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Same science, different inference

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOctober 12, 2009 12:02 PM


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About two weeks ago I pointed to the peculiar disjunction between what a paper on Indian genetics actually said, and how people, including some of the researchers who contributed to the paper, were spinning it. For instance, the finding that South Asians can be reasonably modeled as a two-way admixture between "Ancestral North Indians" (ANI) and "Ancestral South Indians" which varies in ratio between between 7:3 and 2:3 across regions & caste groups was translated into "the genetic unity of India." And now I notice in The Guardian another Indian has an article titled Tracing the fissures in India's society: The worlds of variation discovered within the Indian genome only emphasise the difference that divides our nation:

Despite our country's much-vaunted pluralism, Indians harbour a keen sense of difference, be it of language, religion or complexion. We also often have exaggerated visions of history, or at least of myth, history's livelier twin. For instance, many Chitpavan Brahmins, a caste group in the Indian state of Maharashtra, have been known to attest their relatively fair skin to a boatload of Vikings (apparently very, very lost) who washed up centuries ago on the western coast. So it comes as little surprise to Indians that scientific research increasingly traces the roots of our diverse society to the distant past. The latest study of the genetic history of India (detailed by Adam Rutherford) unearths worlds of variation within the Indian genome. Indians could read this new DNA evidence in a reassuring light, as confirmation of that oft-repeated cliche of India's "continental" diversity: not only do its billion-plus citizens belong to an astonishing array of linguistic and religious groups, but also India is four times more genetically diverse than Europe.

This is a position which can be supported by the findings in the paper. The same findings which some of the paper's researchers spun arguing for genetic unity. Mapping population genetics findings into plain English is more an art than a science. Something think about when people make grand assertions; e.g., "There are no human races," or, "We are all Africans." Science being what it is strong assertions are usually grounded in some genuine empirical results or analytic insight, but how one interprets those assertions may differ greatly contingent upon the database you have to work with as a filter.

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