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November 21, 2023
Travis Hay’s Inventing the Thrifty Gene: The Science of Settler Colonialism is a wondrous exploration of the bonds between settler colonialism and settler science. He traces the evolution of colonial science from tropes of Indigenous extinction to the invention of the thrifty gene hypothesis to explain the diabetes epidemic amongst First Nations in the late twentieth century across six chapters. In so doing, Hay ties settler scientific luminaries, like Charles Darwin, to colonial Indian policies advocated by Sir Francis Bond Head in the Victorian era, to the inventor of the thrifty gene James V. Neel in the 1960s and to the 1999 discovery of the gene among the people of Sandy Lake First Nation by medical researchers and scientists from the University of Toronto and Western University.
Hay deftly shows that fore more than a century, settler science remains linked by its study of the other, ideas of Western masculinity, the male white settler gaze, and its “sanitizing of state policies” (4). All of the leading settler scientists were white males, who utilized the expanding settler state to access Indigenous bodies, and used the power of the state – financially, politically, and socially – to engage in the creation of knowledge to benefit settlers.