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Editing Islands: (Re)Imagining Isolation in Gene Drive Science and Engagement

  • Author(s): Taitingfong, Riley Ilyse
  • Advisor(s): Goldfarb, Brian
  • et al.

Westerners have long imagined, represented, and treated islands around the globe as “natural laboratories” given their perceived geographic isolation. It was on islands that colonizers first conducted “experiments” in imperial expansion via the establishment of plantation economies and maritime military infrastructure, and where scientists developed myriad ecological, evolutionary, and anthropological theories predicated on views of islands as enclosed systems containing human and nonhuman subjects amenable to scientific observation. In this way, island isolation represents an enduring mythology fundamental to the entangled projects of settler colonialism, militarism, and scientific knowledge production. This dissertation examines the meaning-making processes that continue to uphold myths of isolation in contemporary scientific practice, focusing on an emerging genetic engineering technology known as gene drive.

This examination is organized into three chapters. Chapter 1 considers the historical basis of the myth of the isolated island laboratory, focusing on appropriations of Pacific Islands as military outposts and sites of nuclear weapons testing. Against this history, it considers the incommensurability of the conception of island isolation with Indigenous relations to islands as connected (not isolated) by the ocean. Chapter 2 examines presumptions of island isolation embedded in calls to trial genetically engineered organisms containing gene drives on remote islands. The third and final chapter provides an account of an ethnographic investigation of emergent community and stakeholder engagement practices meant to facilitate just decision-making surrounding the deployment of gene drive technologies, focusing on two Hawaiian Islands where gene drive research is underway. I identify isolation and containment as salient frames structuring scientific practices related to gene drives, and argue that these are ill-equipped to facilitate the just use of these technologies. I invite a reimagination of gene drive science and engagement through more oceanic and archipelagic ways of knowing that embrace connectivity and attend to history and power.

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