Issue 9.3, August 1994


Essay Excerpt

The Ethnography of Natural Selection in the 1990s

by Emily Martin

My interest in the topic of the immune system began a couple of summers ago on the beach reading a summer book by William Martin, called Cape Cod.

There were perhaps two thousand Indians living on Cape Cod when the Pilgrims arrived.  No one knew for certain.  But white diseases had already begun their work on the naïve immune systems of the native American.  Within a century and a half, there were only five hundred adult Indians on Cape Cod.  Their ancestors had sold most of their lands for kettles and English hoes, then moved to reservations, known as plantations, or to Praying Towns where well-meaning ministers taught of the white god who sent diseases in his wrath and took them away in his mercy.  [Martin 1991:156]

I wondered, reading this, are contemporary conceptions of the body’s health becoming involved in a new version of social Darwinism that allows people of different “quality” to be distinguished from each other?  In this paper, I want to unravel some strands of this disturbing development.  But first, some remarks on the research that I had been doing. (383)

Martin, Emily. "The Ethnography of Natural Selection in the 1990s." Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (1994): 383-397