So how were the triple-A's?

2 minute read

It's always interesting to go the AAA meetings. Many of the biological anthropologists who go are good friends of mine, and it is always good to see your friends. On the other hand, the meeting is so large that no one person can follow everything --- it's a conference by small subsets.

I was on an invited panel discussion of ethical issues in biological anthropology, particularly with relation to property. Those issues included data access, research transparency, ownership of identity, responsibilities to study populations and communities, and ownership of research materials. My part was to discuss concerns relating to genetic research on anthropological variation. Of course, there are many issues in this area touching on ethical concerns, including patents on genes from indigenous study populations, attaining informed consent from communities, and the current lack of recognition to a right to one's own genetic sequence. I briefly discussed the current use of comparative data on human genetic variation for "ancestry" testing. It's an important case of the scientific construction of identity. Some tests apply "scientific" methods that assign racial quanta to people on the basis of their alleles. These methods lie in potential conflict with both the actual pattern of genetic variation --- which does not fit the idea of discrete ancestral racial types --- and traditional conceptions of identity based on non-genetic knowledge.

It was very eye-opening to hear the discussions of different topics, from the study of habituated primate populations, to medical research in community-based research projects, to study of rare fossil remains. How do you study vulnerable populations or objects when studying them may result in their change or destruction? Michele Goldsmith explained some of the ways that habituating wild primates may lead to their ultimate doom --- habituated animals often become pests --- and that the nonhabituated population of mountain gorillas is diminishing. Alan Mann discussed the vulnerability of fossil remains to destruction, from molding, destructive sampling, and mere handling or measurement. Many other contributors brought forward a recurrent theme that it is difficult to find solutions to share data. Sharing may be essential to preserve what we study, but it cuts against research independence. And independence itself tends to proliferate research into new field sites, new methods of sampling fossil material, or new ways of capitalizing on knowledge. In this way, the disparate parts of biological anthropology all have connected ethical issues.

It was a very interesting interaction of different people, and the organizers (Trudy Turner and Rachel Caspari) want to bring it online for further commentary. Extending discussions like this one from a single time and audience to a larger group, with comments, might be a powerful way to build a community around the central concerns in the field.