Declaration of Indigenous Peoples on Genome Project

Tue, 7 Mar 1995 14:53:39 -0600

Peoples on the Genome Project - forwarded by Robert Johnson to ANTHRO-L
a week ago - as well as some of the initial responses to this declaration.
The question that comes to my mind concerns not so much the scientific
accuracy or validity or lack of it of the statement. It is rather, in
a broader context, how can/might/ may social scientists respond to
different political declarations and social concerns to scientific

On the one hand, I agree that this declaration - like all others -
should be scrutinized for its scientific validity - regardless of its
authors and as such open, to criticism. I suspect that the flurry of
continued comments about Johnson might have influenced some of the

This Declaration does present a certain world view of the
Genome Project somewhat paralleling the thinking of the Catholic Church
on such matters in that it upholds the `sacredness of Creation'. No need
to romanticize anything or anyone, including social movements. History -
both recent and more remote - suggests that those participants who do
romanticize social movements become blind to their downsides and lose
what modicum of objectivity is needed for these movements to retain a
sense of reality. But then one can turn the question around too:
can science or social science - in this case as represented by the
Genome Project - progress in some abstract and mechanical manner without
considering social and cultural impacts - real or imagined. I suppose
the way I structured the question suggests my answer to it as well.

I must also admit that over time I have developed something close
to a thoroughly jaded view of political declarations, regardless of the
source. This no doubt comes from having helped shape and read far too
many of them myself so that I can barely stand to read them these days
and when I do - which is rarely - it is only with the greatest of
difficulty and no small amount of discomfort. Many deserve their
rightful place in the wastebasket. Unfortunately, this is not the case
for all of them. And not this one on this issue.

It serves as a kind of social indicator, a warning sign, giving a
sense of some Native people are on this question. Once having read a
declaration - this one included - a number of questions naturally follow
that probably having nothing to do with their scientific validity or
lack of it. Who indeed are the authors? Who do they represent and how
representative are they? What is their `agenda' - hidden or open? From what
historical experiences do their concerns flow? How valid are the concerns
from what I can tell from the historical record? And perhaps what are more
critical question: Do I want/need to be a dialogue with these folks and
why and on what terms? What can come of it? Based upon such a process,
at some point one must make a decision, and then trust your take on the
situation to carry you, bumbling or otherwise, through the rest.
Needless to say, people have different views on where to draw the line
- with whom to enter into dialogue with, whom to avoid and why, and that
making such decisions is something less than a science.

In any case, that my personal approach to such matters. I don't
particularly recommend it to anyone, nor can I say that it has produced
social wonders in my application of this methodology.

Getting to the point, there are plenty of reasons why Native peoples -
and many others -looking at the Genome Project and thinking back on their
own history, have every reason to cringe at its prospects and smile somewhat
cynically when being advised of its potential for human good, and how the
field is monitoring itself to keep a check on what amounts to using the
project for a new wave of eugenic abuse. There are also plenty of reasons
why anthropologists would find it important/interesting to participate with
Native Americans (and others) that should be rather self-evident (but
appear not to be). It is to my mind, those critical voices on the Genome
Project whose imput should be most seriously considered, and among them,
Native Americans. Inclusiveness is in the end, simply, just good, sound
social policy.

This declaration is at the very least a warning sign that the
Genome Project raises very thorny social and cultural questions. To
cavalierly blow it off as fluff seems a bit careless from where I am
sitting, especially for North American Anthropologists. Frankly I don't
know how pervasive the concerns are about the Genome Project among Native
peoples beyond what I have read (which suggests that they are considerable
- and the declaration is at least representative). I do know that beyond
the long painful history Native Americans have endured since 1492 should
give people reason to pause and that there have been some more historically
immediate concerns that might enter into the picture for Native Americans
- such as what was exposed by the GAO in 1976 to be extensive sterilization
abuse by the Indian Health Service in the 1960s and early 1970s - that
might heighten native concerns about the Genome Project.

Having read this declaration, and commented upon it what now? I'm not
sure, but I will probably at least it share with some friends here in Denver,
among whom are several Native American colleagues at Metro State to get
their take. One question that comes immediately to mind that I will ask
them is why was the declaration made now, some 7 years into the project. Was
there some incident or episode or specifica aspect of the project which
triggered it or has this statement been brewing among Native peoples from
the outset only to be made public now?

One last thought. To my mind, one of the more dangerous things that
could happen with the Genome Project is that it remain a scientifically
self-monitored project as I understand it to be. Nothing less convincing -
and more open to abuse and corruption as human endeavors not answerable to
the general public, be it in the public or private sectors. Yes I know -
as Lawrence Leichtman accurately noted - that the scientists involved have
expressedly and repeatedly drawn parallels with the turn of the century US
eugenics program and have made a public commitment that such abuses not
reoccur. Good. Better than good that the project from the outset consider
moral and ethical consequences more soberly than was done in the past. Still
it would be something of a mistake not to take the concerns this declaration
speaks to seriously.

Rob Prince