You are who we say you are

Just a few days ago I said this about personal genomics:

How we conceptualize who we are as biocultural people – composed of a unique combination of genetic material and occupying our own unique time and place in the world – will change as this information becomes more widespread. How identify who we are in relation to who and where we are from will change.

On cue, I see this controversy at Nature, over an article on reconstructing the genome of the Taíno, the indigenous population of Puerto Rica. Briefly, in a recap of genetic work using current Puerto Ricans to reconstruct the original genetic signature of indigenous Caribbean populations, the authors refer to the Taíno as an extinct group. Unhappiness, on behalf of commenters, ensued, and a formal correction and apology from the authors of the study followed.

John Hawks says the problem falls on the authors of the recap:

“Extinct” just is not a term that should apply to the ancestors of living people.

Dienekes is less charitable to the commenters and the journal’s response:

This is, of course, nonsense. How timorous has the modern scientific culture become, that it is willing to acquiesce so easily, lest one be perceived as not having sufficient “sensitivity” in matters ethnic?

I am closer to John’s view. I see this as an example of the difference between information and knowledge provided by genetics and also as a reflection of the role genetics play within the dialogue, not above it. The Taíno are a living people because Taíno people say they are…and because geneticists identify a substantial portion of the genetic makeup of contemporary Puerto Ricans as originating from a source other than Europeans or Africans, the primary recent source populations. It is one thing to refer to Neandertals as extinct, when no group has claimed to be Neandertals….ever, and no one has argued for contemporary Neandertal existence….ever. It is another thing to identify as extinct a group that a growing number of people self-identify as. People working in human genetics, a field that has some ethical dark spots in its history, need to be better than this.

I think Dienekes point is that the gene pool encompassed by pre-contact inhabitants of the Caribbean no longer exists as a stand-along population. But that is a more fixed definition of populations, and hence population extinction, than our understandings of recent human evolutionary history suggest. With few exceptions, there is no such thing as an original population. We may arbitrarily establish some point in time in which we say these people or this combination of genetic variants are the “_______,” but that does not make it a reality. Human populations are fluid, hybrid entities that vary considerably in their degree of homogeneity at any given time. This is a huge challenge for how we understand human evolution, but it does not make it less of a reality.

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1. C.D. Bustamante, F.M. De La Vega, E.G. Burchard, Genomics for the world. Nature 475, 163–165 (14 July 2011) doi:10.1038/475163a

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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One Response to You are who we say you are

  1. zacharoo says:

    How we self-identify is fascinating to me, perhaps because I know/care little about my own ancestry.

    I was recently talking with a fellow student, who traces his ancestry to various important Jewish figures in history. What I thought was so interesting is that in order to do this, he (or whoever drew up his family genealogy) had to make deliberate choices about which family lines to follow. That is, he has two parents, each of whom also has two parents, each of whom … etc. By tracing his ancestry, or defining the meaningful part of it, to single individuals who lived hundreds of years ago, he’s omitting countless ancestors, most of whom probably did not come from the same places. Of course, we’re all a little inbred, and so if we were to look backward into one’s genealogy there would almost certainly be reticulation between ancestral branches at various points.

    Still, I think it’s important to keep in mind that people are as important as genes in creating their genealogical or ancestral identities.

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