2006/12/11

New York Times article on indigenous resistance to Genographic Project

"DNA Gatherers Hit Snag: Tribes Don’t Trust Them". Amy Harmon. New York Times (Bugmenot to avoid registration)

If indigenous resistance to genetic research were based solely on questions of ownership, promises to not patent the data and to store only the small segments of the genome useful in tracing ancestry would probably work. That The Genographic Project has been so much more successful thus far than Cavalli-Sforza's HGDP shows this much. It is much more ethically sound.

The real issue is of course, as the article shows, the conflict between data (indigenous Americans share a close common ancestry with Siberians, other Asians, and the rest of us) and beliefs (indigenous Americans / one specific people / humanity in general formed in America). At first glance this is "science vs. faith" and the position against genetic research seems untenable. If it were solely a matter of "traditional belief" vs. "impartial science" I would support the science completely. The existence of belief systems which actually do wish to undermine Indians' indigineity and which cheer on this science complicates the matter considerably. The initial excitement of racists about the supposedly European features (since debunked) of Kennewick Man and the more moderate, but still questionable extension of "we are all immigrants" sentiments to indigenous peoples show that there is some substance to these concerns that goes beyond attachment to mythology. In order for sequencing to become politically non-controversial, the following needs to be clearly understood:

The fact that their ancient ancestors migrated from Asia in no way undermines Amerinidian peoples' status as indigenous or their historical experience of marginalization vis-à-vis post-Columbian immigrant peoples and European-derived polities and land tenure. At the time of the settlement of the Americas Scandinavia, Ireland, and most of Britain were covered by ice. Should we declare Swedes, Finns and Scots to be 'mere' immigrants? Recent research by Stephen Oppenheimer points to stone age Spain as the source of the majority of even England's genetic legacy. Similarly, recent roots, the visible past of colonialism and the slave trade, and current international political structures make today's Africans more African than those of us whose ancestors left, including the Native Americans'.

That current conditions and recent history should be important should be a no brainer, but recent history has shown that people on a whole are very influenced by science's results regarding the anthropology and history of whole continents of peoples. The science should go on, but scientists and science journalists need to be careful about prejudice influencing data and the simplification of results that comes from popularization. Just as an obsession with classification combined with the inequalities of the global economy to create race and racism, an overemphasis on the macro structure of the human family tree (branching out from Africa into separate populations) ignores a number of equally important (and equally scientific) narratives. These include continued genetic transfer and cultural diffusion between "branches" (New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, among others, annoyingly ignore this important aspect of human prehistory), our extremely recent common ancestry, and the much more present narratives of modern history and cultural tradition.

All of these narratives overlap, of course, but this in itself is not inherently problematic. It is when people overinterpret the data (both scientists and their critics frequently do so) without reference to its explanatory limits that political problems arise. Y chromosome and mtDNA results record only two of countless human family trees, genetic relatedness is not the only definition of identity (whether family, tribal, or national), and creation myths do not have to be understood literally to be important cultural truths. Though the Havasupai's ancestors may not have emerged fully formed, literally, from the Grand Canyon, they are a part of that place, and the origin of that people, as they have come to understand themselves is in that land. If someday we can all feel the same way, as a people, about our common origin in Africa's Great Rift Valley, we will have made a very important step toward solving our problems.

2 comments:

Olives & Watermelon LLC said...

Reading this recalled to me the Indigenous Australians, whose traditional beliefs variously include a strong connection to the land. What reminded me of this is the nature of that relationship and of their history is characterized as a constantly evolving --to reference your use of the term-- narrative.

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