Population-genetic trees, maps, and narratives of the great human diasporas

History of the Human Sciences 28 (5):108-145 (2015)
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Abstract

From the 1960s, mathematical and computational tools have been developed to arrive at human population trees from various kinds of serological and molecular data. Focusing on the work of the Italian-born population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, I follow the practices of tree-building and mapping from the early blood-group studies to the current genetic admixture research. I argue that the visual language of the tree is paralleled in the narrative of the human diasporas, and I show how the tree was actually mapped onto the surface of the earth. This visual and textual structure is mirrored in the liberal discourse of unity in diversity that has been criticized as running counter to the socio-political effects of human population genetics. From this perspective, one may ask how far the phylogenetic diagram in its various forms is a manifestation of the physics of power that according to Michel Foucault consists in mechanisms that analyse distributions, movements, series, combinations, and that uses instruments to render visible, to register, to differentiate and to compare. It is one among other disciplinary technologies that ensure the ordering of human diversity. In the case of intra-human phylogenetic trees, population samples and labels are one issue. Another is that the separated branches seem to show groups of people, who have in reality been interacting and converging, as isolated. Often based on so-called isolated peoples, molecular tree diagrams freeze a hierarchical kinship system that is meant to represent a state before the great historical population movements.

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