Friday, February 02, 2007

 

Genographic Project Recalls General Custer


The National Geographic Society figures it can map the migrations of early man by analyzing DNA samples from indigenous groups around the world. The multi-million dollar effort is called the Genographic Project. The mapping works because most genes get shuffled when the parents combine their DNA, but not the Y chromosome (females don’t have one, technically “Y envy”), and not the mitochondrial DNA, which comes only from the mother. Nobody cares about that, since the mitochondria have their own little DNA, and aren’t even part of the nucleus, where the real chromosomes are. Mitochondria are basically little heat generators, which, when you think about it, explains a lot. But we digress.

The parts of the Y chromosome that are universal evolved while everybody stayed, and shuffled, if you will, in the same geographic area. After a group moved off, it became isolated, so that when a mutation occurred thereafter, it became a distinct marker for that group. Basically, if you find a marker, say, in a North American indigenous group (“Indians”) that is the same as a group across the Bering Strait in Asia, you figure that’s where they came from. That’s because you can walk from Africa to Asia, but if you head west instead of east when you hit Asia, you are going to be lucky if you even get to England. Go east, of course, and you hit the land bridge. The idea is to trace the redskins back to yellow, and then on to black (for some reason having to do with vitamin D, the ones that turned west turned white).

However, nearly every tribe in North America is refusing to give DNA for study, not wanting anyone to prove that “native Americans” really came from somewhere else. There are a number of reasons for this, some dating back to an earlier study with the Havasupai Tribe, which believes that the Grand Canyon is humanity’s birthplace. Researchers got the DNA for a diabetes study, which was OK, but then used it to assert that the tribe’s ancestors came from Asia. These attacks on religious fact never go down very well, even if they are only theories.

There is also the fear that such studies will jeopardize land rights and benefits based upon the idea that their people have lived there since the beginning of time. Dr. David Barrett of the Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, sponsored by the federal Indian Health Service, says their health service might be lost if they turn out to really be Siberian. And there is also the implied put down. Maurice Foxx, a Mashpee Wampanoag, and chairman of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, says “What the scientists are trying to prove is that we’re the same as the Pilgrims except we came over several thousand years before.

Currently the gathering of DNA in North America is halted, pending agreement by Dr. Barrett’s Alaska board that the consent form that all volunteers must sign fully advises of the risks, such as the possible loss of health services and privacy, and, presumably, of hurt feelings.

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