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The Human Genome Research Project is a worldwide effort to analyse the structure of human DNA by determining the location of the estimated 100,000 genes in the human genome and identifying the sequence of its three billion base pairs. The project is led by two US federal agencies: the National Institutes of Health, through its National Center for Human Genome Research, and the Department of Energy, through its Office of Health and Environmental Research. The four major goals of the Genome Project are mapping and sequencing the human genome; mapping and sequencing the DNA of model organisms; computerised data collection, storage and handling of this information; and examining and addressing the related ethical, legal and social implications.

In contrast to the enthusiasm and scientific prestige that has surrounded the Genome Project in the scientific community and some parts of the mainstream press, indigenous peoples from around the world have offered a somewhat different perspective.

In June 1993, for example, the Nine Tribes of Mataatua, New Zealand (Aotearoa) convened the First International Conference on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples at Whakatane, New Zealand. Over 150 delegates from fourteen countries attended, including indigenous representatives from Japan, the Philippines, Australia, the Polynesian Islands, India, South and Central America, and the United States. The conference met over six days to consider a range of issues, including the value of indigenous knowledge and biotechnology. On the final day, the Mataatua Declaration put forward recommendations to condemn involvement in the Human Genome Diversity Project and demand the return of human remains held in museums in Europe and the Americas.

More recently, in 1998 the tribal council of the confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation in the United States expressed strong opposition to the Human Genome Diversity Project. Their resolution condemned the unethical genetic research being carried out on indigenous peoples. This potential exploitation represents the greatest threat to indigenous peoples since colonisation, but the history is long and deep.

The condemnation arising from indigenous groups highlights the importance of both debating and historically uncovering the long-run issues of scientific appropriation. The body parts of indigenous peoples have been collected, stored, displayed and scientifically taken apart in the name of modern knowledge acquisition.

This long history of exploitation has produced much distrust of how the findings of the Human Genome Diversity Project will be used. This history is echoed in the oral traditions and consciousness of indigenous peoples. The lesson to be learned from this history is that state-financed scientific inquiry, accorded legitimacy through legislation and status through the institutions of the academy, is rarely if ever politically innocent.

It is through archaeology, anthropology and history, for instance, that the state creates a public image of the past of indigenous peoples, thereby enabling the political disenfranchisment of their past. Ethnographic museums display collections of vanished civilisations and `primitive' peoples from around the world, sorted, catalogued and interpreted according to set principles of understanding. In this way, museums offer a snapshot of the minds of scientists who are interpreting the collected knowledge of a people. Until recently, for example, the National Museum of Queensland had the display of Aboriginal camp life in with the Natural History section, thereby suggesting that blacks were closer to the animals than whites.

By controlling the presentation and interpretation of the past of those colonised in textbooks and museums the colonisers appropriate that past, thereby maintaining their social, cultural and political control of the present. Once indigenous peoples are given the space to create their own history -- and it is recognised as valid -- then history no longer becomes important in the education system of the white colonisers.

Over the past 170 years, the search for trophies to fill the shelves of museums has revealed a negative side of science in its lack of ethics when dealing with the `Other'. Tombs have been robbed of skulls, and often of whole skeletons. In 1863 the Anthropological Society of London was established, which included amongst its most famous members Sir James Hunt, the explorer Richard Burton and the anatomist Robert Knox, who has been referred to as the first `racist' scholar. Within the Society was an informal circle called the Cannibal Club in which, Hunt as chairman, called the members to order with a gavel fashioned into a Negro head. Hunt used the society as a vehicle for his racist assumptions of the biological basis of white supremacy. Collecting skulls and body parts for laboratories and museums was common practice by the anthropological and ethnologicaI fraternity, with some scientists going to extraordinary lengths to obtain body parts without the slightest qualms for offending local peoples' sympathies.

How common the practice was across the sciences -- and how recent -- can be discerned from a few examples.

When `Boy', a Polynesian servant to the ethnographer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, died of malaria, Miklouho-Maclay had no hesitation in mutilating the servant's body for needed parts for his anatomical collection. In his report he simply writes `returned to Boy's room and cut out the larynx of a dark man with all the muscles. A bit of skin from the forehead and head with hair went into my collection'. The corpse was thrown overboard without ceremony. In the 1840s, the famous explorer of British Guiana, Richard Schomburgk, dug up the skeleton of a Warao Indian even though he had been warned that the dead were sacred to the Indians. The remains were presented to the Anatomy Museum in Berlin. The eminent doctor Charles Mayo, after whom the Mayo Clinic is named, boiled the flesh from the bodies of thirty-eight Lakota Indians who had been executed in a mass hanging in Mankato, Minnesota, so as to use their remains for his research. One of America's greatest palaeontologists, Edward Drinkler Cope, a Quaker, had his boat commandeered in October 1876 by General Hazen of Fort Buford, while loading 1,700 pounds of fossils aboard his river steamer at the collecting grounds of Cow Island on the Missouri River. Bulford's troops were in pursuit of Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors, following the 7th Cavalry's defeat at Little Big Horn. When it was realised that Cope was collecting Sioux skulls and skeletons, the boat's captain accused him of `immolating' the dead, and the protests by the crew were so profuse that Cope was forced to replace the bones before the boat would continue with the pursuit. In 1975 the palaeoanthropologist Don Johanson, famed for his discovery of the remains of the australopithicene `Lucy', stole a femur from an Afar family burial site in Ethiopia, to obtain a bone with which to compare his recent find.

Under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Indian tribes are entitled to ask museums, schools and other institutions for items they believe belong to them. Last month the brain of Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, was turned over to his Northern California descendants. The Kumeyaay tribes in San Diego County have so far collected more than one thousand fragments of human remains from American institutions for reburial in sacred spots on their land. The problem is that many of the human remains and artefacts returned to Indian tribes are severely contaminated with mercury, DDT and arsenic used by museums to preserve the objects against insects and decay. This results in a health dilemma to those tribal members who touch the remains without due caution to the lethal contamination.

Moreover, indigenous peoples have been subjected to anthropologists measuring every imaginable body proportion and skull dimension, and collecting body parts for museum collections, despite tribal objections. The measurement of human beings, which began with Samuel George Morton's Crania Americana in 1839, and further elaborated by Paul Broca, the founder of the Anthropological Society of Paris in the 1860s, had become widely accepted in the eugenics of Francis Galton. A pioneer of modern statistics, with his invention of Regression Analysis to support race theory, Galton was the first to apply natural selection to human races and cultures. In 1869 Galton asserted in his Hereditary Genius that all observable differences between `savage' and `civilised' societies could be explained by the `innate character of different races', a conclusion fully supported by his cousin Charles Darwin. In 1883 Galton declared that he had succeeded in `proving the vastly preponderating effects of nature over nurture'. This became the cornerstone of his race improvement theories he termed eugenics, from the Greek meaning `noble in heredity'.

By the 1890s anthropometry had a growing academic acceptance as shown by the opening of an anthropological laboratory at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1891 and its recognition as a branch of human anatomy in the University of Edinburgh the following year. Established in 1904, the British Sociological Society was strongly supported by Galton, and later in 1908 by the Eugenics Society. In 1905, after endowing a research fellowship, Galton had eugenics recognised by the University of London. Two years later the Eugenics Education Society was established to popularise the teachings and methods of eugenics. Galton's papers attracted much attention in the United States, where in 1906 the American Breeders Association set up a Committee on Eugenics, with David S. Jordan as chairman, to `investigate and report on the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood'. In 1922 the Swedish State Institute for Race Biology began a nationwide anthropometric survey. In 1934 the Royal Anthropological Institute examined the significance of racial factors on cultural development.

Biological determinism, `Nature Not Nurture', holds that shared behaviourial norms and the socioeconomic differences between human groups -- race, class and gender -- arise from inherited innate distinctions, so that society and culture are reflections of this biological differential. Scientists who supported this theory claimed that a racial hierarchy and the measurement of intelligence can be obtained by craniometry (accurate measurement of human skulls from around the world) and certain psychological and IQ tests. The burden of proof lay with those striving to prove otherwise.

In 1945 the anti-eugenicist Lionel Penrose headed the Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics at University College London, which during World War Two was a major centre for human genetic research. He refocussed the centre towards medical genetics and in 1954 Penrose had the laboratory's journal changed to the Annals of Human Genetics, instead of Annals of Eugenics. That same year in America enthusiasts formed the American Journal of Human Genetics. In 1961 the Galton Chair was renamed the Galton Professorship of Human Genetics.

Much of the renewed enthusiasm for genetics came from the discovery in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick that genes are double-helical strands of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). In 1966 Lionel Penrose declared that `our knowledge of human genes and their action is still so slight that it is presumptuous and foolish to lay down positive principles for human breeding'. This gap in our knowledge was to near its end with the invention of recombinant DNA in 1973, a technique that used a fragment of DNA snipped out of one genome and spliced into another. Recombinant DNA allowed the isolation of single human genes to determine their function. Craniometry, the leading numerical science of biological determinism, was replaced by molecular anthropology, which used genetic evidence to map human lineages through genetic markers.

In the 1990s, the mapping and sequencing of the human genome raced forward. As it has done so, fear became widespread that the project will result in the same unethical aims and procedures as eugenics had in the 1930s. Robert Wright wrote in The New Republic that `biologists and ethicists have by now expended thousands of words warning about slippery eugenic slopes, reflecting on Nazi Germany, and warning that a government quest for a super race could begin anew if we're not vigilant'. In 1988 the head of National Institutes of Health, James Watson, allocated 3 per cent of its genome research budget towards the ethical implications of its work. The following year at a scientific conference Watson reassured people `that their own DNA is private and that no one else can get it'.

The National Human Genome Research Institute has committed 5 per cent of its massive budget to study and address the complaints expressed by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, the Americas, Asia, and Africa, who are well aware of the misuse of physical anthropological measurements of their peoples in the past.

But indigenous people were not satisfied, knowing full well what scientists in the search of knowledge have done with absolutely no concern for the belief and well being of those they have regarded as `primitive' peoples. In 1993 the Human Genome Diversity Project was rejected outright by the indigenous peoples of the world, afraid that the past acts of inhumanity and discrimination will only be repeated.

Graham Holton is a Research Fellow at La Trobe University, Bundoora.
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Title Annotation:Human Genome Research Project
Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2001

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