New HGDP book reviewed

In Nature this week there is a short but interesting review by political scientist Diane Paul (University of Massachusetts) of the new book Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics by Jenny Reardon. The book is about the rise and fall of the Human Genome Diversity Project.

As Reardon tells it in this engrossing and even-handed book, the scientists never knew what hit them, and so were unable to mount a response to the project's detractors. The scientists involved believed they were in a race against time to answer compelling questions about human origins and migrations. But the peoples on whose cooperation the project depended -- or at least those claiming to speak for them -- were not interested in the scientists' questions about human origins (to which they already had satisfying answers), disliked being thought of as a resource, took umbrage at the assumption that they were vanishing, mistrusted the project leaders' motives, especially in regard to patent issues and, in general, did not see what was in it for them (Paul 2005:621).

The review is generally positive, ending on this note:

In the event, the critics stopped the project in its tracks. Reardon sees little to celebrate in this victory. The project's proponents correctly predicted from the start that, if they failed, the research would continue but in a much less public and organized way. The study of human genetic variation is now fashionable, but it is being pursued without scrutiny of the deeper issues that Reardon believes essential to the pursuit of both a more reflective science and a more sensitive society. Funders have understandably tried to avoid the controversies that sank the Diversity Project. But the ironic result has been to narrow discussion of the issues at stake even further (Paul 2005:622).

That's certainly the case: the same research is still happening, just outside the attention zone of HGDP opponents. But some of it has returned to the surface, especially the Genographic Project, which has already seen objections from indigenous peoples. Every time the cycle comes back around, the technology is faster and cheaper, it is easier for individuals to defect from the decisions of tribal elders, and there is a greater genomic context to compare results from different populations. Especially now that that Human Genome Project has achieved its result, sampling human diversity is the next logical step. If geneticists weren't doing it, they'd just be spinning their wheels.


Paul D. 2005. Diversity and controversy. Nature 437:621-622. Full text (subscription)