ghosts as a metaphor for past injustice

In Ghost Stories for Darwin, Banu Sabramaniam recalls:

Trained in evolutionary biology, I saw a field of morning glories and asked about flower color variation. I did not ask why it was the most obvious question. The landscapes in Southern California provoked me to ask questions about native and foreign species, without questioning the blurry distinctions between the native and the alien and the histories of the plants. The problem of women in the sciences elicited strategies to increasing their numbers, without any questioning of the gendered and racialized expectations of science.

Years later, I look at the same fields and see the ghostly apparitions of a eugenic past—the many mutilated, tortured, imperiled, and dead bodies, the stigmatized, contained, disciplined bodies of communities and nations of color, the poor, those deemed mentally incompetent, inferior, the many lives deemed not worth living. In tracing the genealogy of variation, all these histories came tumbling out.

Sabramaniam derives this use of a ghost metaphor from Avery Gordon and others. One example in her book is eugenics, which was widely endorsed and taught, closely linked to the development of population biology, genetics, and even statistics, and embraced across the political spectrum. In turn, eugenics is rooted in racism and sexism.

A defender of science would say: eugenics was a mistake, but now it has passed thanks to the self-correcting methods of scientists. A deep critic of science would say: the institution is still the same one that produced eugenics. I take the ghost metaphor to mean something between those two views. The institution is not eugenics; it is science. However, science is haunted by eugenics and racism, just as we might imagine a house to be haunted by ghosts. Likewise, Sabramaniam’s question about color variation was not racist; the flowers really were colorful, and it was good that she enjoyed them. However, once Sabramaniam had explored the history of scientific inquiry into variation–which was important work–she was no longer able to see the wildflowers without also seeing specters of the past.

A house and a ghost are distinct. We can imagine an effective exorcism or another solution to the problem presented by a ghost. Yet we are not actually banishing the ghosts that haunt us.

This metaphor resonates for me. I am not interested in blowing up the institutions around me, partly because I am not convinced that we would be better off without them, and partly because I actually admire aspects of them. But they feel haunted, and the more necessary work we do to understand their pasts, the more haunted they seem.

See also: pseudoscience and the No True Scotsman fallacy; media literacy and the social discovery of reality; the progress of science; mixed thoughts about the status of science etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.