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Health

All your genes belong to the tribal council!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSeptember 29, 2011 5:51 AM

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Dienekes has already commented on this, but I thought I would go over Ewen Callaway's piece, Aboriginal genome analysis comes to grips with ethics. It's not surprising that this was written. Even if you take Keith Windschuttle's position when it comes to Aboriginal-European contact you can't escape the reality that Aboriginals did not fare so well in the interaction. In fact, they don't fare so well today in Australia. The life expectancy gap between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Australia is most conservatively estimated at 10 years (do remember that the majority of indigenous Australians are mixed-race). In the racialized physical anthropology of the early 20th amongst the colored peoples Aboriginals occupied the lowest circle of hell. Because of the robustness of their physiques it was argued they were the most primitive exemplar of humanity. Perhaps relic H. erectus. Here are some interesting sections of Callaway's article:

...Researchers who work with Aboriginal Australians are now expected to obtain consent not only from the individuals concerned, but also from local and sometimes state-wide groups representing Aboriginal communities across Australia. A Danish bioethical review board did not believe it was necessary to review the project because it viewed the hair as an archaeological specimen and not a biological one, Willerslev says. However, after his team sequenced the genome, an Australian colleague put Willerslev in touch with the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, a body based in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, that represents the 5,000 or so Aboriginal Australians living in the region where Haddon collected the hair sample. In June, Willerslev flew to the region to describe his project to the organization's board and to seek its approval. He says that if the board had rejected his proposal, he would have ended the project and left the genome unpublished.

Stepping away from the specific issue of Australian Aboriginals, the case of the "ownership" of genetic information is peculiar. As a "thought experiment" I have addressed the issue of whether identical twins have "rights" to each others' genomes. For example, if one identical twin put their genotype into the public domain, would the other be within their rights to object? For that matter, people who put their genotypes in the public domain are partially exposing their whole families. Do they have to go ask for permission? Obviously I don't think so. I didn't ask my siblings or my parents. So the issue of group veto or endorsement of the genotyping of individuals, living or deceased, is not a general consideration. It's a matter of politics and sociology in very specific circumstances. In particular those groups which are labelled "indigenous" in Western societies, and so given particular distinction as the "first people." Ultimately it reduces down to power politics. Consider for example what the Cherokee nation recently did to its black members. Just because people are indigenous, or there is a tribal council instead of a town council, does not exempt them from the common venalities of political leadership classes. Though there has been a history of "body snatching" by Western scholars in the Americas and Australia, the current respect and considerations given ancient materials which might have DNA has more to do with the possibility that those results might refute the standing of a given group as autochthons. As a practical matter DNA results probably won't change a thing, but there is always a risk that it might introduce an element of doubt as to the legitimacy of the privileges and rights conferred on those who trace their lineages from the first settlers of a given locale. More broadly, there is a whole world of "activists" who are themselves not indigenous who have a vested interest in ginning up controversy, and demanding that all the ethical issues be examined from every which angle (they are of course the best judges as to which issues must be tackled before science proceeds). I've addressed this before. In short they're basically academic demagogues. What I'm talking about was on display during the Darkness in El Dorado controversy. Unlike indigenous people themselves these activists will always move on to a new cause to stoke the fires of their righteous indignation. In the 1990s this set was outraged over the Human Genome Diversity Project, but today that enterprise is a great success accessible to all. Did disaster and darkness ensue? Of course not. And the original critics are now fixated upon more profitable targets. Going back to the issue about Aboriginal genetics, and the genetics of indigenous people more generally,

it is in the medium run irrelevant what institutions decide.

By institutions, I mean tribes, governments, NGOs, and even academics. If a scientific group avoids human genetic research for political reasons, the probability is that another group at some point in the future will take the project. And when it comes to human genetics the typing and analysis is cheap and easy enough that motivated amateurs can do it themselves. There are certainly enough white Australians with some Aboriginal ancestry that a synthetic genome could probably be reconstructed just from them at some point. Perhaps less ethically if someone wanted to they could probably obtain genetic material by surreptitious means. Which brings me back to the question of Australian Aboriginals. One of the primary fears, implicit or explicit, about doing biological work on this group is that scientists might report results which would have a chance of dehumanizing them. Dehumanization, broadly construed, is not a problem necessarily. As I've noted people found that Europeans had a few percent Neandertal quite funny last year because Europeans haven't been victims of dehumanization for the past few centuries (read the accounts of Muslim or Chinese observers from before 1800, and you do see clear dehumanization of Europeans in their perceptions). In contrast, Australian Aboriginals have been dehumanized. So how does the result that they might be ~5% admixed with a very distant human lineage change our perceptions? I don't think it changes much at all. The problem is that people, wrongly I believe, perceive that political and social views have some deep metaphysical basis when they often do not. Scientific racism in the 19th and early 20th century did leverage science, but the racialized sentiments ascendant in the age of white supremacy were first and foremost about values. In the 16th century the partisans of the views of Bartolomé de las Casas succeeded in convincing the Iberian monarchies that the indigenous people of the New World deserved protection from predatory European settlers. But the reality is that the de jure status was flagrantly violated for centuries de facto. In the ideal the Amerindians of the New World were granted the protection of the Spanish monarchy as Christians, but in practice they were treated in a beastly manner by the American Spaniards and their Creole descendants. Quibbling about the rights and responsibilities of scientists in a given field is not always unimportant or futile. But in the area where genetics and ethnology intersect too often people overestimate the power of genetics to totally reshape how we view ourselves, and how we view other human beings. The reality is that we are what we are, before and after we find out what we are in a more scientific and abstruse fashion. How we behave toward other human beings is less a matter of good science and more good character.

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