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From Bits to Bodies: Perfect Humans, Bioinformatic Visualizations, and Critical Relationality

Jen­nifer A. Hamilton

Abstract: In Decem­ber 2014, com­pu­ta­tion­al biol­o­gist Lior Pachter post­ed the results of his “tongue in cheek” in sil­i­co genome exper­i­ment on his per­son­al blog, where he declared his dis­cov­ery that “the per­fect human is Puer­to Rican.” In this arti­cle, I ana­lyze the “per­fect human” exper­i­ment. I argue that despite the use of 21st-cen­tu­ry, cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy in com­put­ing and genomics, Pachter’s exper­i­ment and his use of visu­al­iza­tion can be use­ful­ly jux­ta­posed with ear­li­er modes of visu­al­iz­ing hered­i­ty, name­ly the devel­op­ment of com­pos­ite por­trai­ture in the late-19th cen­tu­ry and late-20th cen­tu­ry tech­nolo­gies of “mor­ph­ing.” I tem­per the cel­e­bra­tion of Pachter’s cre­ation of a “mixed race” per­fect human in sil­i­co with a chal­lenge to its osten­si­bly pro­gres­sive stance. I instead sug­gest that it must be under­stood in the broad­er con­text of eugenic haunt­ings and con­tem­po­rary ten­sions around ques­tions of sex, sex­u­al­i­ty, race, nation, and indi­gene­ity. I argue that the sci­en­tif­ic, specif­i­cal­ly genom­ic, sto­ries that we tell, can be pro­duc­tive­ly read in light of cri­tiques of bio­genet­ic kin­ship and the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of het­ero­sex­u­al love. I con­clude by argu­ing that the per­fect human exper­i­ment makes a par­tic­u­lar kind of argu­ment about what it means to be human and per­fect and what con­sti­tutes legit­i­mate and cog­niz­able modes of relationality.

Résumé: En décem­bre 2014 le biol­o­giste infor­mati­cien Lior Pachter a annon­cé ironique­ment les résul­tats de son expéri­ence virtuelle sur le génôme dans son blog per­son­nel, dans lequel il déclare sa décou­verte que ‘l’humain par­fait est por­tor­i­cain.’ Dans cet arti­cle, j’analyse l’expérience de ‘l’humain par­fait.’ J’avance qu’en dépit de l’emploi de la tech­nolo­gie la plus avancée du XXIe siè­cle en matière d’informatique et d’étude du génome, l’expérience de Pachter et son util­i­sa­tion de la visu­al­i­sa­tion peu­vent être utile­ment jux­ta­posées à des modes antérieurs de visu­al­i­sa­tion de l’hérédité, spé­ci­fique­ment de la por­trai­ture com­pos­ite dans les tech­niques de ‘mor­phisme’ de la fin du XIXe et du début du XXe siè­cles. Je tem­père la célébra­tion de la créa­tion virtuelle de Pachter d’une “race mixte” d’humains par­faits en remet­tant en cause sa posi­tion osten­si­ble­ment pro­gres­sive. Je sug­gère qu’elle doit plutôt être com­prise dans le con­texte plus large des obses­sions eugéniques et des ten­sions con­tem­po­raines autour des ques­tions de sexe, de sex­u­al­ité, de nation et d’indigénéité. J’avance que les réc­its sci­en­tifiques, spé­ciale­ment génomiques, que nous racon­tons peu­vent être lus de façon pro­duc­tive à la lumière des cri­tiques de la par­en­té biogéné­tique et de la nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion de l’amour hétéro­sex­uel. Je con­clue en sug­gérant que l’expérience sur l’humain par­fait représente un argu­ment par­ti­c­uli­er sur ce que sig­ni­fie être humain et par­fait et sur ce qui con­stitue des modes de rela­tion­al­ité légitimes et perceptibles.

In the U.S. race has always been depen­dent on the visual.
- Eve­lyn Ham­monds, “New Tech­nolo­gies of Race” (1997)

In the Unit­ed States, race imme­di­ate­ly evokes the gram­mars of puri­ty and mix­ing, com­pound­ing and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing, seg­re­gat­ing and bond­ing, lynch­ing and mar­ry­ing. Race, like nature and sex, is replete with all the rit­u­als of guilt and inno­cence in the sto­ries of nation, fam­i­ly, and species.
-Don­na Har­away, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan Meets_OncoMouse (1997)

In Decem­ber 2014, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley com­pu­ta­tion­al biol­o­gist Lior Pachter post­ed the results of his “tongue in cheek” in sil­i­co genome exper­i­ment on his per­son­al blog, where he declared his dis­cov­ery that “the per­fect human is Puer­to Rican” (Pachter). Pachter applied com­put­er mod­el­ing and sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis to genet­ic code to pro­duce his results. The results of Pachter’s exper­i­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly his claim to have locat­ed the “per­fect human,” explod­ed on social media—160,000 shares in one day—and pro­voked sig­nif­i­cant dis­cus­sion, both seri­ous and humor­ous. The post also caused dis­com­fort among some main­stream genom­ic sci­en­tists, includ­ing those who col­lect­ed the blood sam­ples that pro­vid­ed some of the data for this thought exper­i­ment (Oleksyk and Mar­tinez Cruza­do). Such sci­en­tists expressed con­cern that the pub­lic had missed Pachter’s “sarcastic…tongue-in-cheek tone that ridiculed per­fect-human argu­ments” and instead took the “exper­i­ment” seri­ous­ly (Oleksyk and Mar­tinez Cruza­do; see also Irizarry).

While Pachter ulti­mate­ly dis­avowed the exis­tence of a “per­fect human,” a goal he describes as “a mis­lead­ing under­tak­ing,” he nev­er­the­less pro­posed that such a being, were they to come into being, would not be of “pure” genet­ic stock but would rather be “admixed,” bring­ing togeth­er “good genes” from pre-colo­nial, pre-con­tact populations—defined as Euro­pean, African, and Indige­nous Amer­i­can. Pachter sug­gest­ed that the embod­i­ment of the “per­fect human,” con­jured in his in sil­i­co exper­i­ment, might be Yuiza, a leg­endary 16th cen­tu­ry Taíno woman: “The near­est neigh­bor to the ‘per­fect human’ is…a female who is…Puerto Rican. One might imag­ine that such a per­son already exist­ed, maybe Yuiza, the only female Taino Cacique (chief) in Puer­to Rico’s his­to­ry” (Pachter). To make this point visu­al­ly, Pachter attached a por­trait of Yuiza done by con­tem­po­rary Puer­to Rican artist, Samuel Lind, an image that cir­cu­lat­ed (and con­tin­ues to cir­cu­late) wide­ly in the news and social media (Fig­ure 1).

Fig­ure 1: Detail from Lind’s Yuiza (2008)

The claim that “the per­fect human is Puer­to Rican” was cel­e­brat­ed through­out both social and main­stream media, in the main­land Unit­ed States and in Puer­to Rico, in Eng­lish and in Span­ish. While Pachter imag­ined this per­fect crea­ture as embod­ied in the fig­ure of Yuiza, many oth­ers in the media sug­gest­ed Jen­nifer Lopez, with Ricky Mar­tin as her male coun­ter­part, was the embod­i­ment of Puer­to Rican per­fec­tion: “Los puer­tor­riqueños de hoy en día, sin embar­go, han señal­a­do a Jen­nifer López y Ricky Mar­tin como prue­bas de la per­fec­ción Boricua” [“Today’s Puer­to Ricans, how­ev­er, have sin­gled out Jen­nifer Lopez and Ricky Mar­tin as proofs of Boricua per­fec­tion.”] (JClar) (see Fig­ure 2).1

Fig­ure 2: Still from music video, “Adren­a­li­na,” Wisin fea­tur­ing Jen­nifer Lopez and Ricky Mar­tin, 2014

Yet the claim that the “per­fect human” might be Yuiza (or even Jen­nifer Lopez for that mat­ter) is not as straight­for­ward as it might at first seem. The affec­tive embod­i­ment of the bits of data that con­sti­tute the per­fect human in sil­i­co—bits stored in large data­bas­es as zeros and ones—in a leg­endary fig­ure like Yuiza requires a com­pli­cat­ed and labour-inten­sive process of visu­al­iza­tion. Such a process is deeply root­ed in cul­tur­al imag­i­nar­ies about sex, race, sex­u­al­i­ty, kin­ship, and nation. As the epigraphs from Ham­monds and Har­away remind us, racial economies in the Unit­ed States else­where rely heav­i­ly on tech­nolo­gies of the visu­al for their “sense-mak­ing” capac­i­ty, and the larg­er “grammars”—“of puri­ty and mix­ing, com­pound­ing and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing, seg­re­gat­ing and bond­ing, lynch­ing and mar­ry­ing” (Har­away 213)—are cen­tral log­ics that enable the move­ment from bits to bod­ies, from genet­ic code to the fig­ure of what I call Yuiza in sil­i­co.

In his exper­i­ment, Pachter relies on a series of what fem­i­nist schol­ar Eliz­a­beth Lloyd calls “pre-the­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions,” those assump­tions that must be present in order for a sci­en­tif­ic sto­ry to make sense (Lloyd). In her dis­cus­sion of expla­na­tions of female sex­u­al­i­ty in evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, Lloyd argues that such expla­na­tions “exem­pli­fy how social beliefs and social agen­das can influ­ence very basic bio­log­i­cal expla­na­tions of fun­da­men­tal phys­i­o­log­i­cal process­es” (Lloyd 139). She sug­gests that “social assump­tions and pri­or com­mit­ments of…scientists play a major role in the prac­tice of sci­ence itself, at many levels—experimental design, data col­lec­tions, pre­dic­tions, hypoth­e­sis for­mu­la­tion, and the eval­u­a­tion of expla­na­tions” (Lloyd 139). In my analy­sis, I argue that such social assump­tions and pri­or com­mit­ments are wor­thy of seri­ous study and exca­va­tion because they reveal the deep and prob­lem­at­ic invest­ments that con­tem­po­rary genom­ic sci­ences both have inher­it­ed and con­tin­ue to repro­duce: name­ly, sex­u­al­ized and racial­ized notions of puri­ty and hybrid­i­ty; eugenic tropes of health and fit­ness; and the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty. These tropes pro­vide a con­nec­tive node between Pachter’s exper­i­ment and the larg­er ques­tions of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ty that are the focus of this spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tions.

The fig­ure of Yuiza in sil­i­co must be under­stood as a racial­sex­u­al for­ma­tion,2 a con­cep­tu­al frame­work that insists not only that race, sex, and sex­u­al­i­ty are inter­sec­tion­al, social­ly pro­duced cat­e­gories (Collins and Bilge; see also Omi and Winant), but also that the con­cep­tu­al and prac­ti­cal devel­op­ment of what sci­ence has labeled sex­u­al dimor­phism is itself inex­tri­ca­ble from emer­gent con­cepts of race. As Sal­ly Markowitz reminds us, sex­u­al dimor­phism itself is always already racial­ized, emerg­ing as it does from nine­teenth cen­tu­ry evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ries: “[T]he cat­e­go­ry of sex/gender difference…has been sat­u­rat­ed with racial mean­ings for cen­turies and not always in ways that are easy to dis­cern” (Markowitz 389). Accord­ing to Markowitz, the two-sex mod­el that emerges in the 18th cen­tu­ry and is repro­duced in con­tem­po­rary genomics (see also Richard­son) is not just cen­tral to gen­der ide­ol­o­gy, but also makes a “com­plex con­tri­bu­tion to racial ide­ol­o­gy as well” (Markowitz 394). While the “nat­u­ral­ness” of the cat­e­gories of race is con­test­ed even in the genom­ic sci­ences, cat­e­gories of sex and sex­u­al­i­ty are often left as nat­ur­al and obvi­ous and as uncon­nect­ed to race, despite long­stand­ing and elab­o­rate fem­i­nist cri­tiques (see Ham­monds; Har­away; Carter). Thus, the idea that the “per­fect human” is a Puer­to Rican woman, embod­ied in the image of a Taíno woman, Yuiza, is an exam­ple of racial­sex­u­al for­ma­tions and a key dimen­sion of Pachter’s claim.

This paper has two main sec­tions. In the first, I argue that despite the use of 21st-cen­tu­ry, cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy in com­put­ing and genomics, Pachter’s exper­i­ment and his use of visu­al­iza­tion can be use­ful­ly jux­ta­posed with ear­li­er modes of visu­al­iz­ing hered­i­ty, name­ly Fran­cis Galton’s devel­op­ment of com­pos­ite por­trai­ture in the late-19th cen­tu­ry and late-20th cen­tu­ry tech­nolo­gies of “mor­ph­ing,” famous­ly rep­re­sent­ed in Time Magazine’s com­pos­ite image of “The New Face of Amer­i­ca,” also called SimEve. In my analy­sis of Yuiza in sil­i­co, I tem­per the cel­e­bra­tion of Pachter’s cre­ation of a “mixed race” per­fect human in sil­i­co with a chal­lenge to its osten­si­bly pro­gres­sive stance. I instead sug­gest that Yuiza in sil­i­co must be under­stood in the broad­er con­text of eugenic haunt­ings and con­tem­po­rary ten­sions around ques­tions of sex, sex­u­al­i­ty, and race. I sug­gest that what links these visu­al artifacts—19th-cen­tu­ry com­pos­ite por­trai­ture, SimEve, and Yuiza in sil­i­co—across time and space is a con­cern with embody­ing sta­tis­ti­cal data in ways that make a potent kind of visu­al argu­ment about hered­i­ty and its rela­tion­ship to race, sex, sex­u­al­i­ty, kin­ship, and nation. I argue that visu­al­iza­tions of admix­ture must be prob­lema­tized through an exca­va­tion of the his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­text of “race mix­ing” in order to chal­lenge nat­u­ral­ized het­ero­nor­ma­tive evo­lu­tion­ary nar­ra­tives while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mak­ing vis­i­ble the sex­u­al vio­lence of col­o­niza­tion and impe­ri­al­ism often effaced in such visualizations.

In the sec­ond part of the paper, I fur­ther explore what fem­i­nist schol­ar Ven­la Oikko­nen calls “the entan­gle­ment of the infor­ma­tion­al and embod­ied in genet­ic dis­cours­es of human dif­fer­ence” (Oikko­nen 749) in the con­text of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ty, an emer­gent inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of inquiry that puts ques­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty, kin­ship, and relat­ed­ness into crit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion with set­tler colo­nial­ism. I argue that the sci­en­tif­ic, specif­i­cal­ly genom­ic, sto­ries that we tell, can be pro­duc­tive­ly read in light of cri­tiques of bio­genet­ic kin­ship and the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of het­ero­sex­u­al love. The cel­e­brat­ed exis­tence of the “per­fect human” as a Puer­to Rican woman—a mixed-race woman, embod­ied in the image of an Indige­nous foremother—simultaneously works to rein­force the nat­u­ral­ness of het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty and also fore­clos­es appre­hen­sion of oth­er crit­i­cal modes of rela­tion­al­i­ty that are cen­tral to the con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics of indi­gene­ity. I con­clude by argu­ing that the per­fect human exper­i­ment, its visu­al­iza­tion through Lind’s por­trait and its dis­sem­i­na­tion through social media, makes a par­tic­u­lar kind of argu­ment about what it means to be the per­fect human and what con­sti­tutes legit­i­mate and cog­niz­able modes of rela­tion­al­i­ty. More specif­i­cal­ly, I high­light how the era­sure of gen­dered colo­nial vio­lence in these sci­en­tif­ic nar­ra­tives is cen­tral for under­stand­ing con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics and claims to self-deter­mi­na­tion for Indige­nous peo­ples in the Unit­ed States, in Puer­to Rico, and indeed elsewhere.

Part I: Eugenic Hauntings in Anti-Racist Genomics?

Before mov­ing on to a spe­cif­ic dis­cus­sion of Pachter’s exper­i­ment, a brief explo­ration of his moti­va­tion is in order. Pachter described his attempt to locate the per­fect human in sil­i­co as “a thought experiment…dedicated to James Wat­son on the occa­sion of his unbirth­day” (Pachter). Wat­son, along with Fran­cis Crick, is cred­it­ed with dis­cov­er­ing the dou­ble-helix struc­ture of DNA in 1953 for which he was lat­er award­ed the Nobel Prize. He was then a key fig­ure in dri­ving the ini­tial map­ping of the human genome in the 1990s. Wat­son, how­ev­er, is also noto­ri­ous for mak­ing “provoca­tive com­ments” in pub­lic, includ­ing his 2007 remark to the UK dai­ly, The Times, claim­ing that genet­ics demon­strat­ed that Black peo­ple were less intel­li­gent that white peo­ple, a remark that end­ed in his forced res­ig­na­tion as chan­cel­lor of Cold Spring Har­bor Lab­o­ra­to­ry lat­er that year (Mil­mo).

Lest you think that Pachter’s “thought exper­i­ment” is sim­ply anoth­er iter­a­tion of Watson’s noto­ri­ous claims about the real­i­ty and pri­ma­cy of genet­ic race—as claims to the “per­fect human” might evoke—consider Pachter’s rather exten­sive intro­duc­to­ry dis­avow­al of Wat­son. Pachter describes meet­ing Wat­son at the Cold Spring Har­bor Lab­o­ra­to­ry and out­lines his dis­com­fort with Watson’s “spew­ing [of] racist and misog­y­nis­tic hate” (Pachter). Using words like “creepy” and “dis­turb­ing,” Pachter works to dis­tance his own ideas from Watson’s, includ­ing the latter’s long­stand­ing inter­est in build­ing a bet­ter human (Mil­mo). The impli­ca­tion of Pachter’s exper­i­ment, of course, is that there is no such thing as a “per­fect human,” and even if there were, she would not be of “pure” genet­ic stock like Wat­son might imag­ine, but would rather be “admixed,” bring­ing togeth­er “good genes” from pre-colo­nial pop­u­la­tions in a mixed race or mes­ti­za­je (mixed-race) embod­i­ment. In this way, Pachter posi­tions him­self and his thought exper­i­ment in the realm of what STS schol­ars Cather­ine Bliss and Jen­ny Rear­don have called the dis­course of “anti-racist genomics,” which eschews both ear­li­er eugenic for­mu­la­tions of genet­ic puri­ty and any notion of racial hier­ar­chy (see also Fullwiley).

Despite its dis­dain both of hier­ar­chy and claims to racial puri­ty, the dis­course of anti-racist genomics nev­er­the­less insists on the exis­tence of some­what sta­ble, pop­u­la­tion-lev­el cat­e­gories of human genet­ic variation—usually artic­u­lat­ed in terms of con­ti­nen­tal pop­u­la­tions such as African, Euro­pean, Amerindi­an, and Asian—and argues that such cat­e­gories are impor­tant­ly linked to ques­tions of health and well­ness in human groups (see Bus­ta­mante et al.). Genomics, in this anti-racist vein, is posi­tioned as part of larg­er pro­gres­sive social move­ments as an impor­tant cor­rec­tive for things rang­ing from white suprema­cy (i.e. genomics chal­lenges it) to pop­u­la­tion-lev­el health dis­par­i­ties (i.e. genomics is cen­tral to any solu­tion) (see Bliss; Reardon).

Pachter’s insis­tence on the robust­ness and “per­fec­tion” of mixed-race pop­u­la­tions espous­es this kind of anti-racist genom­ic for­mu­la­tion, and he explic­it­ly frames his exper­i­ment as a counter to Watson’s out­mod­ed, eugeni­cist, and racist stance. Pachter and oth­er con­tem­po­rary genomi­cists are deeply invest­ed in dis­tin­guish­ing their own work and the larg­er dis­ci­pline from its ear­li­er asso­ci­a­tions with eugen­ics; Pachter for­mu­lates his exper­i­ment and his of embod­i­ment of Yuiza in sil­i­co as a counter to such asso­ci­a­tions. As fem­i­nist STS schol­ar Banu Sub­ra­ma­ni­am argues eugenic haunt­ings are always present in con­tem­po­rary genomics:

The ghosts live on in almost all aspects of cur­rent bio­log­i­cal prac­tice. Learn­ing to see them is not just about see­ing the ghosts, see­ing the his­to­ry, the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al lega­cy of the field, but about lay­ing bare the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and method­olog­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es that have framed our see­ing for more than a cen­tu­ry. (Sub­ra­ma­ni­am 22)

Thus, part of the work of this paper is about using visu­al­iza­tion in genomics in the ser­vice of this larg­er project of learn­ing to see such ghosts, espe­cial­ly in their haunt­ings of anti-racist claims around the “per­fect human,” claims that leave intact racial and sex­u­al economies forged in col­o­niza­tion and empire and fur­ther rein­force nat­u­ral­ized read­ings of het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty and sex­u­al reproduction.

In his arti­cle “Data, Code, and Dis­cours­es of Dif­fer­ence in Genomics,” com­mu­ni­ca­tions schol­ar Peter Chow-White begins his dis­cus­sion with ref­er­ence to James Watson’s now infa­mous 2007 claims. Yet, unlike Pachter’s dis­avow­al, Chow-White warns against char­ac­ter­iz­ing Watson’s claims as sim­ply idio­syn­crat­ic, out­mod­ed, and as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an old­er and thor­ough­ly dis­cred­it­ed pseu­do­science. Rather, Chow-White argues that cur­rent ideas about race in genomics “are linked to larg­er social trans­for­ma­tions in the infor­ma­tion soci­ety where shift­ing for­ma­tions of race are con­verg­ing in old and new ways with devel­op­ments and inno­va­tions in dig­i­tal cul­ture and infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies” (Chow-White 220). Anoth­er task of this paper, then, is to make such con­ver­gences more appar­ent and to link these “shift­ing for­ma­tions of race” to affec­tive prac­tices of bioin­for­mat­ic visu­al­iza­tion through an analy­sis of how sta­tis­ti­cal data has been visu­al­ized and its reliance on par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tives and tropes.

Visualizing Heredity: Composite Portraiture, SimEve, and Yuiza in silico

In this sec­tion, I begin with a brief dis­cus­sion of Fran­cis Galton’s devel­op­ment of com­pos­ite por­trai­ture in order to make the point that the visu­al­iza­tion of sta­tis­ti­cal data has a long his­to­ry, one deeply linked to notions of hered­i­ty and rela­tion­al­i­ty. I then jux­ta­pose Pachter’s visu­al­iza­tion of Yuiza in sil­i­co with the 1993 Time Mag­a­zine cov­er of “The New Face of America,”—also called SimEve by fem­i­nist schol­ars Don­na Har­away and Eve­lyn Hammonds—a com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed image of a woman who “does not exist—except meta­phys­i­cal­ly” and is rather “the prod­uct of a com­put­er process called mor­ph­ing” (Gaines 2). Build­ing on Ham­monds’ and Haraway’s ear­li­er analy­ses of SimEve, I con­clude with an analy­sis of Pachter’s embod­i­ment of Yuiza in sil­i­co through Lind’s por­trait in order to pro­vide a con­text for a larg­er dis­cus­sion of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ty in the fol­low­ing section.

A. Com­pos­ite Portraiture

In 1878, “father of eugen­ics” Fran­cis Gal­ton pub­lished the first of a series of papers about a new visu­al­iza­tion tech­nol­o­gy he had devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with col­league Her­bert Spencer called “com­pos­ite por­traits.” Com­pos­ite por­trai­ture was a pho­to­graph­ic tech­nique that sought to cre­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of “types”—e.g., famil­ial, crim­i­nal, and consumptive—by iso­lat­ing phe­no­typ­ic traits from indi­vid­u­als thought to rep­re­sent the group (Fig­ure 3).3 Using the then rel­a­tive­ly new tech­nol­o­gy of pho­tog­ra­phy, Gal­ton com­bined mul­ti­ple images on a sin­gle pho­to­graph­ic plate “to obtain with mechan­i­cal pre­ci­sion a gen­er­alised pic­ture; one that rep­re­sents no man in par­tic­u­lar, but por­trays an imag­i­nary fig­ure pos­sess­ing the aver­age fea­tures of any giv­en group of men” (Gal­ton, “Com­pos­ite Por­traits” 97). Gal­ton pro­duced numer­ous com­pos­ite por­traits over a peri­od of years; he was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in using sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods such as aver­ages to probe the hered­i­tary dynam­ics of fam­i­ly resem­blance, crim­i­nal­i­ty, and ill­ness. This dis­cus­sion of Galton’s com­pos­ite por­traits makes appar­ent how, even pri­or to any robust sci­en­tif­ic con­cept of genes or the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the dou­ble-helix struc­ture of DNA, sci­en­tists used what we now call phe­no­typ­ic traits as a way to cap­ture under­ly­ing “units of hered­i­ty” (con­tem­porar­i­ly called genotype).

Fig­ure 3, Spec­i­mens of Com­pos­ite Por­trai­ture, Sir Fran­cis Gal­ton (1882)

Art his­to­ri­an David Green makes the point that Galton’s most inten­sive exper­i­men­ta­tion with pho­tog­ra­phy occurs between 1877 and 1884, the same peri­od dur­ing which he devel­oped key “meth­ods of analy­sis and sta­tis­ti­cal tech­niques designed to mea­sure the inci­dence of inher­it­ed char­ac­ter­is­tics which were to have a sub­stan­tial bear­ing upon all of his lat­er work and that of oth­ers with­in the eugen­ics move­ment” (Green 14). Indeed, Green argues that Galton’s pho­tog­ra­phy, specif­i­cal­ly his com­pos­ite por­traits, “devel­oped out of a spe­cif­ic need to trace and define the man­i­fes­ta­tions of innate and hered­i­tary dif­fer­ences of human fac­ul­ties with­in phys­iog­nom­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics” (Green 14; see also Seku­la). Pho­tog­ra­ph­er and art crit­ic Allan Seku­la points to the famous 1883 por­trait of “The Jew­ish Type” (Fig­ure 4) as one that demon­strat­ed Galton’s belief in “the real­i­ty of dis­tinct racial types.” He fur­ther argues that tech­nique of com­pos­ite por­trai­ture “amount­ed to an essen­tial­ist phys­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gy of race” (Seku­la 51).

Fig­ure 4: The Jew­ish Type, 1883

I evoke Galton’s prac­tice of com­pos­ite por­trai­ture here to make the point that attempts to visu­al­ize hered­i­tary traits as a way to char­ac­ter­ize vari­a­tion across human groups have a long his­to­ry in the nat­ur­al and social sci­ences; fur­ther, I want to place Pachter’s exper­i­ment in visu­al­iz­ing sta­tis­ti­cal data, espe­cial­ly in terms of hybrid­i­ty, in that visu­al his­tor­i­cal con­text. It is per­haps iron­ic that Pachter’s exper­i­ment, cre­at­ed in the ser­vice of dis­avow­ing the overt­ly racist and misog­y­nis­tic posi­tion of James Wat­son and forg­ing a dif­fer­ent inclu­sive and anti-racist future for genom­ic research (one cel­e­brat­ing the “hybrid vig­or” (Bivins) of racial mix­ture), should be haunt­ed by the “father of eugen­ics,” Gal­ton. But, as Sub­ra­ma­ni­am reminds us, per­haps not: it is these haunt­ings of tech­nolo­gies such as com­pos­ite por­trai­ture that I want to car­ry through into sub­se­quent analy­ses of SimEve and Yuiza in sil­i­co.

B. SimEve

The open­ing epigraphs of this arti­cle are both from 1997 works by Eve­lyn Ham­monds and Don­na Har­away, respec­tive­ly. In dif­fer­ent pieces, Ham­monds and Har­away dis­cuss the now famous 1993 Time mag­a­zine spe­cial issue on immi­gra­tion and the com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed com­pos­ite por­trait of “The New Face of Amer­i­ca” (what they both call SimEve) that graces the cov­er (Fig­ure 5).

Fig­ure 5: SimEve, or The New Face of Amer­i­ca, 1993

In order “to dra­ma­tize the impact of intereth­nic mar­riage, which has increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the U.S. dur­ing the lat­est wave of immi­gra­tion,” Time Mag­a­zine “turned to mor­ph­ing to cre­ate the kind of off­spring that might result from sev­en men and sev­en women of var­i­ous eth­nic and racial back­grounds” (Gaines 2) (Fig­ure 6). The fig­ure of SimEve was cre­at­ed using the com­put­er soft­ware Morph 2.0, which “enabled TIME to pin­point key facial fea­tures on the pho­tos of the 14 peo­ple of var­i­ous racial and eth­nic back­grounds cho­sen for the chart. Elec­tron­ic dots defined head size, skin col­or, hair col­or and tex­ture, eye­brows, the con­tours of the lips, nose and eyes, even laugh lines around the mouth” (“Rebirth of a Nation”).

The por­trait of SimEve is sim­i­lar to Galton’s com­pos­ite por­trai­ture in that it blends mul­ti­ple images to pro­duce a nov­el one, and also pro­duces a pho­to not of a par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual but of a type. The tech­nol­o­gy of “mor­ph­ing” pro­vides the means to “Rebirth of the Nation, Com­put­er-Style, to a ‘new face of Amer­i­ca.’” This new face is exot­ic, and while light-skinned, she appears racial­ly mixed, stress­ing “the entic­ing glam­or of eth­nic diver­si­ty” while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly estab­lish­ing “itself as a retort to the racism of a found­ing film like Birth of a Nation” (Gubar 33-34). Like Pachter’s fram­ing of his “per­fect human” exper­i­ment as counter to Watson’s eugenic stance, Time Mag­a­zine’s fig­ure of SimEve cel­e­brates race-mix­ing as a nation­al­ist “rebirth,” one that, counter to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, pur­port­ed­ly chal­lenges deep-seat­ed anx­i­eties about mis­ce­gena­tion. Yet Ham­monds locates mor­ph­ing “at the cen­ter of an old debate about mis­ce­gena­tion and cit­i­zen­ship in the Unit­ed States” (Ham­monds 109) and reminds us of the larg­er con­text of sex­u­al vio­lence evoked by the image of SimEve:

This is tru­ly the dra­ma of mis­ce­gena­tion in cyber­space. The his­to­ry of white men cross­ing racial bound­aries to have sex­u­al rela­tions with African, Asian, Mex­i­can and Native-Amer­i­can women - and then refus­ing to acknowl­edge their off­spring in order to reserve the right to deter­mine how white­ness would be defined as a char­ac­ter­is­tic of cit­i­zen­ship- is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly implied and dis­avowed. (Ham­monds 120)

Fig­ure 6, “Rebirth of a Nation, Computer-Style”

Like Galton’s Spec­i­mens, the Time Mag­a­zine cov­er is a form of com­pos­ite por­trai­ture. While a tech­no­log­i­cal nov­el­ty back in 1993, SimEve shares con­cep­tu­al and visu­al antecedents with ear­li­er forms of sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, con­cep­tu­al and visu­al antecedents repro­duced in Pachter’s use of Samuel Lind’s Yuiza to embody his in sil­i­co “per­fect human.” These images traf­fic in “the gram­mars of puri­ty and mix­ing” that under­gird sex­u­al and racial rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the nation, where­in “bits and bytes replace the flesh and blood that pro­voked the guilt, hatred and vio­lence of our country's his­to­ry of racial dom­i­na­tion” (Ham­monds 120).

C. From Bits to Bod­ies: Yuiza in silico

It is worth spend­ing some time with Pachter’s thought exper­i­ment and trac­ing the spe­cif­ic ways in which he came to the con­clu­sion that the “per­fect human is Puer­to Rican,” a claim that on its sur­face seems pro­gres­sive sim­ply because it includes peo­ple often mar­gin­al­ized or exclud­ed from con­cep­tions of both human­i­ty and per­fec­tion and “cel­e­brates” the beau­ty of women of colour. How exact­ly does Pachter oper­a­tional­ize an exper­i­ment look­ing for a “per­fect human” and how does he come to con­clu­sion that “the per­fect human is Puer­to Rican,” more specif­i­cal­ly a Puer­to Rican woman? Pachter uses bioin­for­mat­ics, an emer­gent inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field that basi­cal­ly that uses tools from sta­tis­tics and com­put­er sci­ence to orga­nize and inter­pret bio­log­i­cal data. In their blog post about the exper­i­ment, fel­low geneti­cists Oleksyk and Mar­tinez Cruza­do pro­vide the fol­low­ing overview:

In what he called a “thought exper­i­ment,” Pachter looked at all the muta­tions in the data­base, not­ing the ones with ben­e­fi­cial and dis­ad­van­ta­geous effects. His argu­ment: the per­son with the most “good” alle­les and the least “bad” alle­les would be the “per­fect human.” It just hap­pened that the sam­ple clos­est to this arbi­trary con­struct­ed ide­al came from a Puer­to Rican woman. (Oleksyk and Mar­tinez Cruzado)

Pachter’s in sil­i­co work on this exper­i­ment takes place in a “dry lab,” and he per­formed a bioin­for­mat­ic analy­sis on already exist­ing datasets, con­struct­ing his “per­fect human” by ana­lyz­ing a series of small muta­tions called “SNPs.” He then applied this analy­sis to geno­types from indi­vid­ual donors who were part of a recent genet­ic vari­a­tion project, the 1000 Genomes Project.

SNP (pro­nounced “snip”) is an acronym for “sin­gle nucleotide poly­mor­phism,” a small genet­ic muta­tion that may be asso­ci­at­ed with pop­u­la­tion-lev­el genom­ic dif­fer­ences such as ances­try or dis­ease or oth­er phe­no­typ­ic traits such as the con­sis­ten­cy of ear wax. Pachter accessed the SNPs he used in his exper­i­ment from a data­base called SNPe­dia. Cre­at­ed by geneti­cist Greg Lennon and com­put­er pro­gram­mer Michael Cari­a­so, SNPe­dia has been online since 2006 (Cari­a­so and Lennon). It shares “infor­ma­tion about the effects of vari­a­tions in DNA, cit­ing peer-reviewed sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions” and offers users the oppor­tu­ni­ty “to cre­ate a per­son­al report link­ing your DNA vari­a­tions to the infor­ma­tion pub­lished about them” (SNPe­dia).

Pachter cre­at­ed his in sil­i­co “per­fect human” by iso­lat­ing all of the “good” SNPs (almost 5000 in total in 2014)4 from the data­base. He then per­formed prin­ci­pal com­po­nents analy­sis (PCA), com­par­ing the SNP-based “per­fect human” in sil­i­co with an exist­ing dataset of 1092 indi­vid­ual geno­types from the 1000 Genomes Project5 (Fig­ure 7): “Add the ‘per­fect human’ to a pan­el of geno­typed indi­vid­u­als from across a vari­ety of pop­u­la­tions and per­form PCA to reveal the loca­tion and pop­u­la­tion of ori­gin of the indi­vid­ual” (Pachter).

Fig­ure 7: Dataset of indi­vid­ual geno­types from 1000 Genomes includ­ing “per­fect human” and HG00737, cre­at­ed by Lior Pachter

PCA, an ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry sta­tis­ti­cal tech­nique, now a main­stay of con­tem­po­rary data analy­sis, is designed to pro­vide “a roadmap for how to reduce a com­plex data set to a low­er dimen­sion to reveal the some­times hid­den, sim­pli­fied struc­tures that often under­lie it” (Schlens). The 1092 indi­vid­ual geno­types, already col­lect­ed and orga­nized as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of large-scale pop­u­la­tion groups (African, Amerindi­an, Euro­pean, and Asian), were plot­ted on a graph and the geno­type clos­est to the “per­fect human” in sil­i­co—the genet­ic code from an indi­vid­ual iden­ti­fied as HG00737, a female donor to the “Puer­to Ricans in Puer­to Rico” col­lec­tion (Fig­ure 8).

Fig­ure 8: “Per­fect Human” Prin­ci­pal Com­po­nents Analy­sis, 2014 (Pachter)

Of course, the exper­i­ment was not based on any DNA from Yuiza, a leg­endary, pos­si­bly myth­i­cal, fig­ure, rep­re­sent­ed on Pachter’s blog in por­trait form by Puer­to Rican artist Samuel Lind; nor, we can safe­ly assume, did the anony­mous blood sam­ple from which the data derived come from Jen­nifer Lopez.6 Rather, Pachter’s exper­i­ment relied on data gen­er­at­ed from the 1000 Genomes sam­ple pop­u­la­tion, “Puer­to Ricans in Puer­to Rico” or “PUR.” More specif­i­cal­ly, accord­ing to Pachter, “[t]he near­est neigh­bor to the ‘per­fect human’ is HG00737” (cita­tion), the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber of an anony­mous female donor who self-iden­ti­fied as Puer­to Rican at the time of col­lec­tion.7

I want now to fur­ther con­tex­tu­al­ize the next steps of Pachter’s “per­fect human” exper­i­ment through a dis­cus­sion of the visu­al­iza­tion of scientific—in this case, bioinformatic—data in order to draw atten­tion to the larg­er tropes of race, sex, sex­u­al­i­ty, and nation that shape Pachter’s inter­pre­ta­tion of his data as well as to draw atten­tion to the ghosts that Sub­ra­ma­ni­am describes. As many STS schol­ars have com­pelling­ly demon­strat­ed, care­ful atten­tion to the con­cep­tu­al frame­works and exper­i­men­tal appa­ra­tus of sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice is nec­es­sary to exca­vate the under­ly­ing frame­works and con­ven­tions that shape sci­en­tif­ic inquiry:

[I]n look­ing at how ideas about race, nation, and belong­ing are brought to bear on genet­ics in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, we should not over­look the mate­r­i­al forms that sci­en­tif­ic inquiry takes: the types of evi­dence sci­en­tists choose, the ideas about cred­i­bil­i­ty and coun­ter­feit that fac­tor into these choic­es, and the mechan­ics of how evi­dence is con­vert­ed into sci­en­tif­ic mod­els and con­clu­sions. (Kohli-Laven 200)

To empha­size the point that the “per­fect human” of his exper­i­ment is a Puer­to Rican woman, Pachter spec­u­lates: “One might imag­ine that such a per­son already exist­ed, maybe Yuiza, the only female Taino Cacique (chief) in Puer­to Rico’s his­to­ry” (Pachter). Through the visu­al trans­for­ma­tion from genet­ic code (Fig­ure 7) to PCA (Fig­ure 8) to Yuiza (Fig­ure 1), Pachter’s exper­i­ment trans­forms HG00737—the genet­ic code of a 21st-first cen­tu­ry Puer­to Rican woman about whom we know almost nothing—to the spec­u­la­tive fig­ure of Yuiza in silico.

Soci­ol­o­gist Adri­an Macken­zie makes the point that in bioin­for­mat­ics “a liv­ing body figures…as a some­what abstract rela­tion­al enti­ty, poten­tial­ly open to many dif­fer­ent deter­mi­na­tions” (Macken­zie 317). Thus, the kinds of choic­es, the par­tic­u­lar deter­mi­na­tions, that Pachter makes in embody­ing Yuiza in sil­i­co can be pro­duc­tive­ly stud­ied through an explo­ration of the kinds of prethe­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions that under­gird the exper­i­ment: name­ly, eugenic tropes of health and fit­ness rep­re­sent­ed by the idea of “good” alle­les (muta­tions); long­stand­ing genom­ic pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with puri­ty and hybrid­i­ty; and the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of repro­duc­tion and het­ero­nor­ma­tive sex­u­al­i­ty through a roman­ti­ciza­tion of “hybrid­i­ty.”

While Pachter uses nei­ther the pho­to­graph­ic tech­niques deployed by com­pos­ite por­trai­ture nor the soft­ware that enables “mor­ph­ing,” he nev­er­the­less uses anoth­er modal­i­ty of visu­al­iza­tion to “embody” his in sil­i­co per­fect human. The use of Lind’s por­trait of Yuiza does impor­tant sense-mak­ing work, shift­ing the visu­al­iza­tion of code from zeroes and ones (Fig­ure 7) to an embod­ied myth­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal fig­ure that does the work of trans­lat­ing bits of data into a rec­og­niz­able fig­ure, Yuiza (Fig­ure 1).

In his dis­cus­sion of DNA por­trai­ture, com­mu­ni­ca­tions schol­ar Drew Ayers argues that “the rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al pow­er” of this visu­al­iza­tion tech­nol­o­gy relies on the assump­tion “that DNA, con­ceived of as an infor­ma­tion­al pat­tern (a code), has the pow­er to func­tion as a synec­doche for the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the lived body” (Ayers 314). Lind’s por­trait of Yuiza in sil­i­co pro­vides much need­ed visu­al pow­er that makes this synec­dochal rela­tion­ship evi­dent, espe­cial­ly in terms of mov­ing from bod­ies to bits and back to bod­ies. The “per­fect human” body that pro­vides the ini­tial blood sam­ple (that becomes the cell line HG00737 that becomes the code that pro­vides the basis for Pachter’s exper­i­ment) dis­ap­pears and is replaced by the fig­ure of Yuiza.

There is some slip­page between Pachter’s visu­al­iza­tion of Yuiza in sil­i­co and the con­tem­po­rary Puer­to Rican female donor only known as HG00737. Yuiza, a famous fig­ure in Puer­to Rico, is the quin­tes­sen­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Taíno, the Indige­nous peo­ples who encoun­tered the Span­ish on their first expe­di­tion to the island of Boricua (the Taíno name for PR) in the 16th century.

His­tor­i­cal details about Yuiza are scant, although her leg­end cir­cu­lates wide­ly in Puer­to Rican folk­lore and in pop­u­lar dis­course. In par­tic­u­lar, her rela­tion­ship with Pedro Mejías, var­i­ous­ly called a “mulat­to con­quis­ta­dor” and free black man (lib­er­to) and part of Ponce de Léon’s expe­di­tion, is a foun­da­tion­al nation­al sto­ry in the island. Yuiza is ulti­mate­ly mur­dered at the hands of oth­er Taínos who see her rela­tion­ship with Mejías as a betray­al. In her 2014 book, Puer­to Rican Folk­tales, Lisa Sánchez González names Yuiza (Yuisa) and Pedro Mejías as “the great-great-great-grand­par­ents of the Puer­to Rican nation” (81).8 Although many have writ­ten that Yuiza’s rela­tion­ship or mar­riage to Mejías and her con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism were strate­gic, root­ed in an attempt to mit­i­gate the enslave­ment and mur­der of her peo­ple at the hands of the Span­ish, still oth­ers sug­gest that she was com­pelled into such rela­tions either by force or coer­cion. Yet González’s ver­sion is told, rather tri­umphant­ly, through the trope of het­ero­sex­u­al roman­tic love, one that is often explic­it­ly or tac­it­ly present in genom­ic nar­ra­tives about race-mix­ing, espe­cial­ly around the genomics of mes­ti­za­je.

Mes­ti­za­je is very basi­cal­ly a con­cept con­not­ing racial mix­ture. It is one that is com­mon through­out the Iber­ian-col­o­nized Amer­i­c­as, although it has meant dif­fer­ent things at dif­fer­ent times. It is also one that is being rene­go­ti­at­ed and reworked in light of emer­gent genomics pro­grams through­out Latin Amer­i­ca (see Wade et al.; Gib­bon et al.). Yuiza is a key sym­bol in Puer­to Rican nation­al nar­ra­tives, espe­cial­ly in terms of being rep­re­sen­ta­tive of one of the tres razas (“three races”). What Car­men Lugo-Lugo calls “the racial trin­i­ty creed” shapes Puer­to Rican iden­ti­ty, in terms of the pop­u­lar under­stand­ing “that the racial ori­gins of the mod­ern-day Puer­to Rican is a har­mo­nized and bind­ing alche­my of races that no longer exist as inde­pen­dent enti­ties on the island” (Lugo-Lugo 107). Despite this appeal to a uni­ver­sal, har­mo­nized Puer­to Rican iden­ti­ty, the pol­i­tics of race and indi­gene­ity in Puer­to Rico are com­plex (see J. L. González; Rodríguez-Sil­va; Duany; Cas­tan­ha). Car­men Lugo-Lugo uses the term mulata­je to empha­size the cen­tral­i­ty of African and Euro­pean mix­ture to Puer­to Rican iden­ti­ty (see also Buscaglia-Sal­ga­do). Final­ly, the ques­tion of Indige­nous “extinc­tion” in Puer­to Rico and else­where in the Caribbean is anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion­al axis for under­stand­ing ques­tions of racial hybrid­i­ty. The claim that all Indige­nous peo­ples in what is now Puer­to Rico had died by the mid­dle of the 16th cen­tu­ry as the result of Span­ish con­quest is wide­spread but also con­test­ed by con­tem­po­rary peo­ples who self-iden­ti­ty as Taíno, and genet­ics has become a key way through which indi­gene­ity is explored (see Benn Tor­res). Soci­ol­o­gist Gabriel Haslip-Viera chal­lenges what he terms as the “neo-Taíno” move­ment while oth­er schol­ars such as Max­i­m­il­ian Forte and Tony Cas­tan­ha dis­pute what they call “the myth of indige­nous extinc­tion” in the Caribbean (see Forte; Cas­tan­ha). The ani­ma­tion of Mes­ti­za Eve as the Taíno cacique, Yuiza, also artic­u­lates with the con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics of indi­gene­ity in the Caribbean, espe­cial­ly the appeal of hav­ing Indige­nous ancestors.

Brief atten­tion to the pol­i­tics of racial hybrid­i­ty and indi­gene­ity allows us to con­tex­tu­al­ize Pachter’s exper­i­ment, espe­cial­ly in terms of the role of race, sex, and nation in the kind of visu­al sense-mak­ing used by Pachter. In Pachter’s visu­al­iza­tion, Yuiza is clear­ly under­stood as Taíno, as Indige­nous, and thus as exist­ing pri­or to the “race mix­ing” that emerges with the con­quest of the Amer­i­c­as by the Span­ish and the traf­fick­ing of enslaved Africans in the Transat­lantic slave trade. Yet Pachter’s use of Yuiza’s por­trait is clear­ly intend­ed to embody the genet­ic code that comes from the body of donor HG00737, a con­tem­po­rary Puer­to Rican woman assumed to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a Puer­to Rican-inflect­ed form of mulata­je, as a descen­dant of Span­ish, Indige­nous, and African peo­ples. Fur­ther, in con­trast to Lisa González’s nar­ra­tive, Pedro Mejía’s “con­tri­bu­tion” to the nation, as a descen­dant of Euro­pean and African peo­ples dis­ap­pears from Pachter’s account of Yuiza in sil­i­co as the per­fect human. The racial “slip­page” that embod­ies donor HG00737 as a myth­i­cal Taíno woman, meant to per­son­i­fy the beau­ty and vig­or of the hybrid itself, trades in anti-Black­ness that is also repro­duced in the PCA image that locates the pink dot of the per­fect human far away from the orange clus­ters rep­re­sent­ing African ances­try (Fig­ure 8).

Pachter’s vision of hybrid­i­ty in the “per­fect human” exper­i­ment fol­lows what anthro­pol­o­gist Jean Mute­ba Rahi­er calls the ten­den­cy among North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean schol­ars “towards a some­what naïve enthu­si­asm for the end of white suprema­cy and all oth­er forms of racism, seg­re­ga­tion, and intol­er­ance” (Rahi­er 40). Pachter’s dis­cus­sion also inter­sects with the larg­er racial pol­i­tics of the main­land Unit­ed States, a racial pol­i­tics shaped by the con­cept of hypodescent—more famil­iar­ly known as “the one-drop rule”—wherein any African ances­try makes some­one Black. In Pachter’s analy­sis, the Black­ness essen­tial to mulata­je “drops out,” enabling the fig­ure of Yuiza in sil­i­co to be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly racial­ly hybrid and not Black. What links these dif­fer­ent ideas of race and hybrid­i­ty across the ide­olo­gies of U.S. hypode­s­cent and Puer­to Rican mulata­je is pre­cise­ly the orga­niz­ing racial log­ics of anti-Black­ness. This anti-Black­ness enables the sto­ry of the “Per­fect Human is Puer­to Rican” to be cul­tur­al­ly leg­i­ble in both contexts.

Pachter’s embod­i­ment of Yuiza in sil­i­co also relies on long­stand­ing tropes of the (col­o­nized) nation as woman (see Chat­ter­jee). Yuiza is beau­ti­ful, fer­tile, and “births” the Puer­to Rican nation. Pachter moves quick­ly from dis­cussing the “per­fect human” at the lev­el of species to ani­mat­ing the “per­fect woman,” a con­fig­u­ra­tion heav­i­ly reliant on racial­sex­u­al for­ma­tions such as the sex­u­al desir­abil­i­ty of mixed-race women.

Regard­less of whether or not Yuiza is an Indige­nous ances­tor or a kind of Mes­ti­za Eve, cen­tral to the sto­ry of the mixed-race “per­fect human” evoked by Pachter is the ongo­ing era­sure of sex­u­al colo­nial vio­lence. As Latin Amer­i­can stud­ies schol­ar Edna Acos­ta-Belén argues, the Puer­to Rican his­to­ry of mes­ti­za­je is inti­mate­ly linked to coer­cive and exploita­tive encoun­ters between Span­ish col­o­niz­ers and Indige­nous and African women:

Dur­ing those ear­ly years in the his­to­ry of Puer­to Rico as a colony of Spain, the sex­u­al exploita­tion of Indi­an women by the con­quis­ta­dores and set­tlers was commonplace….In the years after the Span­ish occu­pa­tion of Puer­to Rico, many Spaniards entered into ille­git­i­mate unions with Indi­an and slave women; mis­ce­gena­tion and con­cu­bi­nage were wide­spread real­i­ties of Puer­to Rican colo­nial soci­ety. (Acos­ta-Belén 2)

The absence of any ref­er­ence to, or dis­cus­sion about, the sex­u­al vio­lence of col­o­niza­tion per­forms impor­tant work in Pachter’s exper­i­ment. His analy­sis trans­forms ones and zeroes into a visu­al­ly leg­i­ble woman who embod­ies the poten­tial of mixed-race unions in terms of their ben­e­fit to the human species as a whole. This is not sim­ply the pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of his­to­ries root­ed in genom­ic sci­ence, but also the con­tin­u­ing nat­u­ral­iza­tion and cel­e­bra­tion of bio­genet­ic kin­ship and het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tion at the expense of any under­stand­ing of colo­nial sex­u­al vio­lence. Yuiza in sil­i­co becomes a kind of Mes­ti­za Eve, the great-great-great-grand­moth­er of a beau­ti­ful­ly mixed-race nation, although there is no men­tion by Pachter of Yuiza’s leg­endary coun­ter­part, the mixed-race Mejías (or any oth­er male fig­ure). The sex­u­al vio­lence that marked these colo­nial encoun­ters is not only effaced but also jus­ti­fied as a sat­is­fac­to­ry end result. In oth­er words, we might say that while such gen­dered vio­lence is unfor­tu­nate, its out­comes have ben­e­fit­ted human­i­ty through the beau­ty and hybrid vig­or of mes­ti­za­je.

Pachter’s inter­pre­ta­tion of his exper­i­men­tal data relies on nation­al­ist nar­ra­tives framed in terms of set­tler-colo­nial modes of kin­ship, het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tion, and roman­tic love. In addi­tion to reflect­ing the long­stand­ing genet­ic inter­est in race-mix­ing, his data analy­sis is refract­ed through a cur­so­ry knowl­edge of Puer­to Rican folk­lore, sto­ries of mes­ti­za­je, and deeply raced and gen­dered ideas of Puer­to Rican women. In what fol­lows, I locate Pachter’s “per­fect human” exper­i­ment in the “durable pre­oc­cu­pa­tions” (Pol­lock) of hybrid­i­ty and puri­ty that char­ac­ter­ize genomics past and present and con­nect these to cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives about sex­u­al desir­abil­i­ty. I then dis­cuss Pachter’s visu­al­iza­tion of Yuiza in sil­i­co by putting it into con­ver­sa­tion with a larg­er lit­er­a­ture on kin­ship and crit­i­cal relationality.

Part II: Durable Preoccupations: Sexuality, Hybridity, and Purity

So, what hap­pens is that you go to places like Rio de Janeiro, and you walk on the beach, and you take skin col­or as a correlate—there is a con­tin­u­um which goes from the very, very dark African lin­eages to the very, very light skin lin­eages and every­body in between. And, to tell you the truth, these are very beau­ti­ful peo­ple. They are very attrac­tive and cer­tain­ly have no aver­sion to falling in love and mak­ing off­spring. (Stephen O’Brien cit­ed in Bliss 104)

In anoth­er of his ser­i­al con­tro­ver­sies, James Wat­son gave a guest lec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley in 2000. While speak­ing about the poten­tial rela­tion­ship between hap­pi­ness and genes, Wat­son declared a pos­i­tive link between “sex and sun,” more specif­i­cal­ly a link between libido and skin colour, and he assert­ed that peo­ple with dark­er skin (more melanin) have stronger sex dri­ves than their lighter-skinned coun­ter­parts. Briefly invok­ing a then-recent Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona study that found a cor­re­la­tion between the injec­tion of syn­thet­ic melanin and sex­u­al arousal (Ugwu et al.), Wat­son went on to con­clude, “That’s why you have Latin lovers. You’ve nev­er heard of an Eng­lish lover. Only an Eng­lish patient” (Brown).

Again, it would be tempt­ing to dis­miss Wat­son sim­ply as an aging sci­en­tist increas­ing­ly out of step with mod­ern pop­u­la­tion genetics—a reflex­ive and pro­gres­sive sci­ence that eschews the hier­ar­chi­cal plot­ting of human groups on an evo­lu­tion­ary scale and instead cel­e­brates anti-racist pos­si­bil­i­ties in the genom­ic sci­ences. Thus, while Watson’s jux­ta­po­si­tion of “Latin lovers” and “Eng­lish patients” relies on tired clichés and unproven sci­en­tif­ic data, it also evokes a per­va­sive cul­tur­al invest­ment in biologized—specifically geneticized—narratives of race, nation, sex, and sex­u­al­i­ty, ones artic­u­lat­ed as anti-racist for­ma­tions that con­tin­ue to under­gird pop­u­la­tion genet­ics in its var­i­ous iter­a­tions includ­ing Pachter’s fig­ure of Yuiza in sil­i­co.

As the intro­duc­to­ry epi­graph from geneti­cist Stephen O’Brien sug­gests, con­tem­po­rary genome sci­en­tists are invest­ed in cel­e­bra­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tions of “race-mix­ing” (and its link to hybrid vig­or) and often unprob­lem­at­i­cal­ly link the sex­u­al repro­duc­tion of mixed-race off­spring to roman­tic love. Such cel­e­bra­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tions, though, are always haunt­ed by their corol­lar­ies: racial puri­ty and racial degen­er­a­tion (see Ham­monds and Herzig). As Har­away reminds us, the main­land Unit­ed States and Puer­to Rico are both soci­eties “con­sumed by ideas of racial puri­ty and racial denial” and are thus “also replete with fas­ci­na­tion with racial mix­ing and racial dif­fer­ence” (Har­away 214). Fem­i­nist his­to­ri­an Lau­ra Brig­gs points to the his­tor­i­cal (and ongo­ing) cen­tral­i­ty of Puer­to Rico as a site of U.S.-based sci­en­tif­ic and social sci­en­tif­ic research, an island “test tube” where­in “Puer­to Rican dif­fer­ence has been pro­duced and locat­ed in women’s sex­u­al­i­ty and repro­duc­tion” (Brig­gs 2). The seem­ing cel­e­bra­to­ry claim that the “per­fect human in Puer­to Rican” must be seen in this larg­er context.

Critical Relationality

This spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tions focus­es on analy­ses “that doc­u­ment, pro­voke, or imag­ine rela­tions between humans, and between humans and non­hu­mans that go beyond and trou­ble nor­ma­tive cat­e­gories of ‘nature,’ ‘sex,’ and ‘love.’” In their dis­cus­sions of SimEve, both Har­away and Ham­monds refer to the Time editor’s col­umn where he describes the reac­tion of sev­er­al of his (male) employ­ees to the image pro­duced by Morph 2.0:

Lit­tle did we know what we had wrought. As onlook­ers watched the image of our new Eve begin to appear on the com­put­er screen, sev­er­al staff mem­bers prompt­ly fell in love. Said one: “It real­ly breaks my heart that she doesn't exist.” We sym­pa­thize with our lovelorn col­leagues, but even tech­nol­o­gy has its lim­its. (Gaines 2)

The phys­i­cal attrac­tive­ness and sex­u­al appeal of fig­ures like SimEve and Yuiza in sil­i­co is not acci­den­tal. They are both spec­u­la­tive fig­ures, ani­mat­ed by het­ero­nor­ma­tive fan­tasies of (white) men falling in love with imag­i­nary (non-white, albeit light-skinned) women. These fan­tasies are pur­po­sive­ly dis­tanced from sex­u­al vio­lence and racial dom­i­na­tion. Yet, as Ham­monds argues in her analy­sis of SimEve, “Hier­ar­chies of dom­i­na­tion have not dis­ap­peared as female repro­duc­tion is replaced by a mas­cu­line technophilic repro­duc­tion because stereo­typ­i­cal racial typolo­gies remain in place” (Ham­monds 120). Crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ty illu­mi­nates how sci­en­tif­ic imaginaries—especially in visu­al form, like Pachter’s—naturalize and rein­force deeply cul­tur­al notions of kin­ship as a straight­for­ward bio­genet­ic expres­sion of sex­u­al dimor­phism and of het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tion (see Yanag­isako and Col­lier) that are part of a larg­er appa­ra­tus that fore­clos­es oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties of being in the world. Native stud­ies schol­ars have pro­duc­tive­ly put set­tler-colo­nial stud­ies in con­ver­sa­tion with queer the­o­ry (see Smith; Scott Lau­ria) to refuse any under­stand­ing of the inti­mate sphere of repro­duc­tion that insists on a decou­pling from “the scope and shape” of the polit­i­cal (Rifkin). Pachter’s exper­i­ment is prob­lem­at­ic not only because it trades in racial­ized and sex­u­al­ized stereo­types but also because it nat­u­ral­izes “love” and het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tion in a way that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly denies impe­r­i­al and colo­nial vio­lence, par­tic­u­lar­ly against Indige­nous and African women, and cel­e­brates the off­spring of such “unions” as nat­u­ral­ly health­i­er and more beau­ti­ful. What are the impli­ca­tions of such a claim?

In When Did Indi­ans Become Straight?, lit­er­ary schol­ar Mark Rifkin draws atten­tion to how notions of civ­i­liza­tion (and its implied oppo­site, sav­agery) are deeply linked to het­ero­nor­ma­tive ideas of repro­duc­tive kin­ship. Rifkin points to “an impe­r­i­al imag­i­nary that pro­vides the orga­niz­ing frame­work in which het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty sig­ni­fies” (Rifkin 5). It is such “an impe­r­i­al imag­i­nary” that orga­nizes the kind of work that pro­vides the kind of sense-mak­ing back­drop to the “per­fect human” exper­i­ment. The impli­ca­tion here is that the kind of imag­i­nary of Yuiza, of Pedro Mejías, as the great-great-great-grand­par­ents of the Puer­to Rican nation, encap­su­lates indi­gene­ity and race-mix­ing in a het­ero­nor­ma­tive frame­work that nat­u­ral­izes colo­nial vio­lence in the fig­ure of Yuiza as Mes­ti­za Eve, acces­si­ble to our imag­i­na­tions through the sci­ence of genomics. In oth­er words, the cel­e­brat­ed exis­tence of the “per­fect human” as a Puer­to Rican woman simul­ta­ne­ous­ly works to rein­force the nat­u­ral­ness of het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty and also fore­clos­es appre­hen­sion of oth­er crit­i­cal modes of rela­tion­al­i­ty that are cen­tral to the con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics of indi­gene­ity (see Tall­Bear; Simpson).

Rifkin con­tends that oth­er modes of rela­tion­al­i­ty have exist­ed and con­tin­ue to exist among Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. He argues for atten­tion to “a more mul­ti­va­lent his­to­ry of het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty in which alter­na­tive con­fig­u­ra­tions of home, fam­i­ly, and polit­i­cal col­lec­tiv­i­ty are rep­re­sent­ed as endan­ger­ing the state and in which con­ju­gal domes­tic­i­ty pro­vides the con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty for intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty with­in U.S. insti­tu­tions” (Rifkin 5). Thus, dis­cours­es of sex­u­al­i­ty are not the prop­er domain of the pri­vate, but rather of the pub­lic and indeed of the nation.

Native stud­ies schol­ars and oth­ers have also remind­ed us that rela­tion­al­i­ty is always part of a larg­er pol­i­tics of sur­vival. The cel­e­bra­tion of so-called race-mix­ing, of hybrid­i­ty (again, whose corol­lary is always puri­ty) as anti-racist, as a counter to ear­li­er, out­mod­ed eugenic for­ma­tions (embod­ied here by Wat­son), leaves intact the puta­tive cen­tral­i­ty of het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tion and eras­es the sex­u­al vio­lence of col­o­niza­tion while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fore­clos­ing oth­er modes of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ty that might open up dif­fer­ent kinds of politics.


It is not acci­den­tal that Haraway’s analy­sis of SimEve leads to her famous “Post­Script™” in Modest_Witness where­in she chal­lenges the unques­tioned pre-the­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions that con­tin­ue to shape genom­ic inves­ti­ga­tions, espe­cial­ly those root­ed in the search for human difference:

I am sick to death of bond­ing through kin­ship and “the fam­i­ly”… It is time to the­o­rize an “unfa­mil­iar” uncon­scious, a dif­fer­ent pri­mal scene, where every­thing does not stem from the dra­mas of iden­ti­ty and repro­duc­tion. Ties through blood—including blood recast in the coin of genes and information—have been bloody enough already. I believe that there will be no racial or sex­u­al peace, no liv­able nature, until we learn to pro­duce human­i­ty through some­thing more and less than kin­ship. (Har­away 265)

Pachter’s “per­fect human” thought exper­i­ment moves from the seem­ing­ly ster­ile dry lab, in sil­i­co envi­ron­ment, to being per­son­i­fied in the lush por­trai­ture of Lind and repro­duced through social media. Lind’s Yuiza becomes the embod­i­ment of Pachter’s in sil­i­co, bioin­for­mat­ics exper­i­ment, a cel­e­bra­tion both of anti-racist genomics and of the hybrid vig­or (and beau­ty) of Puer­to Ricans. Yet Pachter’s fig­ure of Yuiza in sil­i­co is pre­cise­ly “blood recast in the coin of genes and infor­ma­tion,” rely­ing both on ear­li­er visu­al tech­nolo­gies of sta­tis­ti­cal embod­i­ment and on the durable pre­oc­cu­pa­tions that con­tin­ue to shape con­tem­po­rary genomics, despite its anti-racist fram­ing. The main cri­tique in this paper is that such ideas are pre­sent­ed as nat­ur­al and obvi­ous, both in terms of the kind of cul­tur­al sense that they make and the appeal to a par­tic­u­lar order­ing of the nat­ur­al that repro­duces het­ero­nor­ma­tive evo­lu­tion­ary nar­ra­tives while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly deny­ing the sex­u­al vio­lence of col­o­niza­tion and imperialism.

Part of the larg­er work of my analy­sis of Yuiza in sil­i­co is to make appar­ent how the puta­tive­ly “inti­mate” rela­tions that con­sti­tute the foun­da­tion­al act of what makes genomics make sense (het­ero­sex­u­al repro­duc­tion) must be seen as a larg­er part of process­es of colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism; where blood and oth­er units of hered­i­ty are inti­mate­ly linked to access to rights and resources, to the dis­pos­ses­sion of ter­ri­to­ry, and, most impor­tant­ly for this dis­cus­sion, the fore­clo­sure of oth­er rela­tion­al modal­i­ties beyond what we might call kinship.

Acknowl­edge­ments: My thanks to Kim Tall­Bear and Ang­ie Wil­ley for their work in putting togeth­er this spe­cial issue. I am espe­cial­ly grate­ful to the two anony­mous peer review­ers who read this essay care­ful­ly and offered sub­stan­tive com­ments that made it bet­ter in its revised form. Mil­iann Kang, Ven­la Oikko­nen, and Banu Sub­ra­ma­ni­am read ear­li­er ver­sions of this piece and gave thought­ful feed­back. Any omis­sions or errors are my own.

Works Cited

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Acos­ta-Belén, Edna. The Puer­to Rican Woman: Per­spec­tives on Cul­ture, His­to­ry, and Soci­ety. Praeger Pub­lish­ers, 1986. Print.

Ayers, D. “Humans with­out Bod­ies: DNA Por­trai­ture and Bio­cy­ber­net­ic Repro­duc­tion.” Con­fig­u­ra­tions 19.2 (2011): 287-321. Print.

Benn Tor­res, Jada. “Prospect­ing the Past: Genet­ic Per­spec­tives on the Extinc­tion and Sur­vival of Indige­nous Peo­ples of the Caribbean.” New Genet­ics and Soci­ety 33.1 (2014): 21-41. Print.

Bivins, Rober­ta. “Hybrid Vigour? Genes, Genomics, and His­to­ry.” Genomics, Soci­ety and Pol­i­cy 4.1 (2008): 12-22. Print.

Bliss, Cather­ine. Race Decod­ed: The Genom­ic Fight for Social Jus­tice. Stan­ford, CA: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012. Print.

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  1. The sto­ry of the “per­fect human” exper­i­ment was cov­ered exten­sive­ly in the main­land Unit­ed States, in Puer­to Rico, and else­where in the Caribbean and Europe. For instance, a quick Google search for “humano per­fec­to” and “Jen­nifer Lopez” in July 2018 returned more than 2,500 results. The same search in Eng­lish returned more than 28,000.

  2. This con­cept is based on col­lab­o­ra­tive research I am cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing with my col­leagues, Banu Sub­ra­ma­ni­am and Angela Wil­ley.

  3. My thanks to Aman­da Reyes for intro­duc­ing me to Galton’s com­pos­ite por­traits, and for her sug­ges­tion that I explore them in the con­text of Pachter’s exper­i­ment.

  4. SNPe­dia is updat­ed con­tin­u­al­ly. As of March 2017, SNPe­dia con­tained near­ly 100,000 SNPs (almost dou­ble the 50,000+ at the time of Pachter’s exper­i­ment in Decem­ber 2014). It is impor­tant to note that the pres­ence of new SNPs would like­ly give a very dif­fer­ent result if the exper­i­ment were repeat­ed; thus, Yuiza in sil­i­co is an arti­fact of a par­tic­u­lar moment in time and space.

  5. The 1000 Genomes Project (2008-2015) was an inter­na­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion that col­lect­ed sam­ples from pop­u­la­tions from across the world in order to map human genet­ic vari­a­tion.

  6. Because of the pro­to­cols for col­lect­ing the PUR sam­ples in The 1000 Genomes Project, we know that HG00737 had at least one bio­genet­ic child 18 years or old­er in 2010.

  7. A self-iden­ti­fied healthy Puer­to Rican woman over the age of 18 donat­ed an anonymized blood sam­ple as part of The 1000 Genomes Project. After col­lec­tion, the sam­ple was sent to the Coriell Insti­tute for Bio­med­ical Research in New Jer­sey where it was con­vert­ed into an immor­tal­ized cell line, labeled “HG00737,” and now forms part of the “PUR-Puer­to Ricans in Puer­to Rico” col­lec­tion. The cell line is stored and repro­duced at Coriell and is avail­able for pur­chase by autho­rized researchers. The HG00737 sam­ple was sequenced—determining the order of nucleotides in a strand of DNA—and the sequence data was then released into the pub­lic domain through a series of genome browsers.

  8. It is impor­tant to note that the tra­di­tion­al sto­ry of Yuiza and Pedro Mejías has her mur­dered by her peo­ple before any off­spring are pro­duced. In her 2014 vol­ume, González fan­ta­sizes that Yuiza and Mejías are mar­ried for more than 20 years and pro­duce six chil­dren.