One of the pieces to appear in the latest Science is Constance Holden’s synopsis of the core issues discussed at last week’s meeting of the National Human Genome Research Institute: defining geographic populations, handling interpretations of race (especially as as a sociopolitical term), and phrasing results of population genetic studies.
I paid cursory attention to the etymological aspects of the piece. Yes, I know Amerindian isn’t how some Native Americans want to be identified as, and there are some problems with figuring out where European populations end and where Asian populations begin. But I’m hopeful, as more individual genomes are sequenced and released, that genetic patterns can better define populations than cultural and geographic categories have in the past. We don’t necessarily have to rephrase terms or agree on new ones, but can possibly use biological terms, such as allele frequencies, as defining characteristics of populations.
Holden also reviews a discussion on interpretations of fitness — i.e. how some of the public may interpret Carlos Bustamante’s recent Nature paper, where he concluded that European-Americans had more deleterious gene mutations than African-Americans. Does that mean there’s some sort of superiority? No, but that doesn’t mean the public won’t interpret it like that. Should scientists hold back on their reporting their results or sugar coat them just to prevent the public from over analyzing them? I don’t think so.
The must read part of this news piece, especially for anyone news piece for anyone interested in the current state of population genetics and molecular anthropology, is the heated debate between Bruce Lahn and Celeste Condit, a professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia, Athens. Bruce Lahn, as you may know reported 4 years ago that selection in mutations of two genes (ASPM & microcephalin) regulating brain development is more common in Eurasians than in Africans. Condit argued that Lahn’s results have a political message embedded, a common mistake that many uneducated critics of population genetics repeat. We’ve had similiar misconceptions raised on Anthropology.net. Lahn retored back that some…
“are almost like creationists” in their unwillingness to acknowledge that the brain is not exempt from selection pressures.”
Oh snap! The whole meeting didn’t seem to be fruitless though, most agreed that suppressing freedom of reporting results as they are observed in the name of political correctness is not conduicive to the scientific method.
- C. Holden (2008). PERSONAL GENOMICS: The Touchy Subject of ‘Race’ Science, 322 (5903), 839-839 DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5903.839a