In The Social Life of DNA, Alondra Nelson takes us on an unprecedented journey into how the double helix has wound its way into the heart of the most urgent contemporary social issues around race. Weaving together keenly observed interactions with root-seekers alongside historical details and revealing personal narrative, she shows that genetic genealogy is a new tool for addressing old and enduring issues. Nelson explains how these cutting-edge DNA-based techniques are being used in myriad ways, including grappling with the unfinished business of slavery: to foster reconciliation, to establish ties with African ancestral homelands, to rethink and sometimes alter citizenship, and to make legal claims for slavery reparations specifically based on ancestry.

DNA is a portal to the past that yields insight for the present and future, shining a light on social traumas and historical injustices that still resonate today. Science can be a crucial ally to activism to spur social change and transform twenty-first-century racial politics. But Nelson warns her readers to be discerning: for, the social repair we seek can't be found in even the most sophisticated science. Engrossing and highly original, The Social Life of DNA is a must-read for anyone interested in race, science, history and how our reckoning with the past may help us to chart a more just course for tomorrow.

All Things Considered Interview

SOMATOSPHERE Forum on The Social Life of DNA

FiveThirtyEight Podcast: The Social Life of DNA

Social Science Bites Podcast

The Received Wisdom Podcast: Race, Identity, Reparations, and the Role of Ancestral DNA Testing ft. Alondra Nelson



a thoughtful exposé of antiracist projects linked to cutting-edge genetic technologies... a subtle tale of science and justice that remains timely, urgent, and profoundly important.
--Diana Forsythe Prize citation


...a creative, thoughtful, and clear-eyed look at a thoroughly fascinating subject.

- Boston Globe

Alondra Nelson takes us into a complex and endlessly fascinating space where genetic ancestry testing meets racial politics. With her unique and wonderful gifts for research and insight into genetic science, ethnography and history, The Social Life of DNA comes at a moment when the questions it raises about race and social justice couldn't be more pressing and urgent. 

--Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Alondra Nelson’s account of how genetic data was transformed into contested political culture is a lucid as it is path-breaking. This exhilarating survey of how DNA became an agent in the politics of reparation and reconciliation has not only extended analysis of race and racism but created a new field of comparative research.

--Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic

a concise and powerful answer to the question of why we turn to [genetic] tools to evidence our identities and origins

--Ethnic and Racial Studies

Nelson highlights the many ways genetic information can be used, not only to reconnect with our past, but to create social connections in the present... enriches our understanding of how genetic information could “expose and substantiate the legacies of racial slavery.” She considers the righting of past wrongs and the use of DNA to pursue social justice a noble aim.

--New Scientist

Using fresh genetics and writing like an investigative reporter, Nelson clears up the mystery about our society's rush to DNA.

--Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family

meticulously detailed study... adds another chapter to the somber history of injustice toward African-Americans, but it is one in which science is enriching lives by forging new identities and connections to ancestral homelands.
-- Kirkus Reviews

One of this generation's most gifted scholars examines the unfolding mysteries of DNA sequencing and the limits and promises of genetic genealogy at the intersection of race, politics and identity. Alondra Nelson brilliantly guides us on a journey of discovery in this cautionary tale of the high-stakes efforts to reconcile our racial origins and to find redemption as a country. Eye-opening, provocative, and deeply humane.

-- Isabel‎ Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns

Nelson explores this large, sprawling, fascinating subject with clarity, passion, rigor, and a keen eye for revealing detail....It is a brilliant work.

--Randall Kennedy, author of The Persistence of the Color Line admirable first effort to explore the initial implications of genetic root-seeking among people of African descent


an important contribution to many literatures and will undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for academic and public discussion of the intertwined relationships among race, science, and policy in the coming years.
   --Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

'The double helix now lies at the center of some of the most significant issues of our time,' Alondra Nelson writes in this valuable and illuminating book. Since 2003, she has been following the ways that DNA intertwines with race, and The Social Life of DNA is her clear-eyed, sharp, and closely observed account of the phenomenon. It couldn’t be more timely.

--Jonathan Weiner, Maxwell M. Geffen Professor, Columbia Journalism School

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