Speaking for the Dead: Narratives of Genomics and Colonization

This is a paper that I wrote for a Ph.D. course: Nature and Capitalism. I’ve been sitting on it and I don’t think I am going to do anything else with it. It’s a bit long but I figured this is the place to put it.

In Speaker for the Dead (1986)—the sequel to the highly influential science fiction novel Ender’s Game (1985)—Card explores the future of the titular character Andrew (Ender) Wiggin after the Formic xenocide. Ender has taken on the mantle of “Speaker for the Dead” to recompense his part in the destruction of an entire alien species and the only other sentient life discovered up to that point: the Formics. In this role, Ender travels throughout the galaxy and speaks for those who have died. This practice involves an intimate immersion in the deceased person’s life for the purpose of speaking truth about them in death to ensure others remember that life. This novel beautifully illustrates the practice of “SF” argued for by Donna Haraway (2016): both science fiction and speculative fabulation. Speaker for the Dead is a tale of cultural relativism across alien species and a moral narrative of possibilities. It provides us “SF” with which to think about our own lives and how we relate to one another and the past.

            In a similar vein to that in Speaker for the Dead, we too have our own “Speakers” that take it upon themselves to adopt the voices of the long-since deceased to tell stories of who we are and where we come from. Geneticists concerned with ancestry and ancient DNA unknowingly place upon themselves the mantle of “Speaker for the Dead.” These scientists interpret markers on molecules found in the bodies of both living and deceased people to paint a picture of who our ancestors were, when and where they lived, who they came into contact with, and how they lived. Scientists have discovered cross-species mating and genetic introgression between Homo sapiens, and H. neanderthalensis and H. denisova, thus speaking for our ancestors’ sexual proclivities (Sánchez-Quinto and Laluza-Fox 2015). Others have traced human migrations through the mapping of haplogroups (Pipek et al. 2019) thus speaking for our ephemeral and transient nature. However, there is no better locus for evaluating this act of speaking for the dead in contemporary Western society (read: neoliberal) than the myriad of consumer genetic ancestry testing services available.

            Genetic ancestry tests (hereafter GATs) represents a growing economic market in the US. In 2018, 23andMe—the largest consumer testing agency—generated $475 million in revenue—making the CEO, Anne Wokcicki, one of the richest people in the world (Chaykowski 2019). GATs represent both a means of speaking for the dead that privileges contemporary notions of identity and also serves as an example of one of the many ways that capitalism strives to construct spaces in which to expand.

            In this paper I will argue that GATs and the science that facilitates them represent a form of colonization that reinforces traditional notions of racial difference and thus racism and perpetuate various kinds of violence through the reification and maintenance of difference. Furthermore, I hope to demonstrate that despite purporting to tell a story of how people around the world are interconnected by our genes, instead reinforce traditional notions of race, thus reinforcing the racist assumptions implicit in these categories.  

Geno-colonization and Expanding Capitalist Markets

Capitalism is the dominate form of economic organization in contemporary Western society and is marked by the centralization of the market in human life (Polanyi 1944). Luxemburg (1913) argues that the closed worker-capitalist binary theorized by Marx (1857) fails to account for the limited expansive capacity under capitalist distributions; as such, this dynamic requires a third party. Thus, for capitalism to continue, it must constantly construct ‘others’ outside itself. This process occurs through systems of colonization so that the capitalist system can gain immediate access to resources, coerce labor, introduce a commodity economy, and separate trade and agriculture. Colonial policies are put in place to facilitate capitalist expansion and transform the colonized into proletariat.

            While it is clear that without the continual construction of an ‘other’ capitalism will self-cannibalize, neither Marx or Luxemburg predicted of new forms of colonization that transcend traditional notions of blood and soil. Colonization and the subsequent construction of markets is no longer limited to people and their lands; instead new material and non-material spaces are colonized which subverts the consequence of liberal capitalist expansion since these spaces are not bounded in the same ways as people and land are. The development of intellectual markets over the past several decades has proven fruitful for capitalist accumulation as intellectual property laws have sprung up to facilitate the monopolization of non-material ideas by capitalist firms. Coinciding with the development of these new markets is the emergence of markets aimed at biotechnology. GATs is an industry that has put to work the advances in genomics for capitalist accumulation through the colonization of new molecular frontiers.

            I call this process geno-colonization which refers to the process of commodifying people’s genotypes for the purpose of capitalist accumulation. Castree (2003) argues that commodification involves privatization, alienation, individuation, abstraction, valuation, and displacement, each of which are present in GATs.  

  1. Privatization

Privatization involves the designation of legal title to a named individual or group which gives them rights over the use as the owner sees fit. Once one submits their DNA via saliva mailed to the GATs company, the company maintains the right to use the DNA in research capacities as they see fit. While 23andMe indicate in their Privacy Statement that they do not share individual-level genetics data with any third party, these data are aggregated together and sold to external parties (see: https://www.23andme.com/about/privacy/). However, since the purchase of stake in 23andMe by GlaxoSmithKline in 2018, the pharmaceutical company has used the genetics database to develop drugs. Furthermore, 23andMe uses its database to research pharmaceuticals which then get sold to other companies. In 2020, 23andMe sold the rights to an internally developed drug for psoriasis to Almirall, a Spanish pharmaceutical company.

  • Alienation

Alienation is characterized by the ability to separate the commodity, both physically and morally, from its seller. In the case of GATs, the consumer actually pays the company to take their DNA which is then used to generate capital through research and the development of pharmaceuticals. The biological material and the data that are generated from it are made exchangeable on the market. As Dickens (2001) argues, the genetic material is treated as if it has no organic relationship to the people from which it came.  

  • Individuation

Individuation refers to the “representational and physical act of separating a specific thing or entity from its supporting context (Castree 2003: 280). The act of individuation decontextualizes the commodity which involves treating them as if they have discrete ontologies. This occurs at multiple levels in GATs. First, genes are analyzed and presented to the consumer as if they are unconnected to one another. Nearly all genes are pleiotropic and polygenic, meaning that a gene has multiple effects and effects result from multiple genes (among other factors like development and environmental inputs). Furthermore, genes are removed from a material history and the narrative constructed by ancestry informative markers (AIMs) is superimposed (Fullwiley 2008).

  • Abstraction

Abstraction is the process by which specificity is abandoned in favor of qualitatively homogenous conceptions. Abstraction also occurs at multiple levels. First, human diversity is reduced to national and continental boundaries, telling how “British/Irish,” “French/German,” or Broadly European one is. Outside of Europe, one can be “African Hunter-Gatherer.” These categories reduce human variation to national, regional, or conceptual types that ignore the data that indicates that there is more genetic variation within groups than between groups and genotypes outside of Africa are subsets of the genotypes found with Africa (Yu et al. 2002). The genetic data collected and interpreted by GATs also abstract the genes from their embodied social, developmental, and epigenetic contexts. The presence of a particular gene does not fully inform the ways the gene is expressed, what are the external phenotypic and social contexts of that expression, or the ways the expression of the gene has modulated through time.

  • Valuation

 Valuation involves the assignation of value on to the commodity which can be expressed in the form of money on market with a given exchange value. Valuation also occurs in multiple dimensions. First, there is a particular value set for the test and access to the genetic data by the consumer (23andMe typically charges $100 for ancestry data and another $100 for access to health data). There is also a clear market value for the biological material and the subsequent data generated from it. As described above, pharmaceutical companies have invested a lot of money in order to have access to the biological material, genetic data, and proprietary technology used to produce and analyze the data; GlaxoSmithKline bought a stake in 23andMe for $300 million (GlaxoSmithKline 2018).

  • Displacement

Displacement involves the process by which commodities come to appear as things other than what they are. Consumers send saliva (i.e. spit) in the mail to the GATs company which then provides them with a bunch of data on potential regions that their ancestors may have lived it, health risks, and disease carrier status. Furthermore, on the market, the genetic data is not seen as an organic extension of the person that the DNA came from or even as a proxy for the individual. Instead, people are transformed into loci of resource extraction that can be mined for potential information that is useful in the manufacturing of new pharmaceuticals for the purpose of profit and accumulation.

The characteristics of capitalist commodification described by Castree (2003) are all elements found in the process of geno-colonization. Through capitalist commodification, people are transformed into sites of capitalist exploitation, and their genomes are subsumed by the market and thus capitalist logic. Capitalist commodification is a particular kind of storytelling and way of knowing. As Haraway (2017)—echoing Marilyn Strathern and others—argues: it matters what stories we tell stories with; what thoughts we think with.

Speaking for the Dead

The story of human history, as told under the umbrella of genomics, is a particular kind of story. It is a story that traces the complex, interpenetrative histories of people through molecular markers and orients people’s ancestors in particular places at particular times. This storytelling is our technocratic variety of speaking for the dead. Voices of the long deceased are appropriated by scientists for the purpose of constructing a narrative of who we are and where we come from.

           This form of speaking for the dead differs from that found in Speaker for the Dead. In the science fiction novel, those designated as speakers cannot exert authority to appropriate the voices to speak their truth about the deceased. Instead they can only speak if invited to do so and will only speak for the dead after being intimately immersed in the lives of the deceased. Thus, the power of the speaker in Speaker for the Dead is in service to the deceased and their loved ones and not a product of institutional authority and hegemony. Geneticists concerned with telling the genetic history of our species do so through the authority granted by the institution of science and do so without regard to those being spoken for and whether their decedents want a scientific story told.

            As Kim TallBear argues (2013), genomics has plundered Indigenous bodies for their biological material for generations with little regard for informed consent or the consequences that such narratives have on Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, Indigenous stories of creation, and being and becoming are undermined by authoritative science and treated as little more than quaint mythology (Watts 2013). Scientific hegemony and the saliency of genomics over the last several decades has rendered invisible other forms of knowing and being. While genomics has attempted to preserve indigeneity as a biological/molecular construct by documenting molecular markers associated with Indigenous peoples, it erases lived histories of colonization, thus denying Indigenous people the right to self-determination and self-narrative. To echo Watts (2013), for geno-colonization “to operationalize itself, it must attempt to make Indigenous peoples stand in disbelief of themselves and their histories” (p. 20). Furthermore, Indigenous genomes (disassociated from bodies) become sites of extraction where capitalist accumulation can occur through mining for “useful” markers in the development of pharmaceuticals.

            There is a clear exercise of biopower occurring at the intersection between genomics and those onto which it casts its gaze. Biopower refers to the ways in which power is exerted over bodies (Foucault 2008), and the construction of the stories—as told by scientists that occupy an authoritative position of power—illustrates institutional power that science exercises over identities of those that participate in GATs. The services purport to offer insight into one’s family history thus linking people back to the land that they have lost which is an attractive prospect. This tills the soil for the future extraction of value from the genomes under the guise of providing a (paid) service to the public.

            This geno-colonization erases the embodied experiences of the deceased and reduces their and living people’s identities to relationships between molecules; histories are lost in favor of comparing As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. When one receives their ancestry composition from a GATs service, it will include percentages of predicted relatedness to certain nations, regions, and groups. To illustrate, my most recent ancestry composition report from 23andMe states that I am 99.5% European (69.6% British & Irish; 13.1% French and German; 5.3% Scandinavian; 10% Broadly Northwestern European) and 0.5% Unassigned (Fig. 1). The first thing that should stand out is that it is presenting my ancestry relative to nations which of course are not static geographic regions but have shifted through human history (and did not always exist). What is not immediately evident though when seeing these data is the fact that what is being presented is based on a confidence level of 50% (Fig. 4). This means the story being told is not likely an accurate one. One can move the confidence interval and as the scale moves towards 90% confidence, the data being presented become less specific.  

            The choice to immediately present the ancestry composition at 50% is a telling one. It provides more specificity to the detriment to accuracy. This story is further biased due to the unevenness of sample sizes (Fig. 5). European samples make up 44% of all samples (N=6328). Furthermore, the sample “populations” are also uneven; some “populations” are nations (i.e. Somali, Japanese, Italian); some populations are regions (i.e. Eastern European, Central Asian); some populations are religious/ethnic groups (i.e. Ashkenazi Jewish); some are “types” (i.e. African Hunter-Gatherer). As Terrell ( 2018) argues, using “population” as an analytical category can only go so far as it assumes some level of distinctness between them. The issue that Terrell raises is that it is difficult (read: impossible) to determine who is actually in a population and who is outside it. Thus, the construction of populations is in part arbitrary and itself relies on a kind of storytelling. However, as new samples are added to the database, ancestry percentages shift. In my first ancestry report (Fig. 2), 23andMe said that I was 100% European (57.6% British & Irish, 16.3% French & German…). The second composition that I was presented indicated that I was 99.7% European (75% British & Irish, 8.9% French & German…), 0.1% Western Asian & North African, and 0.1% Sub-Saharan African (Fig. 3). This is a story that is malleable and is highly context-dependent.

            While genomic speaking for the dead holds that it is breaking down old racist narratives and instead “we are all African under the skin“ (TallBear 2007), it is these very categories that racists and the institutions that support racism rely upon for domination. Terrell (2018), as stated above, problematizes the notion of “populations” by stating that it is a vague concept that is a not-so-subtle substitute for race. He also problematizes the very notion that is being presented by GATs ancestry composition reports: admixture. These reports present what percentage of which of their population samples one is but this notion relies on the assumption that these categories (British & Irish, African Hunter-Gatherer, Native American, etc.) were at some point “pure” and did not experience gene flow with others that were not whatever those categories are (these are also politically and historically contingent labels). As Terrell (2018) says, “call them ‘populations’ or call them ‘races,’ it makes no difference.”

Terrell’s statement is further illustrated by Fullwiley (2008) where she argues that the development of ancestry informative markers (AIMs) technology—genetic markers used by GATs services to map genomes—is colored by traditional North American notions of race. Furthermore, Fullwiley states that the continents that were selected and populations that were defined “were chosen due to their perceived proximity to what we in North America imagine race to be” (Fullwiley 2008: 706). This affects from where DNA is extracted, and the interpretation of the data gathered through genomic analysis.

Direct-to-Consumer genetic ancestry testing services bring the reification of race by anthropological genomics to the general public. The historically and politically contingent categories used as populations provide consumers with people and places with which to identify. The people from which genomes are commodified are ultimately members of states and in contemporary American society, capitalism interpenetrates nearly all aspects of life. As such, the science—which receives funds from the state—is beholden to varying degrees of state interests. In neoliberal capitalism—the current iteration of capitalism in Western societies—the role of the state is to construct and maintain capitalist markets (Brown 2003). As a consequence, the health of the state is measured by the health and growth of the economy which is measured by stock market performance.

Genomics, as a consequence of its embeddedness in the neoliberal state, both reproduces culture ideology and upholds capitalist logic. Race is an intersection between class ideology and the construction of difference (Gans 2005) and so race cannot be understood apart from its relationship to racism and class hierarchy. Thus, through the reification of race by genomics, class is also reified and essentialized. This provides justification for racist inequality in contemporary United States.

While race is a social construction, it is still very real. Relethford (2009) defines race as a “culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (p. 20). Race is made real through racism which expresses itself through various forms of violence (Smedley and Smeldley 2005). Racism goes far beyond the abject racism that initially comes to mind when people hear the word (DiAngelo 2018) and also manifests itself as structural and spiritual violence.

      Galtung (1990) defines structural violence as the ways by which institutions exploit, marginalize, and deny citizens the access to certain rights and responsibilities which manifests as unequal life chances. Structural violence differs from direct forms of violence like abject racism because it lacks clear subject-object relations. It is also ongoing and pervasive and so there are no individual instances that one can experience as is the case with direct violence. As a consequence, structural violence is rendered invisible and so becomes normalized and routine. We are thus left measuring the consequences of structural violence while it continues to disproportionately affect marginalized racial groups.

      While race fails as biological distinctions in humans, it is made biological through manifestations of structural violence (Gravlee 2009). For instance, Black men in the United States have worse health outcomes than do White counterparts (Gravlee 2009). Infant mortality rate among Black Americans is more than double that of White Americans (11.4/1000 births versus 4.9/1000 births respectively) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2019). There are substantial differences between racial groups in life expectancy, the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, alcoholism, and many other chronic health conditions. One contributing factor is the growing level of inequality in the United States. Median wealth holdings among White people is more than 16 times greater than that of Black people (Herring and Henderson 2016). 

Through the reification of racial types by GATs, the reasons for such differences become obscured and thus creates an environment where structural violence is rendered further invisible by science to the general public. Wealth and health inequality become intertwined with narratives of biological difference and so ancestors’ voices come to speak for futures of living and dying. Drugs are developed as a consequence of racial biologization. BiDil, a drug developed to treat heart failure and targeted towards African Americans, was developed and approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) using assumptions associated with populations constructed through genomics. Using BiDil as a lens, race can be viewed as a form of biocapital production (Johnson 2018).

Biocapital refers to the ways in which modern capitalist and biotechnological systems become enmeshed in the service of capitalist accumulation and the market (Helmreich 2008; Rajan 2006). The development and especially the patent approval of BiDil was influenced by its ability to be marketed as a race-based medicine. NitroMed, the manufacturer of BiDil was able to lengthen the exclusive patent by 13 years, and cut off nearly 15 years of the patent approval process—thus saving hundreds of millions of dollars—as an operation of labeling the drug as targeted for African Americans. Furthermore, BiDil could be sold at a higher value since it was marketed as a race-based treatment for heart failure despite the fact the same chemical compound was being sold as a non-racial off-brand drug since the 1980s (Johnson 2018). In this case, the use of genomics served as a means for the justification of the exploitation of a racial group in order to ensure growth for a pharmaceutical company through appealing to the same technology used in GATs.

The reification of race through genomics and GATs not only enacts structural violence and facilitates the capitalist exploitation of racial groups, it also enacts forms of spiritual violence. Historically, spiritual violence referred to the use of religious difference for the purposes of persecution. However, Graeber (2018) has modified its use to refer to violence against people’s sense of self. This is most clear when looking at iconography that reinforces social hierarchy (i.e. Confederate statues, racist sports team mascots). However, the use of GATs data can also serve a similar function; it reaffirms culturally held notions of difference which subsequently reinforces notions of class difference: as stated above, race and class are intimately entangled. As a consequence, biological notions of racial difference and embedded hierarchy become reinvigorated through scientific authority and people are thus reminded of their place in the socioeconomic structure. Thus, capitalist class structure is buttressed by scientific storytelling.

Scientific storytelling is a powerful form of speaking for the dead. Genomics offers a story that appeals to our sense of belonging to something outside of ourselves. This may be especially attractive to African Americans who have had their histories stolen from them through the transatlantic slave trade and generations of erasure. It is also appealing to White Americans that lack the intimate ties to the traditional land that Watts (2013) argues is common among Indigenous people but absent among EuroAmericans, especially settler-colonialists. Speaking for the Dead can be a powerful act of love and inclusion or it can be a pernicious exercise of power.  


In this paper I have attempted to practice what Anna Tsing (2010) refers to as “arts of inclusion,” to reach outside of anthropology to call to other forms of knowing to think with. Speaker for the Dead allows us to think about the ways that the voices of the dead are appropriated for contemporary storytelling. Direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing services appropriate the voices of the long deceased to both speak for our past and tell us who we are. This form of speaking-for privileges molecular data over the embodied histories and culturally relative ways of knowing and being. Furthermore, it illustrates a form of biopower—geno-colonization—where science can exert its authoritative voice and render others silent, transforming human difference into sites of biocapitalist production.

Furthermore, through GATs, genomics comes to not only speak for the dead but also for capitalism. Genetic material is commodified and disassociated from those from which it was extracted for the purposes of capitalist accumulation for the pharmaceutical industry and also serves to reify traditional notions of race and thus perpetuates racism and its associated inequality.

The purpose of this paper was not to dismantle genomics or reject science but to ask the reader to make an effort to contextualize science. As Marks argues (2017; 2015), there is no study of humans that can be apolitical. We cannot be objective in the analysis of ourselves and the kinds of questions that we ask, the assumptions that we bring into our research, and our interpretations of the data are colored by the cultural context in which it occurs. In a society in which capitalism interpenetrates nearly all aspects of life, science is not immune to appropriation by the market in the service of capitalist interests. As such, state-funded scientific research is always at risk of succumbing to the draw of market forces. Being aware of these dynamics is a step towards creating a science that is inclusive and attentive to dynamics that are often just outside of our vision; decentralizing science, decentralizing Western narratives of being and becoming, and reintegrating scientific stories into the broader stories that come from all the other speakers for the dead that too have voices that are also deserving of attention.  


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Fig. 1: This is my current ancestry composition as per 23andMe.

Fig. 2: This is the first ancestry composition that I was presented by 23andMe

Fig. 3: This was the second ancestry composition that I was presented by 23andMe.

Fig. 4: Ancestry data is presented at a confidence level of 50%.

Fig. 5: This is a screenshot from 23andMe that indicates the number of samples used for analysis. Each category has a drop down menu that further specifies the samples.

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