Genographic Project might be called a kind of exploratory ‘mapping’ project. Much like explorers in the ancient world attempted to map the globe; the project’s explorers are trying to map a kind of topography of the human condition. Rather than create a map of the physical universe, the Genographic Project seeks to create a map of the history of the human species as told by its migration patterns, as recorded in human DNA (“The Genographic Project,” National Geographic, 2005). “The Genographic Project aims to collect and analyze DNA samples from over 100,000 indigenous and traditional people, making it the world’s largest survey of its kind in the field of anthropological genetics, driven by an ethical framework and locally accountable review boards and protocols. The resulting data, we hope, will map world migratory patterns dating back some 150,000 years and will fill in the huge gaps in our knowledge of humankind’s migratory history” (“FAQ,” National Geographic, 2005).
The five-year long Genographic Project is sponsored by National Geographic and IBM, along with geneticist Stanley Wells (“About the Project,” National Geographic, 2005). Its sponsors, the official website of the project states are also ‘you,’ namely ordinary people who voluntarily purchase a Genographic Project Public Participation Kit and send a cheek-swab sample of their DNA (“FAQ,” National Geographic, 2005).
The processes used in data collection by the project would not have been possible ten short years ago. The project uses the most sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA available. The DNA is voluntarily contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world through the project’s methods of solicitation (“The Genographic Project,” National Geographic, 2005). The DNA has been donated by “indigenous and traditional populations and the general public — to reveal man’s migratory history and to better understand the connections and differences that make up humankind” (“FAQ,” National Geographic, 2005).
Its mission and goals
The project is attempting to find out answers to such questions as ‘how did we, each of us, end up where we are, on earth, as opposed to where our distant ancestors live?’ It also attempts to explore why the human race is so physically diverse, namely, “why do we appear in such a wide array of different colors and features” (“About the Project,” National Geographic, 2005). Thus project hopes to better understand both human migration and the evolution of diversity within the human species.
Its findings to date
Thus far, by following the generations back from the DNA donations, the project concludes that all of us come from the same ancestors in Africa, although from this original, common origin the human genetic tree has branched out considerably in terms of its geography and the diversity of the species (“About the Project,” National Geographic, 2005).
A discussion of the “pros” or possible beneficial outcomes of this project
This sense of commonality and collapsing of racial differences could be used to promote tolerance. If we all come from one ancestor, notions of racial division may seem less important, after the project releases its results. Also, the project, unlike previous studies of racial migration, is multinational in its composition and is subject to approval from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Pennsylvania Office of Regulatory Affairs so it will act “in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and ethical standards necessary for research involving human participants” (“FAQ,” National Geographic, 2005). It is defined by collaboration and voluntary participation. It also does not have a specific, pre-existing thesis, like some questionable projects in the past that have attempted to prove the racial superiority of one group or another.
Cons” or possible negative outcomes, methodological/theoretical/social problems with this project
On the other hand, the fact that we are all genetically so similar under the skin could cause some people to use this as justification for an end to affirmative action, or the end of recognizing different people’s right to collective self-determination. This would ignore the centuries of history where people were treated as different because of their appearance and the impact racism and xenophobia has had on human history. It also ignores the impact of culture in creating human associations and ‘nations.’ Studying migration patterns might still be viewed as a study of ‘progress’ rather than difference.
The work seems to be carried out with a certain Western bias, evidenced in the language of the website: “But we don’t just need genetic information from Inuit and San Bushmen — we need yours as well (“About the Project,” National Geographic, 2005). Furthermore, the randomness of the sampling, because some of the samplings are based upon donation, might skew the results in favor of the DNA representation of people who hear about the project through Western media outlets like the Internet. Also, the Genographic Project Public Participation Kit must be purchased, which might skew the data in favor of individuals with the financial means to buy the kits. The fact that these kits must be purchased also means that financial donors are the subjects of the study, which could be seen as ethically problematic.
One of more debatable ‘problems’ is the lack of a focus on genes, and the focus on migration of ‘peoples.’ Although it is not specifically ideological in its orientation, the project website does state that cultural preservation is one of its core goals, an the idea that cultures can be statically ‘preserved’ like museum pieces seems questionable, almost as if it is reducing certain cultures to museum pieces because they are ‘indigenous.’ Also, the connection between cultural preservation and outlining the genetic and migratory diversity of the human species seems somewhat tangentially connected.
Present your opinion regarding this project using the information from your research to support your view
Although the project may be well-intentioned, perhaps the ultimate criteria for evaluating its ethical validity comes from the perspective of the indigenous people it is attempting to ‘preserve’ as one of its goals. “Indigenous peoples have consistently voiced their opposition to this type of research because it breaches cultural values, bioethical standards and human rights law (Butler 2005, p.2). The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB), have questioned the way in which the project sets up indigenous peoples as “subjects for scientific curiosity,” and the lack of control the donors have over how their genetic information will be used, once it is given to the project (Butler 2005, p.2). In the point-of-view of these representatives of indigenous groups, “the research is designed around a racial research agenda, which will only result in racially interpreted conclusions based on bad science. What is more, the organization views the project researchers as operating in a field in which there is no legal framework to hold violators accountable for misuse of genetic material” (Butler 2005, p.2). Even if their objections seem overly sensitive, it should be placed in a context of how such genetic research about indigenous peoples was conducted in the past, and for indigenous donors there are serious questions about how informed their consent can be, when they release their information. Finally, as noted by the IPCB: “There could be serious political implications that result from a so-called ‘scientific’ assertion that indigenous peoples are not ‘indigenous’ to their territories, but instead are recent migrants from some other place,” that the donors are not aware of, when they give their DNA (Butler 2005, p.2)..
About the Project.” National Geographic, 2005. 10 Feb 2008.
Butler, Tina. “Indigenous groups oppose National Geographic, IBM project.”
Mongabay.com. 9 May 2005. 10 Feb 2008. http://news.mongabay.com/2005/0509a-tina_butler.html
FAQ” National. National Geographic. 2005. 10 Feb 2008.
The Genographic Project.” National Geographic. 2005. 10 Feb 2008.
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