top of page

S3 Ep 9 - Emma Kowal on 'Haunting Biology'

Emma Kowal Episode Transcript

Welcome back to The HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science. I am your host, Samara Greenwood and today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Deakin Distinguished Professor and ARC Future Fellow, Professor Emma Kowal. 

Emma has a richly textured intellectual and professional background, as you will hear in the episode today. She first trained as a medical doctor and public health researcher before turning to cultural and medical anthropology. Now she also works across science and technology studies, as well as the history of science. To name just some of her countless achievements, Emma helped found both the highly successful Deakin Science and Society Network and the Australasian Science and Technology Studies Graduate Network, affectionately dubbed AusSTS. She's also the immediate past president of 4S, the International Society for Social Studies of Science. 

Emma's research centres on the intersection of indigeneity, colonial and post colonialism, and genomics, bioethics, and public health. Today, our conversation focuses on her recently published monograph, Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia, in which Emma wrestles with the ghosts of science past that continue to have a presence in current day Indigenous genomics, an emerging field in which Emma has been deeply involved for over a decade.

Samara Greenwood: Welcome to the podcast, Emma. It's so great to have you on. 

Emma Kowal: Thanks, Sam. It's good to be here. 

Samara Greenwood: Now, you have a very interesting intellectual background and academic identity. So, I'd love if you could tell us a little bit about this background and how you came to be connected to both science and technology studies, as well as history of science.

Emma Kowal: The trajectory is basically; I didn't have a plan. I just have kind of stumbled through doing things that seemed interesting at the time. I started right here at University of Melbourne, where we are recording. 

I was here as a 17-year-old medical student, fresh out of school. Because I was a smart girl, ‘do medicine’. That's as much thinking as I had done. My English literature teacher from school cried. She was very sad that I was going to do medicine, and I did find that it was very didactic. I actually picked up English literature subjects when I was doing second year medicine and then ended up doing a combined [Medicine/Arts] degree, even though a combined degree didn't really exist.

That's another theme - I've just asked to do things that maybe weren't on the menu but make them happen because they seem to be an interesting thing to do. I did a history major in my arts degree, really just because I was choosing the subjects that seemed the most interesting at the time. When I was going to do honours, I was going to do it in medical history, but I kind of got diverted to medical anthropology in Papua New Guinea, which was wonderful, with Martha McIntyre. Then I came back and finished medicine. 

I was also very much an activist, eventually focusing on Indigenous solidarity activism. I went off to be a doctor in the Northern Territory, very explicitly wanting to work in Aboriginal health and quickly wanted to work in public health and then public health research. As I described in my first monograph, called Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia, I was on a trajectory to do ‘the most good’. Then I wrote a book about trying to understand that impulse and its political implications. 

So yes, I was working in Indigenous public health across the Northern Territory, different communities, and then started a PhD and thought, ‘What am I going to do for my PhD?’ I had a waking up at 2am moment, going ‘Oh, I'll do an ethnography of this place where I'm at.’ All of these non-Indigenous, white anti-racist people, the term I ended up using was white anti-racists, who are trying to help Indigenous people to address disadvantage, but not impose their beliefs on Indigenous people. Indigenous people need to be doing it themselves. And I thought, ‘This is very interesting and complicated.’ So that became my ethnographic problem to try and sort out and develop an analysis of. That was my first book, eventually, after many years and iterations.

I spent a year in the US during my PhD as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley. I was basically pretending to be a grad student there, which was super fun and interesting and socialising into the elite US Grad scene. At that time, I was going across UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, which has great medical anthropology. 

At that time, the first so called ‘ethnic drug’ was about to be released, BiDil, which was a drug that lowered blood pressure. It was firstly patented and then licensed for African Americans. It was eventually released in 2005 and it set all the social scientists in a spin because we all believed there was no such thing as race. Now suddenly there was this drug that was for African Americans. So, I saw that this question of biological difference was not going away. I thought it would be interesting to see how it unfolded in Indigenous Australia. So that led, many years later, to this book that's just out. 

But to answer your actual question in terms of STS and history of science, I just became drawn to it. I remember, when I was in Darwin, I was giving talks to my colleagues about Leviathan and the Air Pump and explaining why the history of science was so important for understanding how we see the world and definitely how we do science and Indigenous Public Health. I actually applied to do my first postdoc with Helen Verran here at Melbourne Uni. It ended up being in anthropology. So, I've kind of moved between STS, anthropology and HPS, and history of science has just always been a real passion of mine. I cannot claim to be a historian, but this recent book is quite historical, I think.


Samara Greenwood: That is a fascinating story. So, you were very much led by subject matter, it sounds like, as opposed to a professional identity. You weren't in any one particular discipline; it was a variety of disciplines. Would that be true? 

Emma Kowal: Yes. I have had a few different sliding doors moments. At one point I was going to do public health physician training, which would have probably meant I ended up being in a medical faculty rather than an arts faculty. But that didn't happen. 

I think because I'm a doctor and I did practice for seven years, and most of that part time while I was doing my PhD, because I've always got that to fall back on, I maybe have felt more freedom than other people to just do what I thought. Also, I was just used to being a poor student as well.


Samara Greenwood: So, you didn't have high expectations of income. That is really such a fascinating trajectory. And not even a trajectory, is it? It's more of a negotiation through a really interesting pathway. Thank you. 

But today we will be talking about your recently published book, Haunting Biology: Science and Indigeneity in Australia.I really enjoyed how you structured the book. It's not a straightforward history or critique of racial science, but rather a wonderfully layered account. So, I was wondering if you could first tell us how you came to write the book in the particular way that you did?

Emma Kowal: Well, it was eight years between conception and publication, and it was actually extended because of COVID. For me, that was two years in the house with my two teenage children, and that was very bad. Let's not go there. Don't talk about COVID. But even without that, it really does take a while to percolate your ideas and to try them out, giving different talks here and there. 

I conceived of it while I was visiting at Yale in the history of science department there with my colleague, Joanna Raiden, who I had written with a fair bit. I wanted to understand Indigenous genomics, which is this field that I had found myself in and part of forming through my ethnographic work. 

I gave that origin story of the first ethnic drug in the U. S. and then thinking, ‘How is this going to unfold in Indigenous Australia?’ So really from 2006, I've been following it from a time where there was almost no genetic research happening in Australia in Indigenous contexts. The whole idea of doing genetic research with Indigenous people just seemed very cringey. I talk about that specifically in one chapter, about this kind of reaction of disgust of ‘Oh, that does not sound like a good idea.’ This is because of the specific Australian history of assimilation and of stolen generations and of a plethora of legislation that was determining what Indigenous people could do, where they could live, who they could marry, where they could work based on the ‘assigned caste’, in inverted commas, that was ascribed by government officials. So, with all that history and the idea of pan-Indigeneity, which is that all Indigenous people in Australia are equally Indigenous. There's no kind of hierarchy of whether you look a certain way or live a certain way that makes you more Indigenous than others. This has been really important since the seventies, definitely in Australia. So, for all of those reasons, the idea of Indigenous genomics or Indigenous genetics just seemed to be kind of implausible. So that was something that I was really interested in seeing how it happened. And it's now a thing. 


Samara Greenwood: So, you like to dig into complexity? Not just complex [problems], but politically charged, difficult. Is that something that draws you in? 

Emma Kowal: Yeah, that's right. I like a challenge. When the answer is obvious, so things that are really bad in the world, as an activist, I've always been very drawn to saying things about them and going to rallies. But, as a scholar, I find them uninteresting because it's obvious what the answer is. It's when things are not so obvious. 

So, on my whole project, it was about, ‘Well, let's look at people who are trying to do the right thing.’ They have the right intentions, they have the tools, they have the resources, and what then? What happens then? That's been the more interesting set of questions for me.


Samara Greenwood: There are also these layers of meaning evident in your book. So, I was interested in what you would say are the central ideas you hoped a reader would take away with them?

Emma Kowal: It is complex. It is like a kind of set of experiences and set of instincts about a complex and historically weighted area of study - studying Indigenous genomics, the biological differences that indigenous people may or may not have or contain.

The book is my wrestling with this question and my wrestling with the area of Indigenous genomics, which it turns out is now a whole important field of science. And it has a lot of resources. We have the very first Professor of Indigenous Genomics in the world in Australia. So, it's turned out that Australia is actually leading the world in some ways in this field.

But what is the history of trying to understand world groups biologically, particularly colonized minority groups? And how can we make biological difference about Indigenous people in the light of everything that's come before? Not to say that we shouldn't do it or that we should do it, but how does the past haunt what we are doing now?


Samara Greenwood: This was captured well in one of the reviews of your book, which discussed how you ‘showed that the messy history of biological difference is not a history left behind, but one that lingers and (as you say) haunts our current day, shiny laboratory science.’ Could you tell us more about those specific complexities of thinking through Indigeneity, human difference and biology?

Emma Kowal: One way I've thought about this is that ethics, research ethics, has very much been in the past focused about protecting Indigenous people. Researchers who want to work with Indigenous people have to really make it clear how Indigenous people might benefit from it and what the risks are to them and whether those risks are justified. Increasingly, Indigenous people have to be very engaged and now pretty much always leading those kind of research efforts. 

So, on the one hand, we've wanted to protect indigenous people from research, and genetics and genomics has been seen as a danger. So, through my anthropological engagements over the last 15 years, there have been many times where a project has got funding and might include genetics in some way. Then the genetics part is then not passed by the ethics committee, so it has to be removed. This has happened again and again, but now things have very much changed. 

The overriding idea in Indigenous genomics has been more around inclusion. That kind of narrative is that Indigenous people shouldn't miss out on the potential benefits of genomics, whether that is relating to health, relating to being able to provenance unprovenanced human remains, which is a whole other very sensitive and controversial, but also very important issue, finding relatives for those who have experienced stolen generations. All of these different potential uses for genetics are now seen as something that Indigenous people should have access to. 

Another way to put it is they shouldn't have to choose between engaging with science that might be dangerous to them and missing out on these potential benefits. They should be able to access the benefits of genomics on their own terms. So, it's been super interesting to me to see this inclusion approach emerge. 


Samara Greenwood (voice over): To introduce the next part of the interview, I want to begin by reading a part of the first chapter of Haunting Biology. Note, I have edited the quote slightly, and I also will substitute Emma's name for when she refers to ‘I’ as herself.

"Drawing on both famous and obscure episodes in the history of scientific research on Indigenous bodies and populations, this book tells a larger story of how and why biological knowledge about Indigenous Australians was produced. Through these stories, [Emma] addresses questions that have relevance…in all diverse societies. How are we to understand Indigenous biological difference in the 21st century? Is it a racist ruse, a stubborn residue of racial pseudoscience? Is it something that exists but that should not be allowed to have social or political relevance? Or is it a potentially empowering force that can be unlocked by newly accurate science? Or by being under Indigenous control? 
This book refuses…to distinguish between “good” and “bad” biological knowledge [aiming] neither to dismiss all biological knowledge as racist nor to excuse any of its negative effects on Indigenous people. Instead, [Emma] argues that biological data as different as diabetes incidence and hair form…[contain] persistent ghostly presences." (Kowal 2024: 4, 9)

Samara Greenwood: Perhaps you could tell us about one or two of those stories that you find particularly compelling, and you think a listener would be interested in?

Emma Kowal: The book has got the word ‘haunting’ in the title, and I do actually talk about haunting, both the kind of theories of haunting, which academics and theorists and I think just general people will find interesting, including how haunting and ghosts are really central to Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous experiences kind of around the country. But I also talk about some ghosts, real ghosts. I don't know if that even makes sense as a phrase, but ‘real’ ghosts. 

One of the stories opens with a story of an Aboriginal poet. Her name's Romaine Moreton. She was doing a research fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and she went there to look at Indigenous cultural and intellectual property in relation to ethnographic film that was held there. 

Romaine realised once she'd started that this building actually used to be the Australian Institute for Anatomy. It was built in the 1920s by a guy called Colin McKenzie, who had a huge collection. He was really into marsupials and monotremes. He was an orthopaedic surgeon, as many of these collectors were. Well not particularly orthopaedic surgeons, but the medical collectors and anthropologists often were mixed up together in the late 19th early 20th century. So, Colin had this enormous collection, which included Indigenous human remains. In the twenties, he convinced the government that this was a really important collection, and they funded this Institute for Anatomy, which is one of the really earliest buildings in Canberra. 

So, Romaine realised that this building had housed Aboriginal human remains and had displayed them as well until the 1980s, where then it got handed over to become the National Film and Sound Archive. She was also staying at Colin Mackenzie's private residence, which was next door and one night she was haunted. She kind of experienced, as she tells it, something like a dream, where Colin McKenzie approached her holding a scalpel and he sliced the scalpel through her body. 

I came across this story in Warwick Thornton's film called The Darkside and I immediately thought, “Wow”.

I had already been researching a set of interlacing histories, which is the history of the Institute for Anatomy and Colin McKenzie. It's also the history of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, what is now AIATSIS, and that started in the sixties. And I'm particularly interested in the role of human biology in that. So, when that started in the 1960s, It had four committees. One was linguistics, one was prehistory, which later on got called archaeology, one was social anthropology, and one was human biology. That surprised me, ‘Oh, there was a human biology committee!’ That was actually around until 1987, and connected very much to the history of blood samples that were collected at the ANU through the 60s and 70s, and which I'd been involved in since 2010. That then became the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, which is the first Indigenous governed genome facility in the world.

So, this haunting wove together these histories of bone, blood samples, race, Indigeneity, and Indigenous studies, and really, what it means to make biological knowledge about Indigenous people.



Samara Greenwood: Another complexity you raise in the book is current science, as you've mentioned, that involves Indigenous scientists engaged in studying biological difference. Could you tell us a bit more about the current status of this and the challenges and the potential of this line of research? 

Emma Kowal: Yes. So, one of the important things I've done alongside being involved with the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, which as I said, is this Indigenous governed genome facility that I was quite involved with setting up, but I haven't been involved in that for a few years. And that's been just amazing to see going from strength to strength. What I've also been involved with is called SING, which stands for Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics. This is a program that started in the US in 2011 and is now spreading to other countries, which involves workshops for Indigenous people to learn about genomics, to actually extract DNA. I had my fun time in the lab and learned that science is just like cooking. That was very enlightening, but also to learn about all the ethical issues and political and cultural issues related to genomics. So that's been really successful. We've done it in Australia since I think it was 2018 and now it's being run completely by Indigenous people. 

There is also this growing group of Indigenous geneticists and other scientists and academics with expertise. So, this is in many ways like the end point of what one would hope for. The logic of what I came into as a young doctor and a young researcher and young activist. That Indigenous people need to be in charge of everything, whatever activity is relevant to them, to their communities, and then that will solve many of the problems. 

That's something that I've personally believed in and tried to contribute to. But I also will always have questions about it, because that's what I do. I question things. Part of the argument running through the book is to question how Indigenous scientists might be also haunted by these histories and these pasts. It's a question that we can't answer yet because Indigenous genomic science is quite new, but I suppose I'm putting those questions out there for those Indigenous scientists to think about and maybe write their own books about it in the future. 


Samara Greenwood: Slightly off topic, but it is reminiscent of feminist philosophers of science where there's that question of, ‘We're working within science, we're trying to make science itself more gender aware and gender inclusive, but there's always the tension of working within the framework that's already being produced, that has this historical background that has… excluded.’ How do you do that? How do you navigate those tensions? Because you are haunted always by those origin stories and the [structures] that still contain those biases.

Emma Kowal: I think about that in the book in terms of different positions towards ghosts. 

So, for many scholars, the idea of Indigenous genomics is still very cringy. It's like, ‘Well, we can't have that, it's been too dangerous. There have been too many things that have gone wrong.’ The low point in that modern discourse was the human genome diversity project in the 1990s, which was called the ‘Vampire Project’ and led to worldwide opposition from indigenous people. So, a dangerous kind of science. Then, that shift now to saying, ‘No, it can be something that can benefit us’. 

To not want to engage with genomics at all is to reject the ghosts, but to just take up the science unproblematically or unthinkingly is to ignore the ghosts. What I'm trying to say in the book is that we need to live with the ghosts, to acknowledge their existence and to find a way to live with them.


Samara Greenwood: Two final questions. Many in our audience are practicing scientists. What do you think they might take away from your book? 

Emma Kowal: Well, hopefully a love of history and an appreciation for thinking about who has come before them. To think the questions that they're asking have previous iterations and in their quests to do something useful and to be of benefit to society, there are also those previous iterations of people that were trying to do things that benefited society. If we don't understand history, we will repeat it. I suppose that old adage is a good way to summarise it.



Samara Greenwood: What about a broader audience? What might we all take away from your research on science and Indigeneity in Australia?

I think that the questions that I'm asking are fundamental questions about justice in a settler colony, in a place where colonisers have come and migrants have come, and there's been a population that has been dispossessed and that we are now trying to address, to counter, that by supporting Indigenous people and supporting Indigenous scholars. But what is the history that we have to face if any of this is actually going to be helpful in the long term? 


Samara Greenwood: Definitely. Thank you so much, Emma, for coming on the podcast and having this wonderful discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about all aspects of your work.

Emma Kowal: Thanks Sam. 

Samara Greenwood: Thank you for listening to season three of The HPS Podcast. If you are interested in the detail of today's conversation, you can access the transcript on our website at - stay connected with us on social media, including BlueSky for updates, extras, and further discussion.

We would like to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their ongoing support. And thank you for joining us in the wonderful world of HPS. We look forward to having you back again next time.


bottom of page