. These studies, geneticists claim, not only detect the living descendants of biblical civilizations but also reveal the deeper past of human evolution.   

Genetic Crossroads is an unprecedented history of human genetics in the Middle East, from its roots in colonial anthropology and medicine to recent genome sequencing projects. It illuminates how scientists from Turkey to Yemen, Egypt to Iran, transformed genetic data into territorial claims and national origin myths. Burton shows why such nationalist appropriations of genetics are not local or temporary aberrations, but rather the enduring foundations of international scientific interest in Middle Eastern populations to this day.  

Elise Burton is an Assistant Professor in the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology. A historian of science and society in the modern Middle East, Burton’s primary research interests are race, ethnicity and nationalism; the history of genetics and evolutionary biology; and transnational scientific collaboration. Before joining University of Toronto, Burton held a Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge (Newnham College). She earned a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, in two subjects, biology and Middle Eastern studies. In 2017, she completed her PhD in History & Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She has also published articles in Comparative Studies of Society and HistorySocial Studies of Science and Isis.  

Eve Troutt Powell is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an historian of the modern Middle East, focusing on Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, whose works illuminate questions of race and slavery at the juncture of Arab and African societies. Her publications include A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (University of California, 2003), Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement in Egypt, Sudan, and the Late Ottoman Empire (Stanford University Press, 2012), and the co-edited volume The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton Series on the Middle East, Markus Wiener Press, 2002). One of the pioneers of the history of African and Middle Eastern slavery, Troutt Powell has received fellowships from the American Research Center in Egypt, the Social Science Research Council, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2003 and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2020. Troutt Powell is the President-Elect of the Middle East Studies Association.  

Dorothy Roberts, an acclaimed scholar of race, gender and the law, is University of Pennsylvania’s 14th Integrates Knowledge Professor with joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the Law School, where she holds the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander chair. She is also founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society in the Center for Africana Studies. Her path breaking work in law and public policy focuses on urgent contemporary issues in health, social justice, and bioethics, especially as they impact the lives of women, children, and African-Americans. Her books include Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New Press, 2011); Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books, 2002), and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon, 1997). She is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as a co-editor of six books on such topics as constitutional law and women and the law.