Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nature's typical Big Mistake

Well, we had hoped it wouldn't happen, but in the media-hype age we guess it's unavoidable. Our copy of Nature arrived today, the issue with the genome sequences of Archbiship Desmond Tutu and several Khoisan-speaking 'Bushmen', (in the past, at least, it had become protocol to call them by the former cultural-linguistic rather than the latter originally potentially pejorative name), which we blogged about here . The cover, showing San individuals marching across open country, bows and arrows in hand, makes nice anthropology in classical National Geographic style, setting the stage.

The cover's main heading "Southern African Genomes" is fine. But the photo, and the subheading, are not and especially for a leading science publication which should know better. The subheading is "Genetic variance in the oldest known modern human lineage." That description is completely wrong, and in a way falls into classical colonialist thinking of people like the San as 'other', relative to our noble selves. The authors knew this because we'd talked to them about it (they're here at Penn State), so we presume the cover was Nature's editorial (or Sales Pandering Department) decision, not the authors'.

The San genomes are no older than any other human genomes, of course--including yours, whoever you are who may be looking at this post. We all go back to the same set of common ancestors. What the proper description should be is something to the effect that the San have humans' most divergent sequences, meaning that the San sequences are more different from each other, and have a deeper common origin relative to other populations; another way to put that is that it's been longer since they shared common ancestry. That reflects isolation of small local populations, the result of being displaced by the fairly recent Bantu expansions, and other demographic factors, but in no way are today's San 'ancient'. It's sad to see this misconception, with the accompanying picture, perpetuated here. But it's a persistence of classical thinking in our society.

Now besides calling them ancient, is it just gratuitous political correctness for us to object to the San being pictured on Nature's cover? Well, ask yourself why they didn't put a picture of Desmond Tutu (not necessarily nude) as their cover instead? Why the exotica of four naked arrow-toting San marching through the tall grass? This is classical gawking at the inferior 'other'.

On the other hand, the San live the way photographed and they supposedly gave 'informed consent' to being studied (and depicted on a magazine with worldwide circulation?). There happens to be a clear-cut historical relevance here. In the 1800s, leading European scientists brought a Khoisan woman, Sarah Baarteman was her 'western' name, and exhibited her (naked) for Europeans to gawk at like a museum specimen--and especially her large buttocks and breasts, and extended labia minora (the 'Hottentot apron') to titillate Victorians. She was dubbed the 'Hottentot Venus'.

Is this more of the same colonialist exploitation? It is hard to say it's not. Where does legitimate anthropology end and exploitation begin? It's not a new question. Nature is clearly being exploitive. They could have used the sampled San's faces (which were in the article itself). It's inevitably related to the power differential and the fact that it's us studying them. Would we agree to be studied if some of them, in their native state, arrived at our doorstep asking if we'd be in their study?

Whether and how anyone is harmed by this kind of thinking only the future will tell. Whether it's been detrimental to indigenous populations in the past is also debatable, because clear-cut exploitation need not be seriously affected by such anthropological things. Fortunately, these kinds of whole genome sequence data are rapidly becoming so common that their circus value will properly diminish. Soon, it'll just be science, and then how valuable the actual information gathered is or isn't will be determined by the usual, and proper, determinants of scientific impact.


Henry Harpending said...

Ken I think you are a little bit off on this. "San" was a late 1970s PC affectation that spread among anthropologists and journalists in North America. It is not a word that a polite person would ever use in the Kalahari.

"Bushmen" sounds rough to North American ears, but its origin is a Dutch word meaning "bandit" or something like that. Bushmen think it is just fine. There was a few decades ago an organization called "First Peoples of Southern Africa" or something like that, and they stated that the term for themselves in English should be "Bushmen."

In the late 1970s I was scolded by several young Bushmen, school graduates, who had been reading the literature about Bushmen. They were angry at being called "San" in what they read. Several months later at a meeting in North America I was regarded as a leper for speaking about "Bushmen."

Sometimes you just can't win.

Ken Weiss said...

I would absolutely defer to your judgment, Henry. I vaguely had remembered that you'd said this in the past,but wasn't sure. The intent of this post was certainly not to be PC, but I do think there is the potential for subliminal kinds of colonialist attitudes here that serve no positive purpose.

Also, I think the sequences are interesting (better if higher 'x' coverage and so on), but I think as we said in an earlier post that the presentation of these as showing unique cladistic depth is misleading since you showed that, as I recall, a mere 20 years ago.

Henry Harpending said...

Ken do you know any more than is in the paper about the folks they looked at? Three of the four are from the same group, i.e. they are Northern Bush speakers. The fourth is identified as "Tuu" or something like that. I have never heard of this group. From the map he is from Gobabis, and everyone I ever met around Gobabis was also a Northern Bush speaker. Most of the Khoisan speakers in southern Africa speak Central Bush, but no one of that group is sequenced yet.

Jordi Galbany said...

Regarding human zoos...

Ken Weiss said...

No te puedo contestar en Castellano, pero in Ingles:

The Bushmen were used in that way as well, though perhaps 'only' in museums or 'science' exhibits. Sarah Baartman (her Boer-given name, I think) was taken around Europe and exhibited (often naked) so people could see (stare at?) her unusual morphology--naturally, focusing on large breasts, buttocks, and vulva. The leading French biologist Georges Cuvier was one of the leaders of this 'scientific' study, as I remember.

This was the time of colonialism and I don't know if any Europeans thought it was wrong to do this, to put a person on exhibit. And circuses exhibited strange Europeans as well.

Still I know that there was an early tendency to present the Bushman genome in the context of 'living fossils', and this is essentially what Nature did on its cover. The authors, I think, recognize fully that this is an incorrect way to view the data, but I hope that they couldn't affect the editorial decisions about the cover, which to me shows that the Editors still live, by default, in the colonial era rather than the present one.