Maori objections to Genographic Project

5 minute read

I wrote about the Genographic Project earlier this year. The project is attempting some of the aims of the former Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which was an attempt to give a central aegis to the sampling of DNA from indigenous peoples around the world, ostensibly to study their history and relationships.

I say "ostensibly" somewhat guardedly; it has never been clear that the kind of studies proposed by the HGDP would actually tell us much about the history and relationships of people. Indeed, it is no more clear that the kinds of studies that are part of the Genographic Project will tell us much about history, either. In any event, the Genographic Project is now claiming in its US advertising that it will create "a museum of humankind", which was pretty much the advertising for the HGDP also. Different decade, same thinking.

One would therefore think that some of the same objections to the research would start to crop up. Opposition to the HGDP was widespread among activists, much was focused by an organization called the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). RAFI The most recent reference on their web site to human tissue sampling was this 1997 communiqué, complete with some interesting details. RAFI is now calling itself the "ETC group"; they have made no statement I can find concerning Genographic.

However, this article discusses the beginnings of resistance by indigenous groups.

As soon as the scheme was announced in April, indigenous groups began objecting, and none more loudly than Maori.
We already know where we came from, thanks very much, they said, and what's in it for indigenous people? What is the point of challenging generations of oral history and spiritual belief? Why should we give you our blood and the genetic codes which make us unique, and how do we know you won't sell the information to pharmaceutical companies?
And most importantly of all, how can this "scientific proof" that we all came from Africa be used against us by the politicians - and the racists?

That's a particularly good question, considering that Genographic is focusing on precisely those two genetic systems (Y chromosome and mtDNA) that appear most strongly consistent with a recent African origin. A full history would involve all the rest of the genome, much of which is less supportive of the story Genographic is pushing.

This quote is also powerful:

Marae worker and caregiver Mere Kepa, also a researcher at Auckland University, doesn't buy Genographic's stated hope of improving global understanding of indigenous concerns.
"Just because you know you're related to each other, is that going to stop the Queensland police belting the shit out of Aborigines?" Kepa asks. "This is scientific imperialism. As an academic I'm not opposed to learning, but I'm tired and exhausted of learning from Western scientists that I'm sad, bad and mad and so are all my whanau and hapu and iwi."

But it is certainly possible to take the objections to unwarranted extremes. I got the story via Gene Expression, where this post from Razib brings up some interesting points. Traditional beliefs no longer comprise a majority in many groups. In what sense should these "traditional" beliefs and their current espousers constrain the free actions of other group members?

On the flip side, when scientific study clearly favors one interpretation of a group's history and genetic basis and opposes traditional views, what responsibility do scientists bear for their role in within-group political transformations that may follow? My guess is that most people doing this work would answer that they have no responsibility whatsoever; they are just following the truth where it leads. I generally agree, but I think it important to be aware of the transformational power that scientific information can hold. Traditional members of small-scale societies may know little molecular genetics, but if they know much about Western biology, they know the low regard it holds for Christian creationism. How could they reasonably believe that science will respect their traditional belief systems any differently?

There remains the more difficult questions that RAFI was originally concerned with. When scientists take blood from indigenous peoples, and use that blood to create cell lines, and trade those cell lines among laboratories, using them in all kinds of research, what is the relationship between those practices and strong (or even weak) notions of informed consent? What safeguards prevent the commoditization of human genetic materials, or the patenting of DNA sequences from indigenous peoples? The story today is little different than in 1995. If the story of resistance develops further, it will be along these lines.

However, there are good reasons to think the resistance will be impotent this time. There are too many cell lines and samples already in the possession of labs to stop the project accomplishing its goals. In this case, the goal is highly circumscribed: it is about reconstructing two haplotype trees. It's like the perfect dissertation topic: no matter what, if you do the work available to you, you'll have some result you can write about.

There may be nothing new --- especially considering we already know a whole lot about mtDNA and the Y chromosome in different populations. But there will always be that one new population whose history held some doubt before, or the unusual link between two distant places, or other such trivia.

Expect a lot of that when you start hearing results. And above all, a lot of this: "These results show the close relationship of all living people. We are truly a single family. Differences between races are insignificant."

The only problem is, this kind of work shows similarity not by refuting differences, but instead by measuring them. It's the kind of work that National Geographic could have written about in 1905. Or 1805.

I think the buried subtext in the story is this:

The man behind the Genographic Project, National Geographic scientist Dr Spencer Wells, hopes some fears might be eased by the society's impeccable reputation for promoting and documenting the lives of indigenous people through its magazine and documentaries.

Sure, National Geographic may be able to pull the idea up. But to me this looks like one albatross they didn't need. From the outside, it looks like the Society has been supporting a lot more activists lately. The Genographic Project is far from alone. For good or for ill, people are going to notice.

UPDATE (8/15/05): More from Razib. Including this interesting paradox: if religion and other non-science ways of "knowing" are endemic to our species, surely they should need no defending; while science, being strange and foreign to our heritage, should be defended zealously.