Friday, 24 January 2014

Combating Colonial Technosciece: Lessons from the Frontline

This is a conversation with Dr Kim Tallbear about a lecture she gave at the University of Manitoba about Combating Colonial Technosciece: Lessons from the Frontline (Oct 28, 2013). Kim works as an Asssociate Professor of Anthropology at Texas. Here we have a wide ranging conversation about science, genetics, genomes, Indigenous peoples, gender and how science sometimes has a false foundation on which to judge Indigenous peoples in order to advance Western political beliefs. 

To Learn More (Podcast)


  1. Dr Kim Tallbear gives an interesting and unique perspective on the recent advancements in the genetic history of Indigenous people. I think that many of her arguments are accurate, particularly the fact that we cannot doubt that the majority of our science culture is derived from one that is primarily that of the “white-heterosexual-male”, and as such we must approach these types of studies with a critical eye. That said I feel for the geneticists who publish their works and theories and then come under fire from critics such as Dr. Tallbear for not being sensitive to the history of their research. The primary challenge for evolutionary biology, especially in light of Dr. Tallbear’s comments, is that there is still the outdated language of “race” being used to describe different peoples and their ancestors. Early scientists noted the physical difference between the peoples of different continents and regions of earth and established the distinction of different races, but this is a false distinction that has since been corrected. We now know that for more than 200,000 years humans have been the same species (Homo sapiens sapiens) and the difference between peoples of different lands is largely a matter of phenotypes, not genotypes. This is a critical distinction, because it implies that none of the peoples of earth are more “primitive” than the others, we are well over 99.99% the same and descended from one species.

    It is extremely important that as educators we remain critical of our pedagogy, acknowledging that some of the decisions, conclusion and research made in the past was highly biased and often racist. As Dr. Tallbear states, there is a tendency in the Western science mentality to assume the position of no position, but this is impossible as nothing is born from a vacuum. Western science must both acknowledge its position and history when it discusses its results. We are descended from one species that spread across the earth, giving us a shared history that should be embraced.

  2. Dr. Kim Tallbear speaks about her work looking at the science of mapping of the human genome. She published a book based on ten years of research looking at the perspective in which genetic research is conducted and presented. The perspective that she is talking about is the white, Eurocentric male perspective. Although I do not know very much about the field of genetic sciences, it is not surprising that Dr. Tallbear makes these assertions about the field. A great example of this is Canada’s education system, especially focusing on the curriculum that is presented to students across the nation. It is, for the most part, presented from this white, Eurocentric male perspective; although changes are slowly taking place (introducing Aboriginal perspectives into the curriculum in Manitoba at least).

    As a prospective history teacher, a part of the curriculum that we are told to cover involves the ancient history of Canada, which involves speaking about both migration to North America, as well as specific creation stories from different groups. The curriculum no longer begins at the point of European contact. I feel it is very important to speak to both the scientific and cultural views of how people first came to North America, more specifically Canada. The migration theory, as mentioned by Dr. Tallbear, is presented from the white, Eurocentric male perspective. Including information from another perspective is extremely important when teaching this information, as it will teach students that there is not necessarily one right answer to each question, and that a broad range of perspectives exist (encouraging students to keep an open mind). Including Aboriginal perspectives will do what is listed above, as well as help students to confront racism, bias, and stereotyping against Aboriginal people in places like the media and day-to-day life (Newbery, Morgan, & Eadie, 2008). This is something we must do in Manitoban education.

  3. Science is a worldview. It is a philosophy of the way of life. Science, although it is based on the notion of fact, the way in which it shapes opinion, philosophical view, political view and social behaviour. Using science to explain behaviour and society can only go so far to understanding the world as we know it before it must look to social sciences for explanation. In this podcast, Dr. Kim Tallbear uses genetic science in order to describe the idea that science is impacted far too heavily by empirical data and colonial narratives in order to construct a view of the world free from being extremely reflective of the dominant researcher. Dr. Tallbear suggests that “We all ask research questions based on our particular experiences.” Suggesting that she is skeptical that the gaze of science is far too small in scope and voice. She goes on to say that, “if all we’ve got is a bunch of white, western, heterosexual men, who are basically controlling most of the research, were not getting true peer review.” She suggests that we must bring more minds together in order to strengthen the validity of research in order to find a truly diverse and objective view of science. Dr. Tallbear also suggests that science must take in to view the many bodies of knowledge, including history, in order to find a way in which to research truly objectively.
    I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Tallbear’s ideas about the way in which scientific research is conducted. For a full view of reality, we as researchers and educators must find ways to bring in many diverse voices in order to see the full view of reality as well as we can. This means recognizing that all of our disciplines, science, languages, art, math, must all work together in order to have a full and thorough view of science itself. Bringing voices of the marginalized minorities is the only way in which we can truly understand the way the world works. Drawing on many different ways of knowing and voices will only strengthen the fullness of the scientific project.

  4. After listening to your interview with Dr. Kim Tallbear I think that I now support genetic research more than I did before. I disagree with her opinion that geneticists need to have more bodies of knowledge beyond just science. She states that they should be well aware of history and politics before engaging in research. I disagree because I think that scientists need to do research for the sake of research without having any fear or pressure. If we are to advance as a society then we cannot base our research off of the past or off of the current political climate.

    Mapping out the human genome has been controversial for many ethnic groups as well as religious groups. The Indigenous peoples are one of many groups in the world who have their own beliefs about how the world was created and where people came from. Scientists should be no more concerned about insulting one group over the other. People can still choose to believe what they want to believe regardless of what scientists say. There is a belief that humans originated from Africa and that we spread out as a species from there. Dr. Tallbear disagrees with this theory as I’m sure many groups in the world might. She also states that the world still has a racist view of Africa because of colonial ideas and treatment of the continent. Today she believes we look at Africa as an untouched ancient society but she believes that view is just as problematic as previous views of that continent.

    Dr. Tallbear discusses feminism in this interview as well. She does not like scientific research in this field because she believes that it is bias. In her opinion the field is dominated by white heterosexual men. While I don’t know what the statistics are for which demographics dominate that field of study I do not think that this kind of scientific research can have bias. In my opinion it is solely about scientific evidence that cannot be twisted based on the eyes that are viewing it. This might be a naïve view but I believe that these researchers are devoted to tracing the evolution of mankind. This is not of importance to any one particular group, but to mankind as a whole.

    One concern that I have after listening to this interview is that people may have had their blood drawn without knowing that their blood would be used for research purposes. If people did not give their consent to having their blood samples researched then there is of course reason for people to be upset. Excavations are also an extremely touchy issue. Willerslev, who had previously worked on researching the Australian aboriginal genome, said that his due to his prior experience “it became clear to me how important the past is to these peoples” ( So when scientists are researching the human genome it is important that they do so in a respectful way. Willerslev acknowledges that telling people they don’t know their own history is troublesome, as is digging up ancestral remains. There has to be a balance found so that all parties involved have a say. I do think that mapping out the human genome is crucial for historical purposes as well as for any insight it will allow in the medical field, but it has to be done ethically. By understanding how people migrated in the past, and how modern day populations came to be, mankind will hopefully unlock useful information that will be beneficial to all people.