ISG professor, Soraya de Chadarevian, recently co-edited “Heredity and The Study of Human Populations After 1945” in the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
The essays in this issue look at the contested history of human heredity after 1945 from a new analytical angle, that of populations and the ways in which they were constructed and studied. One consequence of this approach is that we do not limit our attention to the disciplinary study of genetics. After the Second World War, populations became a central topic for an array of fields, including demography, anthropology, epidemiology, and public health. Human heredity had a role in all of these: demographers carried out mental surveys in efforts to distinguish hereditary from environmental factors, doctors screened newborns and tested pregnant women for chromosome disorders; anthropologists collected blood from remote locations to gain insights into the evolutionary history of human populations; geneticists monitored people exposed to radiation. Through this work, populations were labelled as clinical, normal, primitive, pure, vulnerable or exotic. We ask: how were populations chosen, who qualified as members, and how was the study of human heredity shaped by technical, institutional and geopolitical conditions? By following the practical and conceptual work to define populations as objects of research, the essays trace the circulation of practices across different fields and contexts, bringing into view new actors, institutions, and geographies. By doing so the collection shows how human heredity research was linked to the broader politics of the postwar world, one profoundly conditioned by Cold War tensions, by nationalist concerns, by colonial and post-colonial struggles, by modernisation projects and by a new internationalism.