Genographic Project stirs controversy
National Geographic s Genographic Project: Whose Blood, Whose History, Whose Gain?
Tina Butler <http://www.mongabay.com/tina.htm>, mongabay.com
May 9, 2005

On April 13, 2005, the National Geographic Society and IBM announced the launch of the Genographic Project: Tracing Human Roots to a Single Origin, a controversial genetic research initiative that aims to reveal the intimate details of human migratory history. Data from the project will provide a map of world population patterns, originating from Africa and dating back 150,000 years. With funding from the Waitt Family Foundation, field scientists expect to gather close to 100,000 DNA samples from 11 isolated native populations on six continents. Experts in ten regional research centers in Australia, Brazil, China, France, India, Lebanon, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States will coordinate voluntary collection of genetic material. With the samples in hand, scientists for IBM s Computational Biology Center will use advanced analytical technologies and data-sorting techniques to interpret the samples and to discover new patterns and connections within the data they contain. IBM is also providing the core computational knowledge, biology and technical infrastructure that will manage the hundreds of thousands of genotype codes being analyzed by the Genographic Project.

The collaboration between National Geographic and IBM will be a five-year partnership and include samples of genetic materials from both indigenous peoples as well as the general public. Dr. Spencer Wells, scientific director for the $40 million project, is a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence and a population geneticist by training. Along with a consortium of scientists from prominent international institutions conducting field and laboratory research, he will be collecting genetic samples, analyzing results and reporting on the genetic roots of modern humans. The project is expected to reveal rich details about human migration patterns and trajectories and stimulate understanding about humanity s connections and differences. Upon the project s completion, the resultant database will house one of the largest collections of human population genetic information ever assembled, serving as an unprecedented resource for anthropologists, geneticists and historians.


There are three core components to the Genographic Project: Field Research, Public Participation and Awareness Campaign and the Genographic Legacy Project. Field Research will be overseen by Dr. Wells, who believes the application of genetic anthropology will help to fill in the gaps of knowledge regarding ancient human migration. DNA from indigenous populations contains key genetic markers that have remained unaltered for hundreds of generations. Reliable indicators of shared lineage, these markers can be used to trace the movement of humans across the globe. The motivation for the project to begin now is the imminent threat of loss of critical information, as people are increasingly migrating and mixing to a much greater extent than they have in the past.
The Public Participation and Awareness Campaign actively involves the general public. Individuals may participate in the research effort by purchasing Genographic Project kits for $100 through the National Geographic website. DNA material is collected through the submittal of cheek swab samples and personal results will be included anonymously in the genetic database, ensuring participant privacy. National Geographic is amplifying the interactive element by giving participants the opportunity to follow the progress of their own migratory history and the global research process through their website, providing regular updates on project findings. Public participation may be restricted in countries where the export of genetic materials requires government approval, such as China and India, but the project will work with relevant local authorities to achieve the widest level of participation possible. Proceeds from the kits will aid in funding future field research and the Genographi c Legacy Project, that will expand National Geographic s focus on world cultures. The legacy project will support educational and cultural preservation programs among participating indigenous groups.

Despite the seemingly beneficial aspects of the project to native populations, this focus on the collection of genetic materials from indigenous peoples is where the controversy behind this project resides. The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB), an organization that provides educational and technical support to indigenous peoples in the protection of their biological resources, cultural integrity, knowledge and collective rights, is distressed at the news of this new endeavor. The organization formed in 1993 to oppose the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). The HGDP was unable to secure federal or United Nations support or endorsement from the National Science Foundation and UNESCO because of its inability to address and meet ethical concerns and standards. Representatives for the IPCB are wary of the similarities of this new program to the HGDP, which also relies on the collection of indigenous peoples DNA and believe that the Genographic Project is an attemp t to escape legal and public judgment because it is privately funded. For the IPCB, projects of this type echo disconcertingly of the racist and ethically-impaired Eugenics movement of the early decades of the 20th century.

Back in 1993, the HGDP faced international opposition by indigenous peoples who considered the genetic researchers behind the project to have designs on pirating their DNA for their own, unethical means. In recent years, indigenous peoples have acquired increased knowledge and awareness about biopiracy and are taking active roles to ensure that their human rights are considered and contended with in the research process. In 2004, the Havasupai tribe of Arizona filed a lawsuit against Arizona State University for the taking and misuse of genetic samples. The Havasupai held research scientists at the university accountable for use of their genetic material without prior informed consent. While the tribe authorized diabetes research, it was later discovered that the samples were analyzed for inbreeding and schizophrenia, among other things, but not the initially stated disease which affects members of the tribe.

Indigenous peoples have consistently voiced their opposition to this type of research because it breaches cultural values, bioethical standards and human rights law. The IPCB believes the project is being undertaken at the expense of indigenous peoples. Debra Harry, the organization s executive director, writes on their website, It is quite likely this project will advance new theories of our origins that may contradict our own knowledge of ourselves. There can be no claim as to which understanding is correct, and will result in a clash of knowledge systems. Moreover, 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. This cuts at the heart of the rights of indigenous peoples, which are based upon our collective, inherent right of self-determination as peoples, under international human rights law. A standard ethical r equirement in human research is that the benefits must equal the risk. The IPCB believes that in this type of research, there will be no benefit to indigenous peoples, yet the research creates substantial risk for the individuals and peoples affected.

IPCB representatives question the way in which the project sets up indigenous peoples as subjects for scientific curiosity. For them, 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. The IPCB sees no guarantees, referencing on their website examples of previous abuses, like the Nuu-cha-nulth of British Columbia and the Havasupai, where genetic material was used for secondary and not explicitly stated purposes. The IPCB fears that even if the Genographic Project does not pursue commercial development of the genetic material, others with access to the materials may do so in the future. The organization is especially wary of IBM s involvement in the project with regard to profits and shareholders.
IPCB representatives question the way in which the project sets up indigenous peoples as subjects for scientific curiosity. For them, 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. The IPCB sees no guarantees, referencing on their website examples of previous abuses, like the Nuu-cha-nulth of British Columbia and the Havasupai, where genetic material was used for secondary and not explicitly stated purposes. The IPCB fears that even if the Genographic Project does not pursue commercial development of the genetic material, others with access to the materials may do so in the future. The organization is especially wary of IBM s involvement in the project with regard to profits and shareholders.
Further, there is a concern from members of this organization that the Genographic Legacy Project is a vehicle of coercion and a subsequent ethical violation. The IPCB feels indigenous participants in the project have been led to believe the research will ensure their people s cultural preservation. The organization does not see a connection between genetic research and cultural preservation and question the creators of the project s true motives. The promotion of genetic research on ancestral remains is also upsetting. Harry explains, Any genetic analysis of human remains requires some destructive analysis, i.e. the crushing of bones, extraction of bone marrow, tissue or hair, etc. Needless to say, this is a horrific affront to the sanctity of our ancestors. The IPCB believes that the project will transform genetic material into something marketable, desecrating the sanctity of human remains and memory.

With these arguments against the Genographic Project in mind, the IPCB has drawn up a petition calling for the abandonment of the project and is alerting communities to refuse to participate in the project. Their petition will be delivered to the collaborators of the Genographic Project at the end of May, 2005. Further, the IPCB is asking for an international boycott of IBM, Gateway Computers (the source of wealth for the Waitt Family) and National Geographic until the organization s demand that the project be aborted is met. 

On behalf of the Genographic Project, the initiative s website directly addresses concerns about possible similarities to the HGDP and discredits any problematic links as well as reinforcing the intentions for research. National Geographic concedes that the goals of the two projects overlap to some degree, but that there are significant differences in the clarity of the Genographic Project s mission and the way in which the program will be carried out. The press release for the project asserts that an international advisory board will oversee the selection of indigenous populations for testing as well as adhering to strict sampling and research protocols. The website re-emphasizes that the project is studying the human journey, with no plans for medical research or the patenting of genetic information.

Project coordinators assert that the project is a true collaboration between indigenous populations and scientists, maintaining that they seek to enable communication and promote preservation of indigenous languages and cultures, not misuse or manipulative information for their own means. Since before the project began and throughout its duration, researchers have been and will continue to seek advice and counsel for leaders and members of indigenous communities about their voluntary participation in the project. The website proclaims the Genographic Legacy Project s commitment to providing educational activities and cultural preservation projects to participating communities, with the public s active involvement.
Stressing the difference between the HGDP and their own, the website explains, Fourteen years ago, when the HGDP was first discussed, the language of DNA and genetic anthropology was foreign to all but a few scientists. Today that language is more familiar to many of us, and many of the ethical and privacy issues are more clearly understood by the global community. Project representatives are adamant about their endeavor s integrity and just purpose. Dr. Wells states that most of what is presently known about anthropological genetics is based on approximately 10,000 DNA samples donated from a range of indigenous peoples. While these samples have given scientists a broad view of the patterns of human migration, they represent only a small sample of humanity s genetic diversity. Outlining explicitly the rationale for the project, the website also affirms its endorsement from the necessary parties.

Immediately prior to the launch announcement, the Genographic Project received full approval from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Pennsylvania Office of Regulatory Affairs. The IRB operates in compliance with applicable laws, regulation and ethical standards necessary for research involving human participants. Further, there is an Ethics and Privacy section within the project website that addresses such issues and concerns like biopracy, confidentiality and the rights of indigenous peoples. Representatives for the project ensure that bioprospecting will not occur, relating that genetic data will be released into the public domain to promote further research and treated as discoveries as opposed to inventions, and thus will not be patented. The samples will not be used for medical research, analyzed only for historical and anthropological data, with no involvement with insurance or pharmaceutical companies.


In regard to protecting indigenous participants privacy and anonymity, all samples from these populations will be coded by the regional centers and the re-coded when the results are received. Only re-coded data will be accessible in the central database. The link between the locally assigned code and an individual s name will be kept on file in the region so that the central database cannot connect the two without local involvement. Additionally, procedures will be put in place to prevent comparing particular individuals to the database without National Geographic s knowledge.

Both sides have taken great pains to present and protect their respective cases. Genographic Project coordinators emphasize that their initiative is a collective effort for a collective cause, to help people better understand their ancient history. With a great amount of optimism, Ted Waitt, founder of the Waitt Family Foundation, believes the project will promote harmonious living across national boundaries and cultural lines by improving and expanding understanding and awareness about shared origins and journeys. Dr. Wells proclaims, The goals of the projects are twofold: to capture a snapshot of human history locked within our DNA before it disappears forever, and to highlight the untold stories and uncertain future of indigenous peoples worldwide. On the other side, a wary faction of individuals representing the indigenous people who will provide the backbone of this endeavor, resist such sunny conceptions. The IPCB s Harry affirms, We don t need this speculative information-- we already know where we come from. Regardless of the side one takes, should this project proceed as planned, significant insight into our species past is sure to be gleaned.

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