Planet Earth

Native Americans are not special snowflakes

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 13, 2012 3:45 AM

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Dienekes, in response to Living Anthropologically, Petty identity politics indeed, or, holding a grudge is no excuse for anti-science:

I won't argue about the veracity or details of this version of history, but surely native Americans from the US were not especially mistreated compared to other people colonized by Europeans? I mean, there are now samples from Native Australians, East Indians, Sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans from all over the Americas except the US. Why don't all these people not "hold a grudge" for their bad treatment at the hands of Europeans, but, apparently, are perfectly willing to participate in genetic research if it's explained to them how they might learn more about their ancestors from it? And, why limit ourselves to people colonized by Europeans? Surely, Slavs, for example, have a lot of things to say about German Rassenkunde scientists belittling them, studying their skulls to "prove" they are an inferior race, and hatching up and executing plans for their annihilation. 

So, why do the Russians give the Denisova fingerbone to ze Max Planckfolks to study, or allow them to study ancient DNA from all over their territory?

Scour the literature for a while, and you'll find plenty of (modern) Germans studying Jews, and Jews studying pretty much everybody, including many not-so-friendly Muslim populations. You'll find Russians too, studying all the subjugated ethnic groups of their former Empire, and plenty of Han Chinese scientists studying some of the 57 ethnic groups of their country. You'll find Serbs and Turks forgetting about the Battle of Kosovo or the Balkan Wars to participate in joint research about the origins of the Neolithic. You'll find Roma and Saami being studied by their native European "oppressors." And, 

how about those African Americans whose ancestors were dragged across the Atlantic in chains, and forced to work as slaves, surely they have as good a reason, if not better, to be suspicious of being made an object of study by people outside their community?

 But, last time I checked, there were plenty of studies on that population, informing them about the sources of their African ancestors and the timing and extent of admixture with their European ones. In short: you'll find plenty of groups with historical or even contemporary sources of conflict setting aside their differences in the interest of science. The anti-scientific attitude of certain Native American groups cannot be ascribed to a history of oppression or conflict with the ancestors of the scientists wishing to study them. 

And, indeed, if Native Americans were once oppressed by thePalefaces, why don't they let themselves be studied by Chinese or Japanese researchers, or indeed by their own scientists: there are Native American geneticists after all!

Much of the argument outlined here anticipated what I immediately thought when I read the first few sentences of the post. I don't deny that in the past scientists behaved unethically. But the experiences of Native Americans are not sui generis. Let's be honest here and admit that politics is the primary force driving this particular behavior. There are surely many people of all groups who are not especially interested in or sympathetic to scientists treating them as objects of study. But only some groups have collective recognition of the kind which results in the veto of study participation of even of a minority. Also, did anyone else notice that the paper out of Broad explicitly discussed Native Americans, which is an American appellation most commonly, but lacked any American native samples? I think the results are robust, but it's rather like inferring the demographic history of Germans by looking at Austrians, Alsatians, Danes, and Dutch. Reminds me of the use of Pakistanis in the HGDP because the Permit Raj prevented sampling of Indians.

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