Wednesday, December 13, 2006

DNA Gatherers Hit Snag: Tribes Don’t Trust Them

The National Geographic Society’s multimillion-dollar research project to collect DNA from indigenous groups around the world in the hopes of reconstructing humanity’s ancient migrations has come to a standstill on its home turf in North America.

Billed as the “moon shot of anthropology,” the Genographic Project intends to collect 100,000 indigenous DNA samples. But for four months, the project has been on hold here as it scrambles to address questions raised by a group that oversees research involving Alaska natives.
I am a big fan of this Genographic Project, which I blogged on earlier.

Aside: If you are looking for a last minute gift, I think it is pretty cool (not to mention that if you give it to your mother and father you are finding out where you came from, even though it is their gift ;)). The one thing is that if you have European ancestry, don't expect to learn much as they don't have many different branches of Europeans. But the money still goes to support the project so it is still worthwhile.

It is disappointing to me that the Native Americans are taking this stand. Why are they refusing to take part?
At issue is whether scientists who need DNA from aboriginal populations to fashion a window on the past are underselling the risks to present-day donors. Geographic origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture.

Some American Indians trace their suspicions to the experience of the Havasupai Tribe, whose members gave DNA for a diabetes study that University of Arizona researchers later used to link the tribe’s ancestors to Asia. To tribe members raised to believe the Grand Canyon is humanity’s birthplace, the suggestion that their own DNA says otherwise was deeply disturbing.
I hate it when religious/traditional beliefs stop science. I really like what the Dalai Lama has said on this subject: If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. Why can't other religious leaders come to the same conclusion?

Any other reasons they have?
Scientific evidence that American Indians or other aboriginal groups came from elsewhere, they say, could undermine their moral basis for sovereignty and chip away at their collective legal claims.

“What if it turns out you’re really Siberian and then, oops, your health care is gone?” said Dr. David Barrett, a co-chairman of the Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, which is sponsored by the Indian Health Service, a federal agency. “Did anyone explain that to them?”
If those were true, then I could understand their argument. But I just don't get it. How could this undermine the moral or legal basis for their sovereignty? And why would they lose their health insurance if it turns out they came from Siberia? This just seems nutty to me.

The International Indian Treaty Council wrote up a list of their issues with the Genographic Project in this UN document. They have lots of arguments as to why they are opposed, most of which are summarized above. I wanted to respond to one of their points.
RECOGNIZING that Indigenous Peoples have extensive traditional knowledge and oral histories about our own origins, which are central to our spiritual and cultural identity and are valid on their own right and do not need western scientific validation;
I already wrote why the religious aspect of this concerns me. But the other thing that concerns me is that they call it "western scientific validation". Science is science, there is no western science (which I assume means there is also an eastern science). Something like 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the US come from India and China. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations had advanced scientific understandings for their time. For the Native Americans to try and belittle science as something foreign and therefore not to be trusted, rather than try and be active participants of the scientific community is very disappointing.

via NY Times

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