Molecular Anthropology: The Red Headed Step Child Of Biology
Molecular anthropology—you probably haven’t heard of this discipline by name but I guarantee that you already find this particular field fascinating. Therefore, I’d like to formally introduce to you the field of molecular anthropology which includes such areas of research as; genetically reconstructing man’s ancient migration from Africa to the Americas, resurrecting Neanderthal genomes and identifying ancestral origins through DNA ancestry.
For those of you who find my guarantee to be not applicable, then chances are you reject most, if not all of this field’s research-derived conclusions including; modern man evolved in Africa, Neanderthals and humans split evolutionary lineages approximately 500,000 to 800,000 years ago and certain genetic regions can reveal an individual’s ancestral geographical origin.
My point is this: virtually every area of research in molecular anthropology is controversial and no matter what avenue molecular anthropologists explore, they always manage to step on someone’s toes. As a result, this field endures a heavy beating of wrongful scrutiny and is often not taken seriously amongst the general populous.
This public rejection is primarily due to the fact that humans have an extremely strong sense of self identity and belief, and the information that molecular anthropology yields often challenges individualistic identities and spiritually dictated beliefs. Needless to say, a good majority of anthropological facts and theories are viewed as radical ideas and are typically met with strong opposition and protest.
Although anthropological truths are the minority in terms of acceptance, surprisingly, molecular anthropologists are still able to obtain samples for analysis—even from human populations whose traditional beliefs completely contradict their findings.
The most notoriously controversial anthropological avenue is Native American research. The impression that is often conveyed to the public is that Native Americans are exploited by researchers. This popular viewpoint stems from “bone disputes” that the media reports on, as well as, “horror” stories and ethical issues that are popularized by outspoken activists. However, what needs to be emphasized instead is that in present times, such disputes are rare because anthropologists have successfully developed numerous mutually beneficial relationships with tribes. Biological specimens for research are therefore not obtained by force or stealing but rather, cooperation and legal rights.
Dr. Malhi, Molecular Anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discusses the present ideology behind anthropological research, “To work with ancient people you have to work with living people—you have to establish a relationship with living people in the community in order to learn and work with ancient individuals in the community.”
In 1996, 9,000 year old remains were discovered in Kennewick Washington. The resulting dispute between Native Americans, the US government and anthropologists lasted for over a decade and cost millions of dollars in legal fees. Although various media outlets reported on the controversial Kennewick Man quarrel, what the media didn’t report on was the discovery of 9,500+ year old Alaskan remains found later that week and Dr. Kemp’s research findings thereafter.
“I conducted a genetic study of the Alaskan On Your Knees Cave remains that were discovered within a week of the time Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996. My study resulted in the opportunity to sample over 230 indigenous southwest Alaska individuals. The Kennewick case… zero. It has resulted in only embittered relationships,” explains Assistant Professor Brian Kemp of Washington State University.
Good relationships are vital for the advancement of knowledge in this field and since access to sampling specific human populations is dependent on good relations, anthropologists take maintaining them very seriously. Clearly it is not in a researcher’s best interest to negatively exploit Natives and therefore risk ruining future opportunities to obtain samples necessary for career-dependent research.
Establishing trust within Native American communities is often very difficult as Dr. Smith, Molecular Anthropologist at the University of California, Davis explains, “There is a wide spread suspicion of scientific research. Today with the phenomena of DNA ownership and pharmaceutical companies patenting DNA sequences, there are suspicions of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to make money off their DNA. They don’t understand why we would want to know something just for the sake of knowledge.”
As grossly observed, the human desire for knowledge is extremely powerful and people dedicate their lives to this never ending pursuit. Although one may not understand why certain individuals want to know perhaps seemingly boring and insignificant tidbits of information (Dr. Smith cites “chemists” for example), it is absolutely a sincere motivator for them. Overall, the thirst for knowledge, along with the reputation of the individual researchers themselves should be taken into consideration when judging their intentions for conducting research, as opposed to formulating opinions based off of rare disputes and conspiracy theories.
Now that the molecular anthropologist’s diabolical scheme to satisfy themselves intellectually has been exposed, what exactly do Native Americans have to gain from relationships with anthropologists? And do they even want to participate?
In 2006, Kari Schroeder, Molecular Anthropologist at the University of California, Davis conducted a survey in hopes of identifying ways to productively collaborate with Native American communities. Dr. Schroeder’s study was published in the Journal of Evolutionary Anthropology and her results suggest that, “The survey participants are not as polarized regarding the spiritual implications of participating in genetics research as one might anticipate from arguments made by Native American activists.”
Dr. Schroeder’s results show that the majority of the Native Americans that were surveyed would also be willing to participate in genetic sampling. This implies that just like the majority of modern Americans, Native Americans are also able to harmonize their religious beliefs with scientific knowledge. However, the difference is that Native American trust has been demolished as a result of the US government. In the wake of grotesque and wrongful actions of the government, anthropologists and other researchers have the huge responsibility of restoring Native American trust of outsiders.
Gaining this trust is clearly not an easy feat, however, the desire to learn more about their ancestors is a motivator in establishing working relationships with researchers.
“A lot of these communities have active programs for the sake of reconstructing their ancestor’s past such as language classes and even archaeological digs on their reservations. Genetic analysis fits in with these other analyses to help reconstruct the past,” Dr. Malhi explains.
It’s also worth mentioning that presently, Dr. Kemp is conducting research on San Francisco Muwekma tribal remains and not only does his research have the tribe’s full support, it's also being funded by the tribe itself. Another remarkable example of harmonizing spiritual belief and science is that in one instance, Dr. Malhi was able to examine a set of ancient remains because living descendants believed that they were unearthed for a reason—to learn more about their ancestors.
As best explained by Dr. Schroeder’s article, “Genomic research has the potential to intensify issues of racism and identity because of the frequent mismatch between biological ancestry and a culturally define community"—which is precisely why molecular anthropology is a hot bed of controversy.
This generated controversy is not however, putting a stop to this field’s advancement which alludes to the fact that molecular anthropology is here to stay because it’s a valid scientific discipline. Also, despite popular belief, anthropological research is welcomed by numerous Native American communities because it provides them with invaluable information about their ancestors that was either previously unknown or lost due to malicious actions against them.
Currently, there is a dispute at the University of California, San Diego that pertains to the repatriation of 10,000 year old remains. This is unfortunate because once again, antagonistic relationships between anthropologists and Natives are being publicized which most certainly has public viewpoint implications. However, as you will see in another article to follow, this present dispute is not about evil researchers "stealing" from Natives but rather, the wrongdoings of individuals in public institutions that do not have either side's best interest in mind.
Schroeder, K. (2006). Opinion: Demystifying Native American Genetic Opposition to Research. Evolutionary Anthropology 15:88-92.
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