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reckless driving: race through mass spec and global capital on highway 5

by Jenny Reardon
23 Feb 2008 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Race/Matter [2] | Commons

technology corridor, southern California[1]


technoparks, surround me. equipped with a notebook, tape recorder and the questions of an ethnographer of science, i arrive.

a man white, moustache, casual dress, waits for me outside of the bathroom. ‘jenny’ and a firm handshake and i am walking down a hallway in a non-descript corporate building with none of the frills.

i arrive at an office. sparsely furnished. one round table with two chairs. a large desk with a computer that looks like a space module. a scorpion trapped in amber on the table and a photograph of goldie hawn, kurt russell and the man before me—a photograph that i will only really notice later.

i sit down. the man tells me he has less than an hour, and if our conversation takes less time, that would be best. this is a man who moves fast. graduated college before 20. a full professor, and chair of a human genetics department before 30.

i agree to the time stipulation and he begins to tell me stories.

about himself he tells me: ‘i’m iconoclastic. i like to do things differently.’

to a leading tech business rag, he explains, ‘i’m a technology developer.’

by this, i learn he means that he likes to invent new methods, not just new machines. methods and machines that can visualize molecules that can bring into being a molecular vision of life.

technologies like the one that had solved the problem of molecules being stretched out and
indistinguishable on a gel. a smear on a gel, rather than a sharp, bright, easily resolvable and
distinguishable band. a distinction i am aware of from my own years of working with gels under
light boxes—as anyone who had done their time in molecular labs would be.

jenny2.jpgvery early on he sought to visualize how dna got wrapped up in nuclei.

it makes a certain amount of sense. if we think about the history of genetics and molecular
biology. if we think about watson and crick. watson and crick won the nobel prize for demonstrating the physical structure of a molecule: dna. it is easy enough to see why someone might think that visualizing the physical structure of dna in the nucleus might be the next big step.

especially someone with ambition. like the man before me.

certainly he wanted to be ahead of his time. and he wanted to do something big. his interests lay at the level of the human species.

at the level of its evolution.

at the level of its survival. over the course of the 2 and-a-half hours i spend with him, he presents me with numerous scenarios for human destruction. ethnic bombs. viruses with the capacity to kill at the level of the species. threats, he tells me, that he talks about with the u.s. department of defense.

but i don’t know the details. those are government secrets.

disease is a part of this human survival/evolution problem. maybe disease would not kill the human species, but it could impede its evolution.

the biotech company that this leading geneticist joined a year and a half ago promises to attack this problem by learning more about genetic differences that determine disease resistance and
sensitivity to drugs. his job is to lead the development of the new powerful technologies
and methods needed to fulfill this promise.

jenny3.jpgthis, he explains, is what it will take first and foremost: new powerful technologies. sequencing the human genome? we can do that.

but that, he explains, brought us on board with a project of only size 10^9 nucleotides. to study human genetic differences,

however, one needs the capacity to process and store 7 times more nucleotides. you see, if you multiply the number of humans by the number of genetic differences per human you come up with a number at the order of 10^16. that’s a lot of nucleotides! handling them requires technological breakthroughs. greater sequencing speed and handling powers.

jumping over the hurdles. the company setting, he tells me, facilitates.

the company, where peer review and academic departmental divisions are distant problems.
the company, where money and minds can gather in large enough quantities to do something really new.

being ahead of the rest.
the values that this day narrate a life, a new science and some-say industry. pharmacogenomics.

flying down highway 5, i am one of the many individual modules darting stochastically in an out
of lanes like some spacecraft in a hollywood sci-fi film. i look around me at the landscape. bare,
dusty. history erased, it becomes a dreamscape. a place to project and imagine what you like.

it attracts me. i am american enough, white enough. i have spent enough time under big sky
and landscapes that rolled out for miles unimpeded, where the resting point for meditation is the horizon … i am enough something, anyway, to feel freedom and power in this landscape.

jenny4.jpglooking at the synthetic space-age technoparks that dot the landscape from this point of reflection now, though, i ask myself, what do i not see?
what is left out of this landscape? what do i leave
behind as i speed down highway 5?

what is absent or lost?
in that landscape?
in that man’s story? so many like his in biotechnopark america.

american biotechnopark ’society’

in these stories ’society’ collapses into ‘biology’. in particular, race, understood in post-civil rights america to be a social construct, becomes biological.

a central ordering tool in american society, used to


and to segregate


and sometimes to empower …


speeding down highway 5, weaving through the back streets of cambridgeport, surging across the bays of northern california in the midst of dna/silicon worlds, these social realms made up of
job applications, census forms, lynchings, internment camps, the u.s. constitution, blood
donor forms, segregation, eating practices, civil rights laws and

even just the mere pouring of concrete that makes all this highway travel possible … are nowhere in sight.

passed by too quickly to discern. in these biotechnopark worlds of speed, innovation and
purity, where we are told that the holy grail is saving human life, *this* thick embedded social
appears only as one big smear on the agarose superhighways of genomics. no technology yet
invented too fix *this* resolution problem.

at these speeds, amidst these landscapes, this thick ’social’ drops out. another replaces it. an
american biotechnopark ’social’. that which lies on the other side of biological dystopias. the
dystopias i learned about on highway 5.

we are not evolving fast enough. we might go extinct in the face of the more rapid evolution of silicon. dna might lose out to silicon. humans to computers. just think about how much time we spend on email, he told me. we looked at his seventies sci-fi designed computer and pondered together.

in this ’social’ it is all about survival-of-the fittest. and in the tradition of many of the ‘great scientists’ who have come before him, he has just written a fictional short story about it.

check your email, jenny. it should be arriving via the e-highway anytime now.
jenny5.jpgin these stories, on this highway, at this speed, society and biology collapse.

driving so fast, no technical assistance to disaggregate this smear, resolution becomes a different kind of power.

the power to create the belief that we see clearly the construction of a dna world. a world whose time has come. a world whose time will quickly pass. to be replaced by another world whose time will have come.

this is the belief. these are the socials i find populating biotechnopark america. evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest imaginaries. social imaginaries that might find a home in that white
ethereal castle-like church that surged by me somewhere near la jolla …

but these stories have pushed me into wondering if we see anything clearly at this speed, with *these* technologies of resolution.

on highway 5 they say they have never made a mistake. they have never confused an ‘a’ with a ‘c’ or a ‘g’ with a ‘t’. they see dna 300 times better than anyone else.

they have never made a mistake!

but if there is such clarity, why did i/we ride so roughshod through the landscape of race three
days ago? where did that mess of our conversation come from?

race through global capital and mass spec on highway 5

you tell me that your company’s technologies enable us to see a, g, c, and t with absolute clarity. these a’s g’s c’s and t’s will be used to visualize human bodies in a “rational” manner so that cures and drugs can be rationally designed—so that you can “give people better medicine.”[2]

to do this you imagine individual human bodies as your subjects. you promise to fit these individuals with designer molecular drugs.
you tell me.
the advertisements tell me. reports.
it is the well-glossed goal: molecular medicine for all.

the new american dream???


but i ask more questions and the practical reality begins to materialize. three weeks ago your
company’s goals switched from individual-based DNA testing

to population-based. it makes good historical sense. it tracks a tried and true method in genetic
studies of diversity. locate diversity by looking at groups.

jenny6.jpgdobzhansky, for example, one of the fathers of population genetics, travelled the backroads of california to collect drosophila from different populations.

populations isolated by geography and land form. canyons and mountain ranges. he believed that these different populations of drosophila contained genetic differences that made them different from the fly that thomas hunt morgan, that original of genome mappers, characterized back in his labs in new york city.

the flies of wildrose canyon, lone pine, pear blossom?

these flies were all-american flies, distinct in their own way: chiricuhua chromosomes; arrowhead alleles; whitney gene arrangements…

so now you, your company and many other research groups in industry and government only want to do for humans what dobzhansky did for the flies.

demonstrate their diversity. characterize their diversity.



as simple as that?


i understand.

in biology, populations are defined as breeding pools.

breeding pools differ from each other. they carry particular genetic differences at higher frequencies than other breeding pools.

they aggregate, in this case genetic differences, so they are more easily found. they provide better statistics.

they cluster.

so yes, i understand.

populations collect differences into a searchable
they are the haystacks.

jenny7.jpgthe new spectropometric devices the company has devised to search and find.

they are the reapers.

they search and find quickly. very quickly.
100 times faster than any other available method.
both (the populations, spec analysis) make it possible to discover human genetic differences with greater and greater speed.

as these differences are found, there will be more cocktail parties and promises of designer medicine for *individuals*. for this many will receive money and prestige.

but today we do not talk about this. today we only talk about the good of the human species and solving disease.

eventually you direct my attention to the photograph on the table and tell me about your
plans for a hollywood cosmetics company.

‘vanity genetics’. the wave of your future.

but let’s get back to those haystacks.

because in the project you have proposed, as well as the countless others emerging in human
genomics now, not only do you have to find needles, you have to find haystacks.

to do that you have to define them. and so i ask you, how are you defining the haystacks?

who are the populations?

you tell me ‘asians’ and ‘blacks.’ these seemed to be your favorites. oh, and ‘the orientals.’
you did best with the ‘asians.’ you could divide them into ‘koreans,’ ‘japanese’ and ‘chinese.’ you told me anyone could, just by visual inspection of their faces. humans are good at that, you say.

you explain:

I think most of us can distinguish almost everyone we have ever met, right? And you are probably not rationally thinking about how you are doing this, but obviously the standard anthropological measures of the headwidth, head length and, you know, thickness of the lips and the way the nose is constructed, the color of the eyes and all this, ok? So there is no reason why you couldn’t segment by eye color if you wanted to.

you invite my assent, but i only shakily look back at you and ask:

‘what about the ‘blacks’? how would you subpopulate the ‘blacks’ into managable, meaningful groups?

well i ask about ‘blacks’ and you want to dart back into the fast lane of highway 5 again, where just individuals negotiate the clearly demarcated lanes.

where the routes are already charted and you no longer seemingly need group organization: your population-based analysis.

i point this out to you and you back up. you say ‘ok, perhaps we can organize these ‘blacks’. you explain that what these technologies of speed are

…going to allow people to do for the first time—because of the power that we now have—is to make hypotheses and test them … So if you have 10, 000 blacks, and you think you want to divide them this way or that way or this way or that way well, we can do … these studies
quickly so you can try all of it and see which ones give you the sensible patterns of results. we could take facial measures.

you tell me.

but now you are no longer on highway five, my friend. you are on the dusty trails of the wild west. i thought respectable scientists gave up on facial measures in the 19th century! so why does this not strike you? have you not been reading the critiques made by your population geneticist and anthropologist colleagues?

facial measures, any physical marker, as a sign of meaningful biological groups? did you not read
your history books? you see, because if you did they’d tell you that *this* notion of biologically
meaningful races went out of style over 50 years ago now.[5].

maybe you’re ahead of the history books?

jenny8.jpgwhatever is going on, could you please slow down? i mean, you did not tell me about all the technologies i would need to talk to you today. i left my spacecraft in the parking lot. and you made no mention of a need for a time machine. and without their help, this ride is getting a little too rough.

you see (or can’t you see) that all this is about more than just disease. the technologies, sciences, informed consent forms, blood donor forms, fancy light systems involved here will make more than just new approaches to medicine. where are the technologies to visualize these processes of scientific and social construction?

and what about this genomic medicine? the one recognized product of this whole endeavour. what kind of medicine, cures and drugs will be developed using these racially structured search and find technologies?

well, i don’t know, but i can say this. you and many other geneticists, chemists, anthropologists … scientists that are clustering together in new ways to form the emerging field/some-say industry of pharmacogenomics travel to points on the genome via funny roads.

categories used to facilitate this world’s obsession with sorting self from other, slave from non-slave, entitled from dispossessed quickly and rapidly reworked to build technologies to locate disease alleles on the human genome.

but is anyone sure that these are the best, most well-lit routes? why do we change lanes so
quickly? in and then out. weaving madly through the traffic of racial and ethnic identities?

‘asians’ then ‘orientals.’
perhaps a population geneticist could not define them, but an anthropologist could. the pygmies, right?

…everyone clusters the Pygmies. That is real easy.

you tell me.


… a lot of the Blacks in this country are probably so mixed that it is probably useless to try to sort them out.[7]

but, that doesn’t matter.

…ultimately at the level of medical diagnostic it’s the individual .. all you really care about is what alleles does that individual have.

we are all individuals in the eyes of genetics, and at this level we can all be *treated* the same.


well, ok, if you persist in asking. ok, yes, they exist. facial measures tell us that …[9]

am i the only one who is feeling what this molecular vision of life, prosperity and health for all leaves out?

am i the only one who is beginning to feel the queasiness of building worlds outside of the
(yes, i know) annoyingly slow political bureaucratic stuff of public oversight and peer review?

accept that ‘the public good’ is easily and clearly defined and yes, things do go a lot faster.


with a clear goal, and no social and political differences to mediate?

yes, the sky’s the limit!


with no questions about the construction of race and identity?

yes, we will indeed travel at high speeds!

and we will create massive amounts of data.
and we will find correlations between the groups and disease alleles we define.

and we will be able to demonstrate this to stockholders.
and there will be more glossy spreads.

and we will all surge into the future.

and i know the allure.

i drove down highway 5 today too.

but man, slow down.

this is reckless driving.





I would like to thank the visual artist and designer, Angela Moore, for taking on the foolish task of collaborating with me on this project. She designed many of the images for this text, and we worked together on selecting several others.

I would also like to thank Marcia Ochoa for her web design assistance. Finally, I would like to thank Suzi Grishpul for web development and for sticking with this project through to its completion.

An interactive version of this piece is available at:


1. This piece is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant number SBR-9818409. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. [↑]

2. Interview with author, October 29, 1999 [↑]

3. Ibid. [↑]

4. Ibid. [↑]

5. See, for example, Nancy Stepan’s The Idea of Race in Science, London:Macmillan, 1983; and Elazar Barkan The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992 [↑]

6. Interview with author, October 29, 1999. [↑]

7. Ibid. [↑]

8. Ibid. [↑]

9. Ibid. [↑]

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