Politics and Research in Molecular Anthropology

I work in a field that uses molecular genetic data to study the evolution and dispersal of modern humans and our primate relatives. Controversy abounds in this subfield of biological anthropology, and never more strongly than when genes and behavior are somehow associated. We are all familiar with the book The Bell Curve, which posits a genetic basis for racial or population differences in intelligence. Certainly much has been made about the implications of such research.

Although I have worked peripherally on human origins, most of my research has centered on initial peopling events, or migrations, into the New World and Oceania. Many levels of politics are involved in such research. Because I work on both living humans and ancient remains, there are even more potential complications. Among these are negotiations with Native American groups over the rights to do genetic analyses on their populations, either living or dead, or indeed on any putative Native American remains, regardless of affinity. Governmental regulations regarding repatriation and possible reburial of Native American remains and artifacts add an additional layer to already complex negotiations with tribal peoples.

I have extracted DNA from the infamous Kennewick Man remains for a court case that a group of university researchers brought after the Department of the Interior decided to return the skeleton to five tribal groups for reburial. Individuals who previously worked on these remains were threatened with lawsuits and prosecution. There is always the potential for protests against anyone working on tribal remains, and here at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, the Native American student organization has already held sit-in protests on campus because of related issues. And after lengthy negotiations, the campus museum has repatriated a fair number of culturally affiliated remains to recognized tribal groups.

Now the question moves to what happens to unaffiliated remains, those that have no known ties to any living group. Many are from extinct populations; others may be ancestral but show no detectable links to any living group. In this case, molecular anthropology may be the only thing that can link ancient populations with living peoples.

As an assistant professor up for tenure next semester, I am keenly aware of the controversy that surrounds these issues. I do mentally weigh the cost of doing such research on my chances of achieving tenure, knowing that some faculty members may disapprove of my kind of paleodemographic research on native peoples.

There has also been a real maelstrom in the field of molecular anthropology revolving around the accusations made in Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado. Briefly, this book accuses late UM geneticist James V. Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, professor emeritus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, of a number of crimes against the Yanomami people of Venezuela. Specifically, the book suggests that Neel and Chagnon started a horrendous measles epidemic in the late 1960s by vaccinating the Yanomami with the Edmonston B measles vaccine. It has since been proven that you cannot get measles from the measles vaccine (over 30,000,000 satisfied customers can't be wrong!) and that the measles epidemic spread to the region via missionary visitors a few weeks before Neel and Chagnon arrived.

Other accusations in the book include the suggestion that Chagnon fomented violence among the Yanomami with his field techniques. The book also suggests that his classification of them as "the fierce people"--actually a self-description, a translation of the word "Yanomami"--harmed them; the government and other groups used the label "fierce" as an excuse to try to pacify the Yanomami and take away their lands.

Neel collected blood samples to study humans in their natural condition (his description) to see what the normal baseline mutation rate was for humans and to see how human behavior affected genetic variation. He was particularly interested in the differential reproductive success of "headmen." Headman often had multiple wives, whereas nonheadmen rarely had more than one wife, and young men often had no wives.

Neel and his colleagues collected blood samples from almost 9600 native South and Central Americans to study their origins, evolution, and behavior. I began collaborating with him immediately after starting my first tenure-track job in anthropology at UM in 1996. Neel died 2 years ago, and the book came out (not coincidentally) soon after his death.

Now I have considerable worries about continuing to work on this critically important collection of DNA. The samples were collected in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s under very different sorts of human-subject rules from current ones. And now, the samples also may have some perceived stigma attached to them, given the accusations leveled in the Tierney book (almost all of which I believe to be patently false or not significant). So again, to be working with this collection right before my tenure vote causes me much stress and worry.

Even though I know the facts of the case very well and also know the individuals involved, I have not been as vocal a defender of Neel and Chagnon as I feel I should have been. I feel a moral obligation to help defend Neel's legacy, but this is countered by the fear that I will be targeted in his stead should I join the fray. So I have weighed in several times in print and just a few times on campus, but less vigorously than if I had already achieved tenure. In some ways, this is a good thing. It certainly has made me more sensitive to the concerns of my colleagues who disagree with me, and it has helped me try to keep the dialogue with the other side open.

Our faculty has debated this issue--there have been numerous symposia on campus devoted to the topic--and UM has issued two position statements regarding the allegations in the book. I have attended but have not been as vocal as I would have liked.

There can be no doubt that I have not stood up strongly against what I believe to be a terrible injustice against two fine scholars, and I will always be embarrassed and a little ashamed of that. I will know in about 9 months whether these issues will affect my tenure decision. So far, I have had the unanimous support of my colleagues in anthropology for my tenure case--even those who disagree with me on this issue--and for that I am grateful.

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