Article written by 2008 DPDF Critical Studies of Science & Technology Policy Fellow Elizabeth Hennessy:
Genetic science is an increasingly common tool in conservation management that is reshaping understandings of biodiversity and how best to “save” it. In the Galápagos Islands, genetic science has led to the rediscovery of a species of giant tortoise that by all accounts went extinct more than 150 years ago. This article uses the story of these tortoises to examine how one area of conservation genetics—reconstructions of evolutionary history, or phylogenetics—is contributing to a shift in the way pristine nature is understood and managed. Drawing on political ecologies and critical geographies of genetics, I trace the story of these tortoises, which are at the center of a conservation breeding and repatriation program aimed to “retortoise” an island with tortoises as genetically close to the original population as possible. I argue that genes are emerging objects of conservation that not only call forth new configurations of knowledge production but also open new possibilities for managing endangered natures. Tortoise “genome geographies” (Fujimura and Rajagopalan 2011; Nash 2013) that trace lineages to particular islands articulate two understandings of pristine nature at stake in ecological restoration: the bounded Cartesian space of islands that has long structured national park conservation and the purity of species lineages, which genetic technologies offer a new means for understanding and manipulating. Analyzing genes as objects of conservation opens a technical–scientific black box to critical analysis, placing new technologies for imagining pristine nature in a history of debate about conservation management.