Cover of Haunting Biology

Emma Kowal

Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia

Duke University Press, 2023

264 pages, 27 illustrations, appendices, notes, references, index

This book is like a magnificent conversation with a friend. Kowal has an eye for the uncanny, ghostly, and hauntingly ephemeral, which she leverages to address ethical and philosophical questions. She brings readers along as she tracks a hair sample collected in a chance encounter at a remote Australian railway station in 1923, which, 88 years later, appeared on the cover of Science. She turns to look at what the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner called “the great Australian silence” about the country’s settler colonial history (20). And she explains the circumstances under which she was allowed to photograph a white painted plastic statue of an early twentieth century scientist—only after it was retrieved from a curatorial sanctum inaccessible to women.

In the process, Kowal invites us to notice and even befriend aspects of the history of anthropology, biomedicine, genomics, and race sciences that make us uncomfortable. Drawing on diverse scholarly explorations of ghosts, spectral studies, and hauntology, Kowal adapts psychoanalytic (Freud), sociological (Gordon), literary (Derrida), and philosophical (Kristeva) perspectives to science studies. She argues that to understand scientific networks means also understanding the continual repression of scientific events or ideas that threaten cohesion—personal, political, cultural: “Haunting occurs when a glitch in the mechanism of repression allows the ghost to appear in the present. The presence of the ghost demands a response or … a ‘something to be done’” (20, quoting Gordon, 202). Kowal is attuned to the particularly unsettled Australian past, with its ongoing denial of indigenous sovereignty, and its long history of scientific study that enforced racism and racist policies. 

She also demonstrates, through her methods, the productivity of seeing time as closer to a crumpled handkerchief than a flattened map. One of my objections to some of what counts as standard historical method is the comfortably flattened map of plodding temporal order, imposed on a past that often looks more like a disaster scene than a chart of cause-and-effect. In 2009, the City of New Orleans unveiled a sculpture of a tree with a ruined house tangled up in its branches to commemorate the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The city still has many statues of great men, but the “Scrap House” by Sally Heller, placed across the street from the Convention Center where so many refugees fled, reaches closer to the unpalatable, hard-to-endure chaos of the past.

Kowal, trained as a physician and anthropologist, feels no obligation to construct a reassuring or comforting timeline, and instead plays with a history that reflects the properties of DNA, constantly reshuffled, extracted, stored, frozen, repatriated, and reinterpreted. In consideration of Amade M’charek’s reading of DNA topology (2014) and Michel Serres’ crumpled and ironed handkerchief of time (1995), Kowal suggests that “folded objects are a mechanism of haunting. A bone, a blood sample, a lock of hair, and a DNA sequence are folded objects in that they collapse time and space, bringing colonial history, scientific exchange routes, biocapital, genomic sovereignty, postcolonial reconciliation projects, and deep time into close proximity” (21-22). Her approach here and in other work makes good on this claim.

Her most important ghosts are found in museums, clinics, and laboratories. These include the ghosts of past racial sciences, encompassing all the calculations of biological or natural difference invoked in the history of Western science to justify enslavement, genocide, misogyny, and colonialism. The hauntings in Kowal’s account also include possible futures, and the seductive potential of contemporary genetics and genomics. Could indigenous control of knowledge systems end the hauntings?  Would biobanks organized differently be less burdened by history?  Could a focus on biological difference be productive for justice projects? And are there in fact important biological differences between groups that need to be recognized? Could scientific study of such differences benefit indigenous people and improve health outcomes? Kowal’s honest approach to such questions is to offer the ghosts a cup of tea, and sit with the messiness, the grief, and the uncertainty their presence can generate.

Outing herself as a former true believer in the benevolent interventions of contemporary biomedicine, Kowal explains her gradual shift, from her efforts to figure out how to help indigenous patients, to her confusion over her own role (first elucidated in her 2015 book Trapped in the Gap). Both a medical practitioner and a trained scholar of science studies and the anthropology of science, she is also a descendant of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. This legacy produced in her a deep, early sympathy for indigenous people in Australia. As a young doctor working with indigenous people, coming of age during public critiques of race sciences, sociobiology, genomics, and the Human Genome Diversity Project, she came to believe that genetic studies organized around group differences were inherently racist, and that any claims that indigenous people were differentially susceptible to disease was suspect, resonant with the worst claims of the worst racist sciences of the past. Those were her ghosts then.

Today, some of that certainty about genomics and what it promises or threatens has shifted, as she explores paths forward that might facilitate biomedical and genetic justice. In six chapters, she traces the legacies of experts who collected bones, blood, hair, artefacts, and objects of biological variation (e.g., skin color, metabolism) that they used to characterize indigenous people in Australia. Her anti-heroes include Colin McKenzie, A. C. Haddon, C. Stanton Hicks, A. A. Abbie, and Baldwin Spencer, who she proposes might still have some things to teach us.

Such possible lessons appear in her skilled reading of the electron microscopy image of the Golden Ridge Station hair sample that appeared on the cover of Science (October 7, 2011), gesturing to the persistence of nineteenth-century racial ghosts in the twenty-first century. The hair sample was collected in 1923 by Haddon, by then nearing retirement and in Australia not on a collecting expedition but for a science conference. During a brief stop at a remote station on the trans-Australian rail line, Haddon encountered a man who apparently had voluminous hair. Later rail schedule calculations suggest that Haddon had at most 40 minutes to notice the man’s hair and request a sample. He might have offered food or tobacco to the young man in exchange for being allowed to snip “one complete double long lock and one short lock” (68).

Cover of the 7 October 2011 issue of Science
Cover of the 7 October 2011 issue of Science featuring the hair sample collected by Haddon in 1923

A decade later Haddon titled his 1932 study of Torres Straits islanders Headhunters: Black, White, and Brown. While Haddon did not explain what he meant by “white headhunters,” the title alone was taken by one of his contemporary reviewers as a critique of the unscrupulous scientific collecting practices of other scientists (79). By the 1930s, Haddon was increasingly concerned about the political uses of racial sciences in Nazi Germany, and in 1935 he joined the entrepreneurial Julian Huxley and demographer A. M. Carr-Sanders as co-author of a book that critiqued the “vast pseudoscience of racial biology,” We Europeans: A Survey of Racial Problems (76).

Meanwhile the hair he collected at the remote train station was stored in Cambridge, unanalyzed and unused for 88 years, until a Danish scientist with the right tools and ambition “could make its degraded genomic information speak for the entire aboriginal race” (70). This hair sample became the source of the “first aboriginal genome” ever fully sequenced, and the twenty-first century sequencers, like Haddon himself in 1923, were initially unconcerned with the rights or perspectives of the young man at Golden Ridge Station, or with his descendants. One person was taken to stand for the “aboriginal genome,” and this genome was produced with no indigenous involvement at all. Journal reviewers and editors—perhaps more aware of swirling ethical debates—called out the oversight, and at some point the key scientist on the research team, Eske Willerslev, went to Australia to seek ethical approval—though Kowal finds conflicting accounts of how and why this happened. Ultimately, she concludes that “it appears very likely that the DNA analysis was conducted before seeking approval [in Australia] and that the journal Nature rejected the paper on these or similar grounds” (82). When the paper was accepted by Science, electron microscopy images of the Golden Ridge hair sample appeared on the journal’s cover and in press materials promoting the paper.  “These otherworldly images are not part of the scientific article: They are purely aesthetic, an allegory of the scientific wizardry that crushed and dissolved the hair to extract DNA and then sequence it” (82). 

Kowal’s account demonstrates how thoroughly nineteenth-century racial science haunted this entire event—from the management of the sample to the form of the eventual publication. This paper in Science featured a photo of a contemporary aboriginal man to represent the man at Golden Ridge Station. The unknown hair donor of almost a century before was identified in the 2011 paper as “an Aboriginal Australian like the one pictured above” (86). This “one pictured above” was a stock photo purchased from a Sydney photographer. A different photo of the same man was “available to purchase as a pillowcase, tote bag, stationary, a T-shirt, baby clothes or a phone case” (86). Kowal later learned some things about his life, including that he performed with a dance troupe at Sydney tourist destinations in the early 2000s. His depiction in the Science paper (as an unnamed and universal representative of a large group) echoed earlier depictions of generic, unnamed, diverse indigenous people. 

Kowal explores a rather different case of representation and visibility in her consideration of the wildly implausible history of a painted white plastic statue of a white male scientist. The plastic, life-sized double of Melbourne biological anthropologist Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) was displayed in the 2000s at Museums Victoria. It was set behind glass as a museum prop and intended as a postcolonial critique of museum collecting—a display in which the subject behind glass was a scientist rather than an indigenous person. Spencer was a suitable choice for this role. He had referred to Aboriginals as “naked, howling savages” in his 1904 book and he supported the “abduction” of “half-caste” children “for their own good” a practice that continued until the 1970s (148). By 2000 when the museum display appeared, he was the focus of considerable disapproval, and the plastic image “became a receptacle for negative feelings that some white people felt toward colonialism” (147). Having enjoyed tremendous professional success in his own lifetime, he became an embarrassment, to be ridiculed, behind glass, wearing his fieldwork attire, and with his tools displayed around him.

As the museum’s display practices and priorities changed, the plastic Spencer was removed in 2011 but retained by the museum, for reasons that are not clear. By chance, Spencer’s double was stored in a special holding room where important artifacts not intended for general viewing were stored in preparation for repatriation (134). Unlike other things in that room, Kowal notes, Spencer’s plastic double is not listed in the administrative records of the museum. The two stuffed lizards once displayed with him appear clearly in the administrative records of the museum. But Spencer’s plastic body was not tracked or recorded. It was just there, a haunting object, in a room with some of the most precious artifacts in the museum.

In 2017 when Kowal visited and asked to see the statue of Spencer, the friendly curator confirmed that Spencer was still in the restricted room, and described such rooms as “a kind of shrine to a form of knowledge that Western scientists believed was on the verge of extinction from almost the first moment of contact” (162). Unfortunately, the curator explained, the restricted room was “a place strictly prohibited to women” (163). So that she could see him, they rolled Spencer out on a trolley, a scene depicted on page 164 of this book. Her careful attention to the meanings of a plastic scientist, perhaps more than any other case study given, demonstrates Kowal’s ability to take something that is almost nothing—a strange statue, a changing museum storage system—to explore important questions.  

Kowal brings moral clarity to questions that have vexed the history of anthropology and genetics for at least a century. Her account does not present a smug solution, and it does not induce a comforting sense of certainty. Kowal asks whether it is automatically racist to identify different medical vulnerabilities or biomedical capabilities in disadvantaged groups. Can genomics be part of justice projects? Is the taboo on studies of indigenous biological difference fading? And how have indigenous people come to terms with genetics research? She puzzles over how scholars have constructed the histories of eugenics, race sciences, anti-racism, and colonial practice which often try to draw clear lines around good and bad scientific practice. Kowal instead calls attention to the ambiguities of those lines.

As Kowal suggests, biobanks run entirely by indigenous scientists promise a path out of the brutal history of genetics, and out of the flawed practices of genomics. But that path might depend on the commitment and intellectual labor of persons marked by the very categories that were once leveraged to undermine their rights. Kowal wants us to see how it mixes up categories and undermines comfortable conclusions about both the risks and the potential of scientific research. Admitting the possibility of politically charged biological differences (bad or good) in human groups is politically charged. So is refusing to admit these possibilities.

As an account of the meanings and applications of genetics and genomics in relation to Australian indigenous people, Kowal’s book reflects on the nature of science, medicine, and history. Every student of anthropology and its history should read this book.

Works Cited

Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kowal, Emma. 2015. Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia. New York: Berghahn Books.

Kristeva, Julia. 1991. Strangers to Ourselves. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

M’charek, Amade. 2014. “Race, Time and Folded Objects: The HeLa Error.Theory, Culture & Society 31(6): 29-56.

Serres, Michel (with Bruno Latour). 1995. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Translated by Roxanne Lapidus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

M. Susan Lindee: contributions / website / / University of Pennsylvania