Thursday, April 14, 2005

Humanity's Genetic Footsteps.

With the science of genetics it is possible to work out a sort of family tree. If, for instance, two populations labeled "A" and "B" have more neutral mutations (mutations that do not alter the function of a gene) in common than a third group "C" it is most likely that peoples "A" and "B" were interbreeding after they lost contact with group "C". When you combine this information with information about current genetic distribution and known history and prehistoric archaeological evidence, you can put together a fairly good picture of how human migration has played out in the long expanses of time.

That is what this project is doing and not a moment too soon.

I should mention to anyone who believes in common decent for humans (Adam) but not for humanity (hominids) that the first sentence in the article does not offer the rock solid proof of this view point that it may seems:
" New DNA studies suggest that all humans descended from a single African ancestor who lived some 60,000 years ago."
Any person who lived long enough ago and had a large number of grandchildren can make this claim because their descendants will eventually become so numerous that they will mate with everyone else's descendants. It is simply that 6o,000 years is as far back as this method would allow us to trace connections. I don't understand why the National Geographic would not see that this phrase could be misinterpreted.

I say that this is happening "not a moment too soon" because the genetic history is starting to fade. Throughout human history people have traveled, both as groups on the move and as individuals between groups and genes have constantly spread between populations. This has been on such a small scale that large migrations, and merging and splitting of populations are still determinable in the current genetic distribution of humanity. In the last few centuries however, with the modern age of exploration, expansion, colonization, migration, slave trading and tourism, there has been a tendency for widely distributed peoples to come in contact with each other. Now from a medical/genetic-wellbeing point of view this is great. When formerly isolated populations begin to interbreed they can both draw on a larger population of potential mates and far more genetic combinations are possible. Also, genes which are dangerous when inherited twice are diluted in frequency so the chance of anyone getting one from each parent is reduced. From a genetic-genealogy point of view however it means that the clock is ticking. As populations interbreed the difficulty in accumulating the information increases and the geographic context is lost.

This project had been proposed earlier for a different purpose. The Human Diversity Project was going to sample genetic information from all over the world just in case there were medically useful gene versions (alleles) that could provide cures or treatments. As unlikely as this was due to the fact that human populations are not very diverse at the level of the actual protein coding genes, it was enough to worry indigenous groups and others about biotech companies pirating genes from poor people and not reimbursing them; perhaps even charging them to use the medicines that came from their kinsmen's genes.

This time there is a more realistic goal (scientific information rather than "possible" cures) and there are safeguards to prevent exploitation. Having gathered the genealogical information available in our cells we can keep mixing our genes willie-nillie without worrying.

While I am not sure if it was officially part of this project, I seem to remember there being another National Geographic article about using genetic samples from existing populations to shed light on history. They traced the regions of contact of the ancient Phoenician sailors of the Mediterranean and found that not only were the Muslims of coastal Jordan direct descendants as they had always claimed but the Christians there were also (obvious in hindsight but no one ever thought about it) While it might be naive to think that this revelation of common history would have all that profound an effect on these communities as they come together after the civil strife of the past, every little bit helps. This research also showed that the Phoenicians had settlements quite far up the Atlantic coast of Europe which lends credibility to archaeological evidence and theories of contact there.

I also recall two different groups, one in southern Africa and one in India who were found to have customs that were similar to old tribal Jewish traditions. Genetic evidence seems to have confirmed the link if I remember the stories correctly.

Unfortunately for some, the evidence is not always what some people would want to hear. While the Mormon authorities have mostly accepted that the DNA evidence does not support their claims about Native Americans being of one of the lost tribes of Israel, this information is not widely publicized to their members.

This new tool of comparative genetic analysis will be very useful to disciplines such as history, anthropology and archeology. The more tools and techniques we can use to examine the past, the clearer our picture of it becomes.


At Fri Apr 15, 10:35:00 AM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

This is a fascinating topic. Several months ago I saw a talk given by an anthropologist (his name escapes me) who wrote a book recounting his travels to the various landmarks of human migration. I’m not sure if he is affiliated with the project you mention, but nevertheless, his goal is similar. The point he seemed to be making was that, despite superficial differences, people are people.

The National Geographic article, while informative, may be hinting at a bit of social manipulation. “The Legacy Project will provide indigenous groups participating in the Genographic Project with direct help through development projects, education, and public-awareness campaigns aimed at preserving traditional cultures. I don’t question the compassionate intentions of the project's organizers. However, “preserving traditional cultures” seems, to me, to be foolhardy. Not all cultures are equally beneficial, especially those societies of sub-Saharan Africa, which seem to be stuck in the past. My suspicion is that anthropologists would rather have these tribal cultures remain anachronisms for the purpose of study. I don’t consider withholding judgment in order to spare “feelings” to be actual aid. But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

At Fri Apr 15, 10:48:00 AM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

Speaking of efficatious aid, although it comes from an unlikely source. Oh well, I suppose one should not shoot the messenger…unless he or she happens to be rigged with explosives.

At Fri Apr 15, 10:48:00 PM 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

I am of two minds on "preserving traditional cultures". I agree that "preservation" can be used as an excuses for leaving some people in poverty and backwardness. However, anthropologists are in an unusual situation. They go into these isolated areas to get a sense of how these pre-industrial societies function and then end up watching the process of contact and merger of that society with the outside world, which in most cases is a third world nation state where everyone has problems and the welfare of traditional societies is not a priority. Often the first thing a nation or religious organization does is to try to relieve them of their superstitious beliefs, often through conversion to Christianity or Islam or through western style education combined with a complete dismissal of the old ways. What gets overlooked in this process is that every aspect of these traditional societies, such as conflict resolution, resource distribution, property rights, kinship ties and local technical knowledge is tied up with these belief systems. When you kick that out from under them before things like courts, police, medical clinics, banks, modern markets and all the institutions that modern societies have had centuries to develop are in place they find themselves somewhat screwed.

It is sort of like what happened to the third world during colonialism. Right down to the internal displacement and artificial imposition of borders.

This does not mean that the work of the National Geographic needs to be, or even is centered around preserving traditional cultures in the same way that the Amish are preserving the rural 1800's or the way a scientist would preserve an animal cryogenicly. I suspect most Anthropologists understand that few people can remain perfectly preserved. I imagine that most organizations like the NG are more interested in making sure that endangered languages, folklore, stories, songs and beliefs are documented so that, if after a tribal society emerging into the modern world suddenly has the luxury of time and curiosity about their past they will have access to the knowledge.

Currently there are a large number of languages of which there are no non-elderly speakers. Much of the folklore of the planet has never been written down and only exists in the minds of those who speak these endangered languages. Linguists and anthropologists are working against the same clock as the geneticist only at a faster pace.

As for Aljazeera, they are a lot like the BBC. When they are working outside their area of personal bias they are surprisingly good. They have done a lot of good by drawing Arab attention to the actions of every nation in the region whereas the local media is heavily censored. Before they started being supportive of the terrorists they were being called the Arab CNN by the West. (They still are by some on the right but with a less complimentary tone) I think it is better to have pan-Arab uncensored voices that are sometimes is out of their minds than to have the status quo government regulated puppet shows. HMMM!!! Government regulated puppets!!

At Sat Apr 16, 12:06:00 AM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

...most impressive, grasshopper.

Your responses are often as expositive as your posts. Well done.

At Tue Apr 19, 11:42:00 PM 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

Unfortunately, if not somewhat predictably, a small but paranoid "advocacy" group is convinced that this is another plot to snatch genes from people.

What will basically happen is that certain groups will be left out of the picture because people like the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism have put the fear of big brother and evil Pharmaceuticals into them. Hopefully few people will really want their genetic genealogy to be buried and forgotten. It only takes a few people who thinks this is a good idea to preserve the information.

Anyone who does not want their people's history saved by this project can feel free to put a bag over their head during history class.


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