Our whole human family

I recently came across the Genographic Project and I’m pretty excited. By looking at the shared DNA of human communities across the world, it is possible to build a map of migration patterns out of Africa and the development of diversity among humans.

It is thought that the harsh conditions of the ice age reduced the human population to a group of two thousand people trying to survive in the slightly more forgiving conditions of Africa. Around 60,000 years ago, humans starting migrating outwards from Africa and settling in new lands across the world. The Genographic Project examines DNA samples from human populations across the world and compares similarities and differences to see where the different groups branch off. The project works particularly with indigenous communities that have lived in one place for many generations, because their genes offer a clearer and possibly more stable comparison than those communities that have moved around.

However, participation in the project is open to anyone. Any individual can buy a participation kit and send off a DNA sample from a swab of the inside of their cheek. They then receive a breakdown of which branch of the family tree they belong to and the migration pattern of that group. More information will be added as the study continues. There is also the option of adding your DNA sample to the Anonymous Database for further research. Furthermore, but just as importantly, the project provides grants to indigenous communities to fund projects which preserve their heritage, be it cultural, technological, etc, and empower the communities.

I find this project pretty exciting. I love the idea of being able to see myself in a whole history of humans as one family. It’s also fascinating to understand the movement of humans and the changes that were taking place in the world geographically and climate-wise. This is also tied in with technological and cultural developments that were happening at the time too. I like that we all come from one source, one fragile surviving community way back on the African continent. That said, I also appreciate the diversity and variation that has occurred as people made their way in the world. This issue of how we are the same and how we are different raises some troubling questions though.

I would love to live in a world where everyone was as fascinated and glad as I am to learn about our genetic heritage and to respect and celebrate the differences. However, with information comes the responsibility of what to do with that information. Unfortunately, we live in a world where racism and suspicion of that which is and those who are different abounds. The three main criticisms of the project arise from the areas of racism, consent in indigenous communities and how the data will be used. The Genographic Project has been criticised for its links with the Human Genome Diversity Project, and in May 2006 the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommended suspending the project.

So what are these criticisms then? First, there is the concern that data about genetic groupings will be used to identify and discriminate against certain sections of the community. The findings could be used as scientific evidence to support racist views and practices. Secondly, there is concern about informed consent with individuals and communities where  cultural and language barriers may impede a full understanding of the consequences and implications of participating in the study. Finally, there is the issue of what the samples will be used for. A family tree of the human race is fairly harmless, but who is allowed access to this database and for what purposes? Can a private firm access the data and then try to patent some of it? Could the government use it to develop biological weapons that target particular genetic groupings? Should the data be accessible for medical research? What about non-medical research?

Personally, I still find the idea of a study of human diversity and development absolutely fascinating, and I don’t believe that it’s better to remain ignorant of the variation in the human gene pool. However, I do agree that there is an obligation to use the information responsibly, to respect those who participate and to be fully open and accountable for the use of the data. Individuals should know what the data will be used for before consenting. I think that putting money back into indigenous communities is the right approach to take. I also think the organisation needs to be committed to helping people acquire a basic understanding of the genetic ideas involved and emphasising the importance of human rights and educating against racism.

See Genographic Project Director, geneticist Spencer Wells, talk about the ideas and the project here.

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3 Responses to “Our whole human family”


  1. 1 Hugh August 20, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Oh, this reminds me of a short story by Greg Egan! I think it was “Mitochodrial Eve” in the book “Luminous”, but I’m not entirely sure.
    It’s about a project very similar to this one, to trace the common ancestors of humankind.
    The hope is that by doing so they will draw humanity together, showing how we’re all one big family, but naturally things go a bit pear-shaped, with people using the data to form super-ethnic groups based on ever more distant common ancestors.

    This does sound very cool though, and very interesting. One concern I’d have though, other than the practical ones you mention, is that this might encourage people to… think of our place in the human race as being defined more by where we come from than who we are?

    Hugh.

  2. 2 Clare August 20, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Yeah, it does have that risk. They do point out that where your DNA comes from may not reflect where you or your family currently live. I presume that most of the population of America will find that they’re from another part of the world. The project also doesn’t confirm percentages or whether you belong to a particular tribe or anything. I would hope that people focus more on the fact that we’re all related than on which branch they belong to, but who knows what people will make of it.

  3. 3 Tim August 20, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    I like the idea of visualising the whole human family too, and I particularly like the ‘story’ of these two thousand people trying to survive!

    I suppose the problem is confirmation bias – people will always take this kind of result and use it to confirm the views they already hold somehow. I don’t see that as a reason not to do it, though.

    Of course, I’m demonstrating confirmation bias myself by wondering if I can use the results to somehow support my theory of a highly advanced civilisation nuking itself back to the stone age around 50,000 years ago. 🙂


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