“The ghosts in your genes”: reshaping Chinese relatedness epigenetically
(University of Cambridge)
Paper short abstract:
Reproductive toxicologists in China that investigate “the ghosts in your genes” through epigenetic research of birth defects are reshaping relatedness between past, present and future, as well as between physician and patient understandings of socio-biological intimacy between generations.
Paper long abstract:
Chinese relatedness has often been studied by anthropologists through practices of ancestor worship, where the presence of ghosts have been understood as a means of distinguishing kin and making sense of societal transformation. Based on research among developmental and reproductive toxicologists in China, this paper discusses contemporary bioscientific practices that are both reshaping relations between kin, as well as between the past, present and potential futures through investigations of “the ghosts in your genes.” Building on the work of Judith Farquhar (2005), who encourages ethnographers of China to look at the way social change impacts bodily dispositions, I explore epigenetics as a kind of bio-scientific genealogical rendering of the exposed body in history. In trans-generational epigenetic studies of birth defects, toxicologists attempt to isolate the mechanisms through which a “non-inheritable” disease moves across generations, placing renewed emphasis on the uterine environment. Here, the uterine environment becomes a place in which lineages of exposure converge, giving new life to the social and chemical exposures of the past through the descent of epigenetic alterations. How do such scientific renderings of the past impact and inform physician and patient understandings of socio-biological intimacy between generations, especially during a moment of increasing national and regional birth defects? How might hauntings from the past, faced in the present, speak to scientific, medical and citizen concern about the quality of China’s reproductive future?
Technologies of relatedness: different practices of intimacy in Asia